In Good Spirits
Bottling bourbon in the distillery
Photo courtesy of Niagara Craft Spirits
I’ve driven by this new-ish storefront on Route 104 in Cambria many times and was curious about what was happening inside. I was pleased to speak with Niagara Craft Spirits co-owner Todd Snyder, 49, about a hobby that has turned into a thriving side business.
Forever Young: How long have you been making spirits?
Tom Snyder: I can remember my brother and I trying to ferment various grains as a child based on articles for fuel alcohol in Mother Earth News. Our first still was my mom’s pressure cooker. I think I was only ten or twelve years old.
FY: Describe your life pre-Niagara Craft Spirits.
TS: I came to University at Buffalo from a small town near Binghamton, New York, as a grad student and stayed on to work in the department after obtaining a master’s degree in environmental engineering. I still work at UB in Civil Engineering, the distillery is a weekend/extra/fun job.
FY: What got you interested in distilling?
TS: As any of my childhood friends will tell you, my life has been a never-ending quest for alcohol. When I was nineteen, I started brewing beer at home—at the time at my fraternity at Cornell. I love the process of making it and the interesting history involved in the various forms of alcohol that we as a human race have come up with over the centuries. Distilling came back into the picture when I met Joe Nardecchia through the local homebrew club. There was home distilling happening in the club and we enjoyed the results. I can’t say much more than that, because the distillation of spirits at home is still a federal crime!
FY: How did you learn about distillation?
TS: Ninety-nine percent of the process actually happens prior to distillation. The agricultural crops are raised—in our case we use local Niagara County corn and wine from grapes on the Niagara Wine Trail. Those are whole professions all their own, and we support those farmers by buying directly from them. These are fermented to make good drinkable alcohol. That is the secret to making great spirits, start with good mash or wine. We already had over forty years of experience making good clean drinking alcohol between us through beer- and wine-making. The distillation step that follows is fairly straightforward and easy, and if we aren’t happy with the result, we can always re-distill it.
FY: Tell me a little about the spirit-making process and what sort of equipment you use.
TS: For our vodka and whiskeys, the corn and, depending on the product, barley malt, is mashed at our distillery by hand from scratch. We have a small grain bin at the distillery and a mill to grind the grain. We use steam jacketed kettles purchased at surplus auctions to boil the grain with water in order to convert the starches into fermentable sugars. After fermentation, the waste corn mash is picked up by a local farmer to feed to his chickens. For our liqueurs and gin, we purchase wine from New York Farm Wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail and distill that. We use three thirty-gallon copper stills made in Kentucky; we are a very small distillery. It’s important that people understand the difference between a “from scratch” distillery such as ours and one that is buying bulk alcohol in totes or drums or whiskey in barrels and barrel finishing it or sending it for a quick trip through their still to flavor it into gin. In the worst cases, the alcohol is simply carbon filtered or simply bottled and called “vodka.”
FY: How do you develop recipes? What products do you offer?
TS: Both Joe and I are National rank Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) beer judges, and that experience has helped us a lot in tasting our products and with recipe development. We will typically research the style, sample as many commercial examples as possible, and then start developing small pilot batches to refine the recipe. From there, we scale it up and continuously try to improve it from batch to batch based on feedback from our customers and our own tasting notes. We are currently selling our own from-scratch, 1808 Gold Bourbon Whiskey, 1808 Silver Corn Whiskey, 1808 Silver Smoked Corn Whiskey, 1808 Vodka, 1808 Gin, Sinferno Hot Cinnamon Gin, 1808 Krupnik spiced Honey Liqueur, Limoncello lemon liqueur, Aranciacello orange liqueur, and Special Reserve Whiskey. The special reserve is our distiller’s creative outlet. It varies based on what we want to make at the time, and we age it in our once-used bourbon barrels. We’ve aged some smoked corn whiskey as well as whiskeys made in collaboration with New York Beer Project. We’re currently selling an all malt whiskey made from NYBP’s Pumpkin Ale that we distilled over two years ago. And we are distilling about 1,000 gallons of Woodcock IPA and Red Head Amber beer which will be ready in about two years.
FY: What challenges did you face opening a distillery?
TS: The regulatory hurdles were probably the biggest challenge, and they continue to be, especially with the government shutdown [due to the coronavirus pandemic]. It’s tough to get things approved when they aren’t open.
FY: Where are Niagara Craft Spirits available?
TS: We sell bottles at our distillery, Saturdays 12–6 p.m. and Sundays 12–5 p.m., and at a few farmers markets. My sister-in-law and brother attend the Broome County Farmers Market in Binghamton on Saturdays for us, and we’re attempting to keep a presence at the North Tonawanda City Market on Saturdays. We’ve also signed up for Elmwood Bidwell Farmers Market every other Saturday starting June 6. We are in a few liquor stores as well; Akron House of Spirits, Anchor Spirits in Youngstown, Gates Circle in Buffalo, Key Liquor in South Buffalo, and Supermarket Liquors in Niagara Falls.
FY: What would you say was your biggest catastrophe, spirit-wise?
TS: One time we made a batch of wheat whiskey mash. It was wonderfully sweet and silky from all the sweet wheat malt. It fermented beautifully and made a wonderful smelling mash. We had very high hopes for it! Then we put it in the stills and it immediately scorched. Smoke was coming out of the stills! So, not only did we waste about 300 pounds of really expensive wheat malt, we wasted a whole day mashing, a week of fermenting, and another whole day trying to distill it but ultimately throwing it out and cleaning up the mess. All that, and we didn’t end up with a drop of usable whiskey. That was the worst!
FY: What is your favorite drink to enjoy outside on a warm summer day?
TS: For outside on a warm day, it’s tough to beat a gin or vodka tonic with plenty of ice. Our gin has enough fresh citrus in it that you can even skip the slice of lime.
Niagara Craft Spirits
4408 Ridge Road (Rt. 104), Cambria
Wendy Guild Swearingen is editor of Forever Young.