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Distillers See Fertile Ground for Spirits in the Berkshires
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
06:02AM / Sunday, September 15, 2019
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Ryan Riley is producing Ski Bum Rum in his 'micro micro' distillery at Greylork Works

Riley copper kettle still will allow him to make gin and whisky.

He's chosen a high-quality unusual French bottle to help his product standout.

Brogan and Hand have raw space in which design their cider-making process and tasting room.

There won't be product ready for the mill's Festive holiday market, but Brogan has T-shirts ready.



Matt Brogan and Katherine Hand began their cidery in a closet in Brooklyn; now they're setting up in the mill next to Riley.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Two sets of artisan distillers from different parts of the county are setting up shop in a renovated mill along the so-called "Cultural Corridor."
 
Ryan Max Riley was looking for something different when he brought his rum distillery to Greylock Works from the high mountains of Colorado.
 
"None of this was even designed when I moved in," he said recently from his small space within the massive former textile mill.  "I had no idea what it would look like. But I trusted Sal and Karla ... I knew they would do a good job."
 
The rum distillery's cocktail lounge was in the process of being put together and will be open on Wednesday for a joint Williamstown and North Adams Chambers of Commerce mixer.
 
Riley and his wife, Emily Vasiliauskas, had been looking for an appropriate space in the Berkshires for Ski Bum Rum after she was offered a teaching position at nearby Williams College. 
 
"It could have been in a number of towns. But the old mills here, they're so beautiful," he said."And they're empty — but there's such potential. So this seems like the coolest mill with the best vision behind it."
 
Matt Brogan described Riley's actions as a "leap of faith," and one that inspired he and his wife, Katherine Hand, situate their cidery from the urban environs of the Big Apple to Greylock Works in the bucolic Berkshires.
 
"When I saw you in here, I figured, 'Oh, OK.' Then we can do this, too," he laughed. "I'm really glad you took that first step."
 
The distillery operations are part of the long-term vision for the former Greylock mill, a sprawling 240,000 square-foot complex being redeveloped by New York developers and designers Karla Rothstein and Salvatore Perry. The first part of the renovation, the expansive Weave Shed, opened a few years ago for events; since then, a more than $3 million parking lot project is nearing completion, a commercial kitchen has been installed, working spaces created and plans for condominiums have been approved. 
 
But one of the singular parts of the plans for the old mill have been for artisanal food production like baking, cheese making, dairy and distilling. The Berkshire Cider Project and Ski Bum Rum will be the first elements of that proposal to move forward. 
 
Riley's one-man operation was approved last year to continue producing his award-winning rum. It's distinctive in that it is the first rum produced through "cold fermentation" and includes local ingredients such as honey. And it's sold in elegant French bottles with leather, mahogany and pewter trappings.
 
"I make rum in a kind of mountainy, cold way," he said. "So it's called Ski Bum Rum, partly because I'm a skier."
 
The two-time U.S. National freestyle champion says the Berkshires are a perfect spot for he and his wife, and his looking forward to branching out into gin and whiskeys. 
 
"There's skiing and mountains and we love making things like gin with locally sourced ingredients," Riley said. "And this seems like a really good region for people who are interested in that sort of local artisanal stuff."
 
There's also a sense of sustainability because the breweries and distilleries that have emerged over the past decade or so means there is a level of experience that can be called on for newer ventures.
 
Riley and Brogan said the region has the terroir — a natural environment for imparting flavors — that will enhance their offerings. 
 
For Brogan and Hand, it was the right time to relocate the cidery they started in a closet in their Brooklyn apartment. 
 
"We got married two years ago at Mass MoCA ... We made our largest batches at that point in her parents' basement here in the Berkshires," Brogan said. "We served it the night before and we had a party at Cricket Creek [Farm]. Everyone was — unless they were just being nice to us — they told us it was good."
 
Brogan and Hand's space is larger but is in the early stages of being fitted out. They also will have space for trying out their wares and hope to make use of the large windows looking out at the mountains. 
 
But it will be next year before anyone can try their latest Berkshire batch.
 
"Unlike most cider makers who treat cider like a beverage, like a soda, or like beer, we're treating cider more like wine, which is technically really what it is," said Brogan. "And so when you think about it, the aging process, six months, eight months, 12 months is not unusual.    
 
"We want to make something more like prosecco or champagne."
 
The catering season is their main market and they expect to have the tasting room up and running by summer. Meanwhile, they're working with Hilltop and Windy Hill farms for the apples they'll need. The apples are processed at the orchards and will be fermented at Greylock Works.
 
"There's this real trend towards small batch, traditional ciders that are dry and wine-like," Brogan said. "Some people make it on their own farms, which are great, we love them and their friends and we want to be a part of that community."
 
The challenge, said Hand, is finding apples that are good for the types of cider they want to make. 
 
"You can make wine out of table grapes, but it wouldn't be as good as special wine grapes," she said. "So part of our challenge is really building relationships with farmers and figuring out what they have and finding where those good apples are. And, hopefully, offering them a better price than they would get selling it to Stop & Shop."
 
Her husband said the main type of apple used in this region is northern spy, part of the terroir of the region. 
 
"So a Berkshire northern spy is going to taste different than a Finger Lakes northern spy," Brogan said. "But really cider, unlike wine, you want 10 to 15 to 20 different varietals. There are specific varieties, but it's really the blend that makes it best because there's no apple that has everything, unlike grapes — each grape has sort of its own character."
 
The couple want to partner with several local orchards to develop the types of apples that will make the best product. They also will need a little more help than Riley's "micro micro" distillery because they still live in New York. 
 
"There's sort of flurry of activity, and then a lot of downtime and a lot of aging," Brogan said. "And I think the goal for us also is to bring people on who, you know, whether it's assistant cider makers, or different sales staff, who are here locally. And then we're more involved with the seasonal aspects, the harvest aspect and the recipe and the tasting and the blending, which is not something you need to be here weekly."
 
Both distillers joking drew parallels of the surge in small-scale breweries and distilleries in the region to California's Napa Valley, which only became synonymous with wine 30 or 40 years ago.
 
"I don't know if I'm kidding either," Brogan said. "This could be the American champagne. ... at some point."
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