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The Spirits Move

The Albany Distilling Company seeks to reclaim what Prohibition destroyed—the craft booze industry in New York state’s capital

by Erin Pihlaja on March 27, 2013 · 1 comment

John Curtain and Matthew Jager of Albany Distilling Company. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“A rising tide floats all boats,” says John Curtin. Matthew Jager nods his head in agreement, the saying has become a business mantra for the two Albany men, both in their 30s. They are referring to their belief that their small business will not only benefit other small businesses as it grows, but as the craft industry that they are a part of swells, other small businesses like theirs will be elevated to success—together.

“Until you own a small business,” says Jager, “you don’t realize how important supporting one can be.”

Before Curtin and Jager came along, Albany hadn’t seen a distillery in its city proper since the days of Prohibition. Their fledgling company, the Albany Distilling Company (78 Montgomery St.), officially opened last October in what was once the coal yard of the Albany pump station, a facility that was once used to pump water from the Hudson River to the Bleecker reservoir, and which is now called the Albany Pump Station, home of the C.H. Evans Brewing Company.

It wasn’t their first choice for a business; it represents the evolution of one dream to another. At first they wanted to open a bar, but financing got in the way, and they ultimately decided to strip their plans down to what mattered the most: booze.

“Step one was: start with what we like, drinking,” says Curtin.

“We both like whiskey and money,” says Jager.

“The money part hasn’t really come through yet,” Curtin laughs.

So they launched a plan to open a distillery. It didn’t matter that the guys didn’t have the experience, they had the passion and a business plan (both are teachers by trade and Jager is a professor at the College of Saint Rose, where he teaches business). Friends and family were supportive, although some were unsure of what to expect.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Great . . .’” Curtin pauses for a long time. “‘Uh, good luck.’”

“Once we started hitting them up for money, they got that we were serious,” adds Jager.

“We just thought, if people out in the woods of Kentucky can figure out how to do it, so can we,” laughs Curtin.

They visited other distilleries in places far as Chicago and even Scotland, to check out the operations and, of course, to sample their muse: whiskey. They both favored rye-heavy products, and had a commitment to using high-quality, locally sourced goods. With the creation of New York state’s Farm Distillery License and all of its subsequent changes and additions, distillers who use New York state crops have a much easier time opening a distillery and self-distributing their craft products—it seemed like all the planets were aligned and things were ready to take off.

But it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. At one of their meetings at the Albany Pump Station, their makeshift office at the time, a bartender overheard them discussing their ideas and mentioned that the building next door was vacant. After spending months cleaning and readying the once-gutted space, their original bank left them high and dry just as the equipment for the still was leaving Germany. Thankfully, the guys found a local savior in Kinderhook Bank, which came to the rescue, and the equipment made it safely to Albany.

The next big snag happened two days before they were scheduled to open. A company in Troy called id29 had designed slick-looking labels for the Coal Yard New Make Bourbon, their inaugural product. When they got ready to bottle, they realized that the glass bottles they had ordered didn’t mesh with the labels. So, they packed up the pallets of bottles and drove them back to western New York to trade them in for another design. They got back to the plant at 7 PM the night before they were scheduled to open.

“We were laugh-crying. It was a mix of both,” recalls Curtin. “But it was a lucky accident, because the labels look like they were made for the new bottles.”

“That was one form of creative problem solving,” says Jager. “We didn’t choose the bottle, the bottle chose us.”

John Curtain and Matthew Jager of Albany Distilling Company with their line of spirits. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Today, the plant runs fairly smoothly, although the two distillers are on the clock practically 24-7. They have just launched a new product, their Quakenbush Still House Rum, to add to their existing line: the Ironweed Whiskey, the Coal Yard New Make Bourbon, and the Coal Yard New Make Rye. Because the rum is made from Caribbean molasses and not New York state grains, their license prohibits them from selling it at their site. However, visitors can pop into the plant for a $5 tour to learn about the process, to taste some of the spirits, and to purchase some of the other local flavors to bring home. Thanks to another revision of the Farm Distillery License, the Albany Distilling Company also will be able to sell their products at farmer’s markets in the near future. In addition, 29 local bars and liquor stores have signed up to carry the line.

“The first bottling we had 800 bottles,” says Curtin. “In nine days they were gone. Our biggest problem so far is that we can’t keep up with the demand. I guess it’s not the worst problem to have.”

The guys have had good feedback overall. People especially like that the labels indicate which batch the bottle came from, and the fact that they can look up their batch on the website and review the distilling notes on it. Curtin and Jager have gotten calls from Texas inquiring about Albany bourbon, and some customers have bought bottles to ship internationally. But it’s the locals who seem to be the most dedicated. “People have roots in this town,” says Jager. “For Thanksgiving, people wanted to bring a bottle to dinner that said ‘Albany.’ The local pride thing has been the most rewarding part so far.”


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