Watertown Daily Times: Distilleries Are Fermenting in the North Country


Both Michael L. Aubertine and Roger R. Reifensnyder are in good spirits these days, with separate plans to bring the first two micro-distilleries to the north country next year.

Mr. Aubertine’s project is further along; construction of his 2,240-square-foot distilling operation on Route 12, just outside the village of Clayton, is well under way and a month ahead of schedule. The site has been a beehive of activity, with workers putting up the sides of the building on Wednesday. The structure should be fully enclosed in about six weeks. The 250-gallon copper pot still, a custom-made stainless steel tank and other equipment is slated for delivery in October. If all continues to go well, the Clayton Distilling Co. could start making vodka, gin and aged and unaged whiskey in January and open its doors that month or the next, said Mr. Aubertine, a co-owner who is also a principal of Aubertine and Currier Architects, Watertown. The other owners of Clayton Distilling Co. are Roger Howard, who also owns an orthotics and prosthetics business on Sherman Street in Watertown, and Clayton resident Michael L. Ingerson.

Mr. Aubertine will lease farm property in Clayton owned by his parents, Terry and Linda Aubertine, to grow corn, rye, wheat and oats for making the beverages.

Mr. Reifensnyder is considering two possible sites for Dark Island Spirits Inc. in the village of Alexandria Bay: the top floor of Roger’s Marina at 16 Bethune St. and the Muskie Lounge, 42 Church St. He has made purchase offers for both properties and may end up using both. His company will be about the same size as the Clayton distillery and possibly make about 5,000 gallons of alcohol during the first year, he said.

Looking at three different suppliers for his distilling equipment, Mr. Reifensnyder hopes to start production of flavored vodka, bourbon and other artisan liquors next spring. He owns 90 acres of farmland in Chippeway Bay that could be used for growing grain for his operation. He also plans to buy strawberries, cranberries and blueberries from area farmers that he will use to flavor his vodkas.

Just like the region’s wineries, both distilleries will offer tasting rooms and sell T-shirts, hats and other complementary products. Visitors can see for themselves how the fermenting process works. Bottling will be completed on site.

“I see it like a winery,” said Mr. Aubertine, adding he believes it will be an offshoot of the region’s growing wine trail and the important agricultural industry.

Both businessmen are going through the process of obtaining a series of permits from the state and federal governments before they can open their doors, while Dark Island Spirits also must get village Planning Board approval. The businesses each will employ about five workers by the time they are fully operational.

But the two men stressed that they do not see their distilleries as competing with each other. Instead, Mr. Aubertine envisions the two operations complementing each other, while Mr. Reifensnyder believes they may draw from different markets.

With his business in busy Alexandria Bay, Mr. Reifensnyder said, Dark Island Spirits would mostly “be a walk-up destination,” with the many tourists already driving by car and boat to the village to shop and dine stopping to check it out.

“I would hope they would walk the 200 steps to come in my distillery,” he said.

Located along a state highway, the other distillery will rely on Clayton’s tourist industry and more on bus tours.

Expecting to produce an estimated 35,000 bottles a year with their operation, Mr. Aubertine and his partners obtained a $99,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase equipment. Mr. Reifensnyder, who complained a few months ago that the grant created an unlevel playing field, will use about $1 million in private financing to start Dark Island Spirits.

“I don’t believe in public funding,” he said. “We’re doing it all ourselves.”

Changes in the state’s alcoholic beverage control laws have made it possible for the industry to grow here. When they open, the distilleries will become the 14th and 15th in the state; five are situated in the popular Finger Lakes wine region alone.

In 2009, the New York Craft Distillers Guild formed to emphasize spirits production as part of the agricultural industry because it uses fruits and grains that are grown in the state.


Ed. Note: The Watertown Times incorrectly names Clayton Distillery as Clayton Distilling Company.