The proprietors of Rootstock spirits were poised to expand into markets beyond New York State, when the pandemic hit. So if you’re not in the Empire State, you’ll likely have to wait a while to sample the operation’s intriguing line of fruit-based spirits and ciders.
That’s too bad—but it’ll be worth it. When it happens—and we think it will—you’ll be tasting the products of a truly American story, a multi-generational tale of innovation, success, and consistency, and also of deliciousness.
Since the turn of the past century, the family-owned operation has been growing various types of fruit in the relatively unforgiving terroir of western New York State between Buffalo and Rochester, just east of Lake Erie and south of the long horizontal shore of Lake Ontario. Hardy tree fruit like it up there, as many Dutch settlers (like current proprietor Luke DeFisher’s great-great grandfather) discovered over the decades. Today the operation grows dozens of apple varieties over its 500 acres—Ida Red, Northern Spy, Ben Davis, Gold Rush, and Rome Beauty, among others—and has discovered, over time, that these hardy old-school wonders are well-suited to cider making and distillation. As those efforts mark a decade, it seemed a proper time to check in.
I recently spent a virtual evening with DeFisher and Collin McConville, the operation’s head distiller, discussing the past and present of Rootstock spirits and tasting through some of their products.
Take me back to the very beginning.
LD: My great-great grandfather emigrated here from Holland—an immigrant story like a lot of folks back then. He came over, got settled, got married, and started looking for work. But what he really wanted to do was go into farming. He saved up enough to buy some land and, like a lot of Dutch people, he settled in upstate New York. The agriculture up here is very similar to how it was in Holland. At the turn of the century, Holland was politically unstable but they knew how to farm there very well. They saw how farming was here—a lot of people didn’t settle upstate because it was so wet, but that’s what they were familiar with.
His son Leon, my great grandfather, relocated the farm to its current homestead location, here in Williamson, N.Y.
How far back do your trees go?
LD: Depends on the rootstock that they are on. The oldest ones that continue to bear fruit commercially are 40, maybe 50 years old. The oldest ones on the farm, still producing, just next to my facility, they are 50-year-old McIntosh, maybe 60 years old.
In modern fruit growing you start to pull them out after 15 years. We happen to believe bigger, taller trees have deeper root systems and they are tapping into nutrients and water, and when I press those apples there are more nutrients for my yeast and so I get better cider and spirits. I like big old stately trees that you have to climb into on a ladder.
Why has this area become such a major apple producing region?
LD: The answer to that question is glaciers. Our part of New York was covered by a giant glacier in the last epoch. Lake Ontario is an ancient glacial lake so where we are is right where water and riverbed sediments would kind of flow off a mile high wall of ice. That left a lot of sandy, gravelly soil; it came down in riverlike sediments and kind of settled in this really nice striation pattern. That means plants are able to root really deeply and hold just the right amount of water for apple trees and grapes to grow and be very healthy. You dig two feet in and it’s like you’re on a beach.
As far as climate, Lake Ontario is a sink. And what I mean by that is it tends to absorb anything that would change weather. It makes very hot days very moderate and makes very cold weather more mild as well, like being next to to an ocean. We’re maybe a mile or two outside the real moderation but we do benefit greatly.
Was it always apples for your family?
LD: They grew whatever worked—whatever crop was selling at the time. But over the years Leon and my grandfather, Bill, began to expand the acreage of the farm, and with that expansion we began to find our rhythm in certain types of crops. That ended up being tree fruit, especially apples. We also grew cherries and peaches, and by the 70s we were entirely an orchard—a fruit farm.
And the spirits came about later?
LD: One thing that got roots in this region was processing fruit—and by that I mean varieties of apples that are destined to be turned into juice, apple sauce, or sliced apples. And where that plays into our story is that processing apples have really good qualities for fermenting. They have great aromatics that follow through all the way into the making of the spirit—a benefit that we really didn’t discover until 30 years after my dad establish these orchards. In 2010 we started the distillery, Rootstock Spirits, and in 2014 we started Rootstock Cider Works.
What sort of apples do you have?
LD: Last time I counted, 37 varieties. We do grow some fresh fruit apples—things you’d buy in a market—but probably two thirds of what we grow is made for processing. Things that will turn into apple sauce, or into alcohol. Just in the past five years we’ve increased the dedicated acreage for cider apples and brandy fruit—Damson plums, for instance.
Plums! Is there a market for slivovitz?
LD: Every year my dad and my grandpa get calls from Ukrainians and Russians.
CM: It’s a niche market but it’s definitely there. We are always trying to figure out the different things we can do with our fruit. We want to experiment with what we have, make ourselves go back to the Old World and pull those spirits into the New World. Slivovitz is definitely a hand sell—but it’s fun to talk with people about it.
Collin, how did you become head distiller?
CM: I don’t know how far back you want me to go… I got out of college right as the recession hit, and I had a degree in history with a minor in philosophy, so I started working in the fourth farm distillery that had opened up in New York. It happened to be in my hometown, and I apprenticed there for four years. When [Luke’s parents] were setting up, they realized they wanted someone with a little experience, so I consulted with them a bit, and when they posted the job I threw my hat in the ring. I came out to the hip happening town of Williamson and haven’t looked back since. Been here almost 9 years now.
LD: He was our first employee. We’ll have our ten year old apple jack next December.
How do people consume the apple jack, typically?
CM: Much like bourbon, apple jack has a past. There are recipes with apple jack dating back to colonial times. It’s been around for a long time and it’s ripe for hitting the mainstream again. One of the first cocktails is the Jack Rose, a classic from Washington, D.C., I believe, really old school. Apple jack, lime juice, and grenadine—though I generally drink it neat.
Terrific. Let’s do some tasting.
I get a fruit note on the nose. Maybe some vanilla on the palate.
LD: If you’ve ever held a bushel of apples in your hands you know there’s a lot going on there—a lot of aromas, a lot of character. Most vodkas are made with grain. There’s not a lot there—but with apples some of the characteristics carry through.
CM: Definitely some vanilla. You know right away it isn’t a grain based vodka. The aromatics kind of explode out of the glass.
So it’s distilled from cider?
LD: Yes. We process everything on site. We could do whole apples, and we do some of our brandies with whole fruit—but for vodka, where you want it to be neutral, the cider dovetails better.
I like it with just a rock but I bet there are some good cocktail ideas.
CM: We get asked a lot about what cocktails we recommend. I want it to go back to its home—so, fruit cocktails are always great. A Cosmo is great. Since we have sweet cider here we’ll do something like a hot malt cider with a shot in there and a cinnamon stick.
LD: Really good with ginger. Makes a really nice Moscow Mule.
5-YEAR APPLE JACK
This has nice punch to it.
CM: I put it in at about 100 proof but we tend to be humid in our barrel room so we lose a little alcohol over time. It’s all used bourbon barrels; I love what they do. New barrels, the wood would overwhelm a fruit-based spirit, but the used barrels give the lighter notes.
Beautiful butterscotch thing going on.
CM: Butterscotch and vanilla. As opposed to wood notes you get baking spice—what would be the secondary notes in whiskey come out nicely.
So this is really an American spirit.
CM: In colonial times, apple jack was a slightly different product. Instead of using heat distillation like we do today, they would do the opposite—they would freeze it. So when you freeze hard cider the alcohol won’t freeze, so you tap the center of the keg and dump the alcohol out of it. The problem is you’re not just getting the good alcohols, you’re getting some of the bad ones, so over time they switched. The reason it’s called apple jack is because they were taking a hard cider and jacking up the proof. I think Martha Washington had a recipe.
LD: In historical fiction wherever the authors are saying “cider” they mean hard cider. So in Cold Mountain they are talking about the farm they are homesteading on, and they say, well, we’ve got a crop of apples and we’ll make some sauce now but we’ll plan on selling it as cider later in the year. That’s just what you did back then—you took the crop and preserved the calories by turning it into alcohol.
CM: Sweet cider will last a couple of weeks before it goes bad. Hard cider will last a couple of months. But if you heat distill or freeze distill it will last forever. It keeps the calories and it takes much less space. This bottle represents somewhere between 40 to 50 pounds of apples.
It’s interesting to see “estate grown fruit” on a vodka bottle.
LD: The TTB gets so confused when you talk about growing something and its not in wine bottles. We applied for the label and we said it’s gluten free, and they said, How do you know it’s gluten free? And we said, well… apples don’t have gluten in them. We had to get Cornell involved to confirm that no, apples don’t have gluten. Even Senator Schumer’s office wrote a letter. And the TTB were like, this was a great learning experience for us.
Has Schumer tried your stuff?
CM: A couple of times. He’s been a great asset for pushing for excise tax reduction laws.
LD: It’s been nice meeting him. Nationally that job is so demanding but he makes the effort to come way out here to western New York to learn about us and vouch for us too.
This is special stuff. It has depth.
LD: It’s similar to the apple jack but aged in red wine barrels—Finger Lakes red wine barrels—and you’ll get that on the nose. Lots more of the candied fruit aspect, stone fruit, maybe almond.
On the palate it has a baked apple pie aspect.
LD: That’s the difference with the toasted wine barrels. Since they are used, you get more of a fruity note as well.
CM: The fun part is experimenting with different barrels and seeing what we can come up with. We’ve done red wine barrels, white wine barrels, whiskey barrels.
What about production methods for this?
CM: Theres a little bit of difference in the apples we choose, but the process is the same in that they are both twice distilled and the brandy is going to be aged a minimum of two years. The Jack we have 2 and 5 years.
LD: It’s a noble brandy; there is no sugar added or anything like that—just what you get from the fruit and the barrel.
CM: This one is kind of in a classic Calvados style. We have some of it aging; we put a barrel down anytime one of the owners has a child. We’re gonna do a 21 year old for each of the kids.
I can see this in a cocktail.
LD: Where I find inspiration for our brandies and apple jack is in the classic cocktails. In the tasting room I like to work with cider and spirits in the same cocktail, which leads me to a lot of takes on champagne cocktails—a flute of champagne, a cube of sugar, bitters, maybe an ounce of brandy, and a topper of brut champagne. We’ll take that and do an ounce of apple brandy, and top it with a dry cider. One of the best-selling is two ounces of apple jack over cider. We call it an Apple Bomb and people absolutely love it.
So nice on its own, though.
CM: It has body. Depth. A great digestif after a meal.
Exactly. Such a treat. Thank you.