Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
John Curtin, co-owner, of Albany Distilling Company, had no experience when he decided he wanted to make whiskey for a living. His career as a teacher had taken him to Scotland for a year and back to the Capital Region where he found himself growing tired of a desk job at GE. He and a friend started talking about opening bar and realized that no responsible financial institution would fund their dream. Inspired by a few nascent distilleries they saw popping up around the state, they changed tact and pitched banks on a distillery.
“We wrote a business plan, shopped it around to some banks. We had no money, no experience. I hadn’t even been a home brewer. So it was kind of this pipe dream. And one day a bank said ‘Yes’ and we went ‘Oh god,’” says Curtin as he lounges on a small couch at ADCO’s 75 Livingston Ave. location. Curtin recalls spending time learning as much as he could from other distillers and local brewers. “We first started production in May or June of 2012 we incorporated in March of 2011 so it took a little over a year get everything in place,” says Curtin. What was the holdup? Getting the basics in place.
“It was tough to find grains, there’s no Yellow Pages for farmers so from a logistical standpoint the supply train was tricky– finding bottles, finding bottle caps, finding those little things that seal the bottles. Finding barrels, that was a hassle. Back then we’d use whoever had barrels, anywhere that had them. Now there are four Cooperages in New York alone. It has been amazing to watch the ancillary or support businesses pop up around us,” says Curtin. “Fortunately there were a few other distilleries that had already started like Tuthilltown and Harvest Spirits Distillery. We have a great community to be a part of and there is very much a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ mentality to it. I do credit a lot of other people and companies for really guiding us in the early days.”
Prohibition, in many ways, killed distilling in New York but what kept it buried were staggering licensing fees charged by the state that totaled around $65,000. A law passed in 2007 reduced those fees to around $1,500 as long as distillers were making less than 35,000 gallons a year. The law also allows distilleries that source 75 percent of their ingredients from in state to have tastings and sell their products on their premises.
Nearly 7 years in, Curtin and his business partner Rick Sicari are in many ways veterans of New York’s burgeoning distilling industry. They employ four other staffers (not including their distillery cats) and have developed their Livingston Ave. location into a gorgeous shop and tasting room that for now is open during the summer.
They’re also involved in giving new distillers guidance and support.
“I’m on the board of New York Distillers Guild and it’s almost as though we are the victims of our own success,” says Curtin. “At last count there were 120 distilleries operating of which only half are active guild members. Distillers say, ‘We already got everything we want. So why do we need an advocacy group?’ So now we’re shifting away from advocacy to focus on marketing.”
ADCO has successfully advocated for two laws with the help of local lawmakers Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and Sen. George Amedore. “We got the ability to sell t-shirts and souvenirs–that was originally illegal and we also got the ability to serve New York State beer, wine and cider by the glass–it’s nothing groundbreaking but the benefit of having a friendly administration is really clear. Distillers in other states look to us for a model for what they’ed like to see in their own states.”
Curtin says that while his life as a distiller may look glamorous most of what he does is paperwork. However, he gets major satisfaction out of a few things. “You’re actually creating something–there is a finished product that you produce. It’s sort of this archaic forgotten-art. Prohibition really killed distilling for a better part of a century in the US. So what we do is sort of nostalgic. It has this almost steam-punk element to it. We are really are using 17th-century-or-earlier technology. Its this weird amalgam of different tech from different eras in this fun combination.”
Curtin is also proud to be able to reflect the city he lives in. That’s why ADCO has products like Ironweed Whiskey which honors legendary Albany author William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, or their Quackenbush Rum which honors the Quackenbush Still House that operated from 1758 to 1810 just feet from ADCO’s current distillery.
“We didn’t call ourselves ‘Albany Distilling’ because we couldn’t think of a better name. We really love our city and want to stay connected to it.”
Another way ADCO is doing that is through a series of product collaborations. It’s almost perfunctory to mention their “Death Wish Vodka” which came about as a partnership with Death Wish Coffee Company but they are also set to unveil new projects with the Fort Orange General Store (a citrus flavored vodka) and Seasons Skate Shop (a seasoned rum.)
“We’ve really benefited from collaborating with so many other small business so we love to partner up and we have a litany of other businesses we hope to work with.”