THERE ARE SOME people who, if you met them on the street, you would NEVER
imagine to be the sort to dedicate their lives to distilling liquor. There is a
pretty significant age difference between John and Linda, and while Linda
remembers hearing stories about Woodstock and "the Sixties", John really was there.
Not Woodstock; John may be one of the only three people in America at that time
who doesn't claim to have been at Woodstock. But he did live in San Francisco in
1967, during the "Summer of Love", and he did live out in the desert three years
before that, and he knows what an artist looks like.
An artist looks like Cheryl Lins.
Artists from John's time tended to be acid-head drop outs; Cheryl is closer to Linda's generation, when artists-to-be were often computer geeks, which she was. And also exactly what John was in 1997, when Cheryl decided she'd had enough of the Silicon Valley and traded in her comfortable Sunnyvale condo for a yurt in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a box of watercolors. Well, several boxes, actually. She painted there for nearly a decade. Abstract paintings, some in vibrant colors and others in the earthy colors of the American Southwest. We are honored to have one of her works on the wall in our living room.
In 2004, Cheryl decided she'd had enough of the desert yurt-dweller life and once again chose to reinvent herself, and again in an environment totally alien from her comfort zone. She moved to Walton, a tiny town in upstate New York where the winters bring snow and the summers bring, well, farming. She found a 100-year old house, a sort of "fixer-upper" that never quite got fixed up, but it's comfortable and filled with her love... along with a few odd cobwebs here and there. Then she went to work at a nearby farm and spent a year and a half milking goats and raising chickens, after which she took a job in a health food store in town. And of course, all the while she continued to paint. Only now, she was a New York artist.
Then, in 2006, she read an article in the New Yorker magazine (knowing Cheryl, it seems so out of place that she would even be reading the New Yorker; perhaps it was in the dentist's office?). The article was about absinthe, the Green Fairie, that most daring of liqueurs because it was still illegal in the United States at that time. Of course it sparked her interest. So much so that she obtained a few examples from sources in Europe. And fell in love. Was it the so-called psychedelic properties of absinthe? No, probably not. Was it the mystique? Most likely that was a factor, especially since Cheryl admits to having always been fascinated by Goddesses and Faeries. But mostly it was because absinthe -- GOOD absinthe -- is utterly delicious.
It's also utterly expensive. Way too expensive to be buying by mail order. So she went and ordered something else from a European source: a small copper alambic, clearly labeled "decorative garden ornament". And using that alchemist's device she taught herself to distill spirits and to make absinthe.
GOOD absinthe. REALLY good absinthe, the kind that began collecting awards once the ban was lifted and American distillers could once again produce it legally. She rented a storefront in town, purchased a 45-gallon Christian Carl still, and began the long and uncharted process of becoming a licensed distillery. She called the distillery Delaware-Phoenix, partly because Walton lies along the Delaware River and partly because it represented a rebirth from spiritual ashes.
Cheryl made quite a name for herself in the narrow niche of absinthe distillers, not only by winning lots of awards and selling lots of her absinthe, but also by sponsoring learning sessions, attending industry events and seminars, and generally making herself known throughout the world of artisan distillers. And that extended to those making whiskey. Some time ago she decided to try her hand at making American rye whiskey, the way it used to be made in New York long, long ago. She became a regular contributor to several blogs and discussion forums, including the one that we identify with, BourbonEnthusiast.com. John first met her at one of the American Distillers Institute annual conventions and we've been corresponding ever since. She has visited our home in Ohio, and now we have a chance to visit with her in New York.
It's drizzling just a little as we arrive at the distillery this afternoon.
We enter through the back of the building. It is very unlike most distilleries we have visited. It reminds us a bit of Woodstone Creek in Cincinnati, Ohio. Not the squeaky-clean sterility of the "laboratory" type plants, nor the rustic "charm" of the older establishments, this is more the disheveled clutter of an artist's studio. And well it should be, for an artist does work here. And work indeed she does. Cheryl represents the owner, the manager, and 100% of the staff. She wrestles barrels around; she pours five-gallon carboys of spirit into holding tanks; she loads fifty-pound bags of grain into her little mill, grinds it, hauls it over to the fermenting tanks, and goes back for more. And all the time she is talking to us, showing us things, and making us feel welcome in her place.
Cheryl spent this morning doing a first-run distillation of rye whiskey, and she is just finishing up as we arrive. Tomorrow morning we will have the honor of helping her do the second distillation. She shows us around the storefront distillery and introduces us to her new distillery cat. She met the cat a few days ago, when she went out to her Jeep and discovered that her driver's seat was occupied by this cat... and her newborn kittens. So she took them into the distillery and found Mama cat a safe location. Then Mama cat moved the family to another place that SHE liked better, and that's where they all are now. Cheryl will look for homes for the kittens when they're old enough, but she thinks she'll keep Mama cat. Every distillery should have a cat; mice enjoy dining in grain-storage facilities -- and cats enjoy dining on mice.
And, speaking of dining, Cheryl invites us to her home for dinner, and after we check in to our motel we drive over. Nothing in Walton is more than five minutes from anything else. Cheryl is cooking a delicious dinner of pasta, tomatoes, squash, and ground beef and we sit on a couch eating as she tells us stories. We begin the evening with absinthe and finish by tasting several of the whiskies in her collection.
Next morning we arrive back at the distillery to find her already getting things prepared for the second distillation. The still is heating and the necessary containers are in place. It is amazing how long it takes for the low wines in the still to reach the proper temperature and begin to boil, but once that begins things speed up pretty quickly. Cheryl uses a hydrometer and the temperature gauge on the still to check for her heads and tails cut points, but mainly she uses her nose and taste for her final decisions. She runs the distillate into a five-gallon carboy and then stops the flow and hauls the carboy over to a scale to weigh it, noting down the weight and temperature. Then she pours the contents into a tank, replaces the carboy, and returns to collecting distillate. She repeats this over and over until the run is through. She will then add up all the weights and calculate the alcohol content for the report she must submit.
Delaware-Phoenix doesn't have an actual tasting room, and visitors can't purchase Cheryl's products onsite, which would ordinarily mean we wouldn't be writing about this. But Cheryl is what you'd call a "force in the industry" as far as American artisan/craft distilling is concerned and she welcomes visitors any day she's working. Her whiskies (rye and bourbon) and her absinthes (she has three varieties) are available in the state of New York and, more importantly for us, online through Catskill Cellars or Astor Wine & Spirits websites.
Story and original photography copyright © 2012 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.