Black Dirt Distillery
Pine Island, NY
Not Just Building on Family Tradition - Rebuilding a Regional Heritage
How did co-founders Jason Grizzanti and Jeremy Kidde of the Black Dirt Distillery come to make bourbon, apple jack, and myriad, high quality brandies and liqueurs? For starters, making award winning alcohol is something they've been doing for years. The Black Dirt Distillery is an extension of the Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery, which they have been co-owners and operators of for the past 12 years. They started distilling as part of their winery and, seeing success in that field, created Black Dirt in 2012.
It is a disservice to Grizzanti and Kidde's vision to say that Black Dirt is merely an expansion of an existing wine business. The Distillery is the realization of a desire that Grizzanti has pursued from a very young age. Jason Grizzanti is more than the master distiller, he has a deep passion and knowledge for food science. While at Cornell, he majored in Pomology – the study of tree fruit – and also studied wine and winemaking. Upon graduation, he traveled the U.S. and the world to learn all he could about distilling, cidermaking, and craft liquor. Ultimately, Grizzanti returned to his family farm and winery and started making ciders before moving proceeding with eau-de-vies, brandies, gins, and, finally, bourbons.
It took a twelve-year process of learning, practicing, and researching before Black Dirt could be started. The new distillery is now housed in a 4,000 square foot building with a 60 foot column. Clearly, Black Dirt is primed to give the market as much of it's Bourbon and Apple Jack as it can produce. All of the training and patience seems to be paying off.
For Kidde and Grizzanti, the path from New York's first micro-distillery to a 4,000 square foot production space didn't just happen overnight. It took years of work to build the relationships that the Distillery needed to grow. First they leveraged the existing Winery that they took over and expanded it's products and distribution to be a national and global brand with their Doc's Draft Hard Cider, their brandies and liqueurs under the American Fruits brand, and their Warwick gin. Those 12 years spent making relationships laid the groundwork for the rapidly expanding distribution of their new Black Dirt products. An expansion they will continue as their supplies allow.
The name "Black Dirt" may not sound very glamorous or exultant. However, the black dirt that surrounds Pine Island, NY is critical to the finished product that Grizzanti ultimately bottles. The soil is the product of millennia. Before the Ice Age, the area was a forest. As the climate changed, the forest collapsed. Over the course of thousands of years, the trees that made of this pre-historic forest broke down and created the rich black dirt that is the namesake of the Distillery. As Grizzanti says, “One thing it does really well is it grows corn beautifully.”
The corn grown in the black dirt produces a beautiful bourbon, too. Grizzanti says making a bourbon is one of his proudest moments, but it took him outside of his comfort zone. When he first started distilling, he focused on fruits. He understood fruits and was used to working with them. When he decided to expand beyond the pommes of his past, things got “pretty exciting.” The distiller had never worked with grains and the extra mashing step they require. He also had to wait three years to age his bourbon. Take a new ingredient, a new process, and add several years before the final product was ready, and Grizzanti's anxiety around his new product is entirely understandable. Luckily, the reception has been very positive.
For the entire team at the Black Dirt Distillery, their final product is the result of a collaborative process between the distillers and the local farmers that supply the corn and fruits. Without the close relationship between the distillery and the farmers, the spirits would not be the same. For its bourbon, the team works with local farmers to get the exact corn and flavor-profiles they desire. Since Black Dirt is about creating heritage spirits, not just any corn can go into their mash. The distillery works with farmers to figure out which strains will be appropriate for their purposes. They also experiment with corns, using techniques such as open pollination, to naturally create new flavors and characteristics.
The experimentation doesn’t end in the orchards. Even though the recipe for Black Dirt bourbon is settled, many barrels at Black Dirt contain new blends and mash bills. The distillers are constantly looking for new formulations and expressions. They don’t hold back their test batches either. When experimenting in 55 gallon barrels, there is a lot of product tied up into each test. For Grizzanti , this means a new opportunity to give customers a unique spirit experience. Black Dirt bottles its test batches in single barrel expressions. Thus, each bottle of special-release single barrel Black Dirt is unique – be it a wheated bourbon, malted rye, 90/10 mash bill, or any other concoction the distillers can create.
Black Dirt Distillery’s products are now available in four states and the operation runs around the clock to keep up with demand. Grizzanti makes it clear that the Distillery’s success didn’t just happen overnight. It took a leap of faith, a large financial investment, and years of hard work. He's lucky though. He sees his reward everyday by getting to work in the industry he loves and sharing his passion with those who open up every bottle of Black Dirt.
For more information on the Black Dirt Distillery visit its website at http://blackdirtdistillery.com/
For more information on the Warwick Vally Winery and Doc's Draft Hard Cider visit their website at http://wvwinery.com/