Interview: Catskill Distilling’s Monte Sachs on the Craft Industry

Upstate New York’s Catskill Distilling Company was one of the first artisan, “farm-to-glass” distilleries in the country. All grains, fruit and botanicals that make up the company’s portfolio are grown on its farm or locally sourced. The distillery, built in an old Victorian house and featuring a saloon, is located just down the road from where Woodstock was held in 1969.

Among the company’s unique offerings are Peace Vodka, Most Righteous Bourbon and The One and Only Buckwheat, a spirit made with 80% buckwheat.

I recently spoke to founder and Master Distiller Monte Sachs about his history in the business, the challenges craft distilleries face and how small brands can get distribution.

Jeremy Nedelka: How did you get started in the industry?
Monte Sachs: I learned to distill when I was a veterinary student in Europe, living with a friend whose family owned vineyards and made Grappa. I thought it was incredible, and it really piqued my interest in distillation. When I came back to the U.S. as a horse vet, I always had that interest in the back of my mind. When I retired, I found a piece of property near where I live that happened to be a horse farm, and I started Catskill Distilling.

JN: Was the idea always to have a farm-to-glass philosophy?
MS: Yes, it was about making interesting products from locally grown grains, fruits and botanicals. I’m not a business guy, but as a veterinarian I always worked with local farmers and I wanted to support local agriculture. Maybe I should have had more business sense, but now we have people involved with the company who are business guys and can make me understand that there’s more to a distillery than just producing extraordinary product.

I started making vodka, hoping that would pay the bills and allow me to experiment continually. But it wasn’t doing what I needed it to, since we needed a large amount of infrastructure to make everything from scratch. My first whiskey was a bourbon, then a wheat whiskey because I liked the idea of doing something few other distillers were.

JN: Tell me a little about your unique buckwheat spirit.
MS: I’m Jewish and I grew up eating kasha, which is made from buckwheat. It’s grown all over this area, some on contract for the mills upstate and often as a cover crop that replenishes the soil in-between growing seasons. I saw a tremendous opportunity to make something that no one else in the U.S. was producing.

We use a raw buckwheat, which isn’t a grain – it’s a pseudocereal in the same family as rhubarb, which makes it more like a fruit than a cereal grain. It took eight months to figure out how to work with it, and almost a year to get the remnants out of the distillery when I made the first batch. It clogged the stills, got into the floor drains, and was a real learning experience. But in the end, it made a spirit that’s unlike anything else.

JN: How widely distributed are your products, and how do you go about getting distribution?
MS: When I started making whiskey I used to make a couple dozen 25-gallon barrels and I only had 375-ml. bottles available. Now we’re making between 600 and 1000 barrels of each type of whiskey. We’re available in eight states and DC, and we export a little to Italy and Japan. We’ve recently brought in executives who are from the largest liquor company in the world who believe we have something special. They’re working on talks with two major distributors, as well as the largest alcohol retailer in the U.S., who wants to take us national because I finally have enough product.

JN: There seem to be some parallels between your company and Tuthilltown Spirits, also in upstate NY. They partnered with William Grant, and that eventually led to an acquisition. What are you looking for?
MS: I’ll tell you what I’m looking for: partners in the business that will add value to what we already have. I believe we’re good at making product, so I’m looking for partners who know how to market and have outlets and personnel. That’s what we’re in the process of doing now. Our biggest bottleneck is getting information out; we need to drive awareness of our products nationally.

JN: What are the biggest challenges facing craft distillers today?
MS: The problem is a lack of knowledge regarding the quality of products you need to produce. There are many craft distillers, but most don’t create their own product. They make a nice bottle, but they’re not distilling because they don’t understand the chemistry and science. They approach it from a business point of view, with marketing and sales backgrounds.

I believe what happened to the craft brewers in the 80’s is happening now. You see a lot of craft distillers closing down, because it looks easy but it’s not. The problem is ultimately quality and distribution, because there’s so much substandard product on the market that the space is congested. As time goes on, that space will empty out – people will only buy a bad product once.

Jeremy Nedelka is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at jnedelka@epgmediallc.com

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