Saratoga native and whiskey maker Ryen VanHall stays true to his Upstate roots, keeping everything either New York-grown or made.
With spirits like Blinders Vodka, Winner’s Circle White Whiskey and Spa City Whiskey, Upstate Distilling Co.’s wares are Saratoga-inspired through and through. The flagship product, Ryen’s Rye, carries the namesake of the owner.
“We’re five-strong as of now,” says Ryen VanHall, owner and distiller, but who’s to say what’s to come, as he’s incredibly passionate about playing with flavors, grain mixtures and percentages. The Saratoga native is self-taught in his craft, although he put in his fair share of time at other distilleries honing his skills. Process is something he’ll never compromise on, as he’s committed to doing everything himself—and keeping everything he uses either New York-grown or made.
Read on to learn more about Ryen and who he credits for his creativity.
In your own words, how would you describe yourself and what you do?
I’m the product of two different kinds of family, of people. My father was a business owner who taught me how to run a small business, and from him I learned the ins and outs, everything from networking to deal-making.
But distilling is all about making a product—crafting something—and that requires artistry and creativity, and that’s what I get from my mother’s side. So really, it’s the artistic side of the brain that plays into creating a great product. But I’m also very lucky to have had that practical small business education from my father.
The distilling part is obviously more fun, but there really is a lot of paperwork that goes along with it and things that aren’t related to actually making the product, so it’s good to have both kinds of education. My mother went to Skidmore and did her undergrad in fine arts, and my dad went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for his master’s in business administration.
Tell us about how you got started. Are you self-taught or professionally-trained?
I’m both. I do a lot of reading, and am always self-educating by reading books about distilling and taking online tutorials. I also did a lot of volunteering at other distilleries in the three or four years leading up to the purchase of the property for my distillery in 2015. I didn’t formally apprentice or anything, since it was kind of a secret I was going to open the distillery until I did.
When I was younger, but of legal drinking age of course, I spent a lot of time at places like 9 Maple, trying their extensive kinds of scotches, and developed a passion for finer things in moderation. I realized I wanted to enjoy something instead of just consuming it. From then on, I would always have some kind of microbrew or a nice bottle to sip on.
Tell us about your process.
Micro-craft distilling has exploded in the last decade in New York State, and to varying degrees everybody tries to be local. We’re required by law to be majority New York-grown grain, and some distilleries here meet the minimum requirement and others meet the maximum. But we use 100 percent organic New York grain, and even our barrels are made in New York. We print our labels on an 1800’s letterpress, but the paper comes from Mohawk paper in Waterford. We buy it, cut it down and we print it ourselves. We distill grain to spirit, and at no point do we outsource any piece of our production.
We’re trying to achieve something unique, but we still very much want it to be considered a bourbon or a rye. We want to stay true to what that’s supposed to be, but at the same time make sure we’re different from everyone else on the shelf. We experiment with our percentage of grains, the char level, even the kind of oak we use. We have a master distiller who is our consultant, Laurent LaFuente from British Columbia, who has visited us several times since our opening and helps us refine and curate the tastes we’re trying to achieve. Since we’re new, I kind of work with him and tell him what I need, and he advises on the formula.
What inspires you, in terms of your craft?
I don’t really have an inspiration other than trying to make a mark on this industry. There are all these large companies that have been around forever with massive marketing campaigns and we’re trying to do it all, trying to create something that sells itself and that the customers come back for.
Has Saratoga always been home?
Yes, I was born and raised here. I went to Saratoga High School, left for college in Colorado, lived overseas for a while, then came back in 2008 during the recession and went to SUNY Albany. I wanted to be here, although being a small business owner is never considered easy in New York State. But New York has always been home.
What’s next for you and your business?
My hope is to make the whiskey better every time we release it. Every time a new batch comes out, I just want to try and make it better than the last one. But our focus as we look to the future is definitely going to be on our Rye Whiskey, a particular variety which I’m thrilled to say has been grabbing some headlines of late. The New York Times just did a piece on how Empire Rye is the 21st century response to Kentucky Bourbon, and I want to make sure that Upstate Distilling is helping to push that movement forward, in great-tasting, high-quality ways. I’m a fan, and so are the locals here, so I know good things lay ahead.