I recently had lunch in Manhattan with Han Shan, Hudson Whiskey’s brand ambassador. He won his position with the distiller through a contest called “Making the Cut,” which sought candidates for the job who love whiskey as much as the Tuthilltown, NY-based founders of Hudson (Brian Lee and Ralph Erenzo, who sold the brand to William Grant & Sons in 2010 but continue to distill the whiskey under contract).
A former environmental activist, Shan has settled well into his new role as the face of the Hudson Whiskey brand.
BD: Tuthilltown Spirits was one of the first craft distillers in New York. How did the company get its start?
Ralph came to own the property in Tuthilltown when he bought an old grist mill and farm, hoping to establish a climber’s ranch because of how close it is to the Shawangunk Mountains. The neighbors at the time didn’t like the idea of a bed and breakfast for climbers, so he went back to the drawing board and determined he could get a farm distiller’s license.
It was really a happy accident that he came around to making spirits, but all the ingredients were right there – local corn and rye and wheat from farmers just up the road. Those neighbors who kept him from opening the ranch were really onto something, because now they have a world-class distillery in town.
BD: As Hudson grows larger, is it more difficult to avoid losing sight of your local roots?
When William Grant & Sons acquired Hudson, they made a very equitable deal for everyone because the Tuthilltown team still makes the whiskey and the original owners are largely the face of the brand. The family remains very active in how the brand is marketed, what’s produced and what goes in the barrel – they really retain a lot of autonomy.
We’re still making the product grain to glass, with grain from the farmers down the road. We’ve seen the recent controversies about the provenance of certain spirits and we see that as an opportunity to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace; telling consumers that if they’re looking for an authentic brand, it’s us. Being that authentic brand is a major commitment, it’s what makes us special – and that’s what drew William Grant & Sons to Hudson in the first place.
BD: What innovations does the company have on the horizon?
The big news for us is that in 2015 we’ll finally have 750-ml. bottles. Probably just for the Baby Bourbon and Manhattan Rye to start with, but then presumably if things go smoothly – and I don’t see why they wouldn’t – we’ll add the Four Grain and Single Malt as well.
Frankly, the small 375-ml. bottles weren’t a gimmick; it was just a matter of not having much product at the beginning. It was better to use smaller bottles to get the whiskey in as many hands as possible. Now people like the small bottles since it’s a lower barrier to entry in retail, but I think the 750-ml. bottles will be an improvement on-premise because bartenders don’t want to open a new bottle every six pours.
BD: Considering how quickly craft spirits have taken off, what’s next for the category?
I feel like we’re in the midst of a craft spirits renaissance; it’s very exciting. Ralph is the head of the legislative committee at the American Craft Spirits Association, an advocacy group that works for a level playing field and regulatory reform in places where it’s hard to set up a craft distillery. The ACSA wants to make the ground more fertile nationwide for craft distillers.
The spirits industry still has antiquated rules and regulations on the books from the end of Prohibition – whereas wine and beer enjoy regulations that have changed and modernized over the years. What we’ve seen in New York with the boom in craft distilling is that it’s been great for farmers, the economy and related businesses. That could be happening everywhere.
It’s great to work for a company like Hudson and with the people at Tuthilltown because they want to see that happen, even if it means more competition. There’s a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ mentality – we’re all about sharing tools, resources, tip, tricks and advice. That’s really refreshing and, frankly, it makes my job (which is already pretty good) that much more pleasurable.