MOONSHINE. In hand-painted, hastily scrawled letters, the sign implies covert activity at Washington County’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. It’s an invitation that’s hard to resist.
Conjuring images of ‘shiners lurking deep in the surrounding mountains in the dark of night, the sign may get you in the door, but the secretive allure of moonshining stops there. As John and Robin McDougall will attest, the road leading to Lake George Distilling Company was lengthy, expensive, and definitely legal.
Nearing retirement, the McDougalls were looking for self-sufficiency in a livelihood they would also enjoy. John, an experienced beer and wine maker, credits the History Channel show Modern Marvels on distilling for planting the grains of possibility. New York State’s Farm Distillery Act, enacted in 2007, allowed them to ferment. The timing was perfect.
Prior to opening, John spent ten years learning all he could about distilling – reading, taking courses, talking with other distillers, and, of course, tasting. While attending the American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirits Conference, John and Robin had the opportunity to taste award-winning spirits. Tasting sealed the deal – they both knew John could do as well, if not better. He loves the process and does believe that he has exceeded his expectations in taste.
Inspired by three generations at a family camp on the lake, the distillery isn’t in the heart of Lake George, but Lake George is in the heart of Lake George Distilling. Hand-crafted in small batches, their spirits are influenced and named for the lake. Bullhead Bourbon (100-proof), the distillery’s flagship spirit, is aged a minimum of 12 months in small barrels and 18 months or more in large barrels. Lake George Spirits Collection bourbon is the 86-proof version of Bullhead and is available in a bar and restaurant friendly 750ml bottle. 32 Mile Moonshine is a true corn whiskey with the sweetness of local corn. Robin loves her rye, and John makes the Red Rock Rye especially for her. There’s no corn in it, so it has a little extra-spicy peppery kick. A sultry summer afternoon on the shores of Lake George begs sipping a little Sweet Tea Island Shine or Lake George Lemonade. If a crackling campfire on a crisp evening are more to your liking, warm up with Apple Pie Moonshine, Indian Kettles Smoked Whiskey, or warm cinnamon Adirondack Wildfire Whiskey. Rumor has it a maple spirit (or two) and a wheat whiskey may be ready for release this fall. Follow Lake George Distilling Company’s Facebook page for new releases.
From grains to equipment, John and Robin prioritize to buy local, state, and national products and extend beyond the New York Farm Distillery Act’s required use of 75% New York State grains. Non-GMO corn comes from Elsworth’s Family Farm in Easton and West Wind Farms in Schaghticoke. Rye, wheat, and barley are grown in the Finger Lakes and Malta Ridge Orchard and Gardens in Ballston Spa supplies cider for Apple Pie Moonshine. Collaboration with local businesses brings with it a community spirit. Lake George Distillery’s used bourbon barrels are passed along to Mapleland Farms in Salem to age Bunker Hill bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup. The distillery is now reusing the maple barrels to age unnamed new releases. Lavenlair Lavender Farm in Whitehall makes an extract using Lake George Distilling’s bourbon, while the distillery enhances the gin recipe with lavender. Lake George Distilling generates virtually zero waste, sending spent grains go to a local farmer for the cows.
Because New York State law prohibits distillers from selling non-New York derived spirits in their retail locations, the McDougalls distill all spirits sold in both stores. “If we don’t 100% make it here, we don’t sell it here,” explains Robin. They do, however, procure neutral grain spirits made elsewhere for use in their gin and vodka. Gin and vodka require different equipment, a cost-prohibitive investment, so John and Robin create their own personal interpretations with flavors and enhancements. These may only be sold at farmers’ markets or distributed to liquor stores.
Lake George Distilling Company is located on Route 149 in Fort Ann – a gateway between Lake George and Vermont. The Fort Ann location features the distillery, a tasting room, and retail space where they sell not only their own spirits, but gift baskets, tee shirts, and other locally-made products. In May of 2016, Lake George Distilling opened a storefront tasting room on Canada Street in Lake George Village – a goal from the very beginning. Here you can indulge in a moonshine slushy and sample and purchase their fine spirits. Craft beer from Adirondack Brewery in Lake George and wine from Oliva Vineyards in Saratoga Springs are also available for sampling. Plans are underway to expand the beer selection to include additional craft brews.
Since opening the Fort Ann location in 2013, Lake George Distilling has grown at an impressive rate. The original 100-gallon still has been upgraded to a 578-gallon stripping still, designed by John using a kettle purchased online and modified by Fronhofer Tool in Greenwich. The old still is now used for Lake George Lemonade and smaller batch products. They’re also working on getting new fermenters from Fronhofer. Lake George Distilling is quickly outgrowing its confines. Work on a garage behind the distillery will give them much needed additional space. The Lake George Village tasting room gave Lake George Distilling a second home and a namesake. The McDougalls don’t plan to slow down any time soon – they’re scouting for a third location.
New York State is now home to 71 distilleries, according to nydistilled.com, and that number is steadily growing. The Craft New York Act and tweaks to farm brewery laws in 2012 have further propelled growth. Drinking is popular again but has taken on a more refined character. People have grown more interested in locally sourced, handcrafted everything, allowing them to slow down and savor the experience. As a result, they’re becoming better informed about that experience. The thrill of the hunt propels them on to the next, and the next, and the one after that. Not long ago, a distillery tour would have taken you to Kentucky, Tennessee, Canada, or Scotland. Today, you needn’t travel far to taste the flavor and history the craft boom has to offer. Jim Beam, Johnny Walker, and Jack Daniels don’t need our help – their bottom line is the bottom line. That’s not to say they don’t make a fine product – they just don’t have to put it all on the line and risk losing everything.
Lake George Distilling Company is one of the success stories. And you don’t need to drive down a dirt road without headlights in the middle of the night to get a taste of what they’re up to.