Marilee Foster is the first to admit she can’t speak to the finer points of whiskey distilling. But corn? Yeah. That’s a conversation she’s happy to dig into.
“When we talk about terroir, how can you even engage in that topic if you don’t know where your base ingredient came from?” she says, her voice rising with an appropriate helping of gentle incredulity. “Most bourbon is made from Number 2 Dent corn, but where did it come from?”
Foster will be poring over the topic quite a lot starting this week, when Sagaponack Farm Distillery releases their very first bourbon on December 16th: a 94 proof, estate-grown straight-bourbon whiskey.
Since Marilee and Dean Foster—siblings and sixth generation South Fork farmers—and distiller Matt Beamer formed Sagaponack Farm Distillery back in 2012, 99.9 percent of their materials have come straight from the Foster farm (they can well be forgiven for the exceptions used in their gin—Long Island farms are known for many lovely things, but citrus fruit and cinnamon crops are not among them). This decision was at once both a practical and artistic one—a way to keep their 230 acres of farmland growing usable crops, as well as a way to use a portion of them to create giddy liquid magic, capturing season after season in a bottle.
Mining for silver
After several trials on Beamer’s 8 gallon still that he uses for small experimental batches, he and the Fosters settled on a high-yielding heirloom corn variety called Silvermine, a sketch of which graces the label of the new bourbon, compliments of Marilee. It’s a variety that dates back to the later part of the nineteenth century, is at home in Sagaponack’s “Bridgehampton Loam” soil type and can stand up to the sometimes formidable winds coming off of the Atlantic Ocean. Its large kernels also have a creamy, rich quality that make an excellent base for the rich telltale vanilla and caramel notes of bourbon, an American born creation that, by law, must contain 51 percent corn in its mash bill (the mix of grains that make up a whiskey).
In this case, Beamer chose to go full-on, at 76 percent Silvermine, with the rest a smattering of Foster-grown rye and malted barley. He began distilling Sagaponack’s first bourbon in his 1,200 liter hybrid pot and double column Bavarian Holstein still four years ago, and the results have been lingering around in 18 new American white oak barrels ever since. It’s an exciting moment in the 10-year-old distillery’s history: Long Island’s very first estate-grown bourbon whiskey.
Like the farm, the history of the trio began as a family story, too. Beamer was a Michigan ex-pat, working as a ski instructor in Utah and dabbling in amateur beer brewing. It was there that he met and fell in love with his future wife, Stephanie Foster, Marilee and Dean’s cousin. The two men fell into an easy friendship on Foster’s treks west to ski and snowboard with his cousin, and they’d often dream up plans for going into business together. There was one proposal, though, that kept coming up over and over: using Foster Farm-grown grain and potatoes to launch a distillery.
Brewing up a business
Beamer became a renowned professional brewer—a skill that requires fermenting grain into alcohol, which is by and large the first step in making whiskey. Foster kept ribbing Beamer about coming out east and turning spuds into spirits. But when New York State’s wine, spirits, beer, and cider production laws were altered in 2012 to encourage farm-based alcohol production and sales, suddenly the joke became a serious proposition.
Beamer, who was brewmaster at Wasatch Brewery in Salt Lake City, Utah, asked his friends at nearby High West Distillery if he could shadow them for a bit to learn the ins and out of working their German-sourced still. Next, he and Stephanie packed up and moved to the South Fork. In addition to their life-long knowledge of potato varieties and farming, the Foster siblings began to diversify their crops with alternatives that would work for spirits—like rye for cover crop and wheat for potato crop rotation—and an award-winning distillery was born.
It was a smart move for the farmers, whose family was at the very beginning of Long Island’s storied potato production in the late 1800s. At its height, Long Island’s renowned and much in demand tuber export covered over 70,000 acres of farmland in the 1940s; today, it’s somewhere around 1,000, give or take. But while others sold off their spud land to developers, the Fosters quite literally dug in. “We wanted to stay farmers, but we had to look to the next thing in order to do that,” says Mariliee.
She didn’t just gain a whole new use for her potatoes, which are grown on the family’s old farmland about two miles south of the distillery—she also gained a love of spirits. She designs all the labels via her own artwork—beautifully sketched cucumber vine and flowers on the cucumber vodka label, potato vines on Beamer’s sweet-potato based “Single Sweet,” or her father’s old beloved tractor on Sagaponack Distillery’s thoroughly unique “Single Spud” trio, featuring individual expressions of red, white and blue potato varieties, respectively, and treated in similar style to whiskey, aging each in new American oak barrels.
But while Beamer has joyfully scratched his creative distilling itch using all the fresh farm produce the Fosters can throw at him to make vodka, gin, rhubarb liqueur, rye, and whiskey-adjacent potato-based spirits, it’s this latest release that brings his brewing past full circle and into the present.
Sagaponack Farm Distillery Bourbon will be the first of several surprises that Beamer has in store. Next up will likely be a straight-up bottled-in-bond—that is, a whiskey made from one distilling season and by one distiller, aged for a minimum of four years and bottled at a 100 proof. He’s also transferred some of the bourbon into used sherry casks from Spain, as well as a few barrels that once held Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon over at Paumanok in Aquebogue, a process known as finishing (that is, letting the aged whiskey get a little extra time in barrels that once held different wines or spirits, in order to add other exciting layers of flavor). Stay tuned for the release dates on those.
“We’ll probably be doing monthly releases of special things throughout the winter. We’ll keep on exploring the threads of flavor,” says Beamer. “We just want people to get a sense of this amazing place.”
[Sagaponack Farm Distillery, 369 Sagg Road, Sagaponack, 631-537-7300. Tasting room hours: Thursday-Saturday, 1-8pm; Sunday, Monday, 1-6pm; closed Tuesday, Wednesday. ]