Photo Essay: Inside Finger Lakes Distilling, Bringing Craft Booze to Upstate New York

Take a peak inside the distillery to see how local NYC booze gets made.

  • The McZenzie Rye, Bourbon, and Pure Pot Still Whiskey
  • Thomas and Brian say they were inspired by the aesthetics and layout of traditional Scottish distilleries.
  • Grains are delivered almost daily from local farms.
  • Brian McKenzie demonstrates how ingredients move through the distillery.
  • Cooking up a batch of rye whiskey.
  • The magic of fermentation
  • The distillery is small, and everything is made in limited quantities.
  • The giant copper still was made by Holstein in Markdorf, Germany and shipped 4,000 miles.
  • The rectification column in all its glory
  • Sweet, sweet booze vapors
  • Brian with his barrels
  • The distillery uses charred oak, as well as spent bourbon and sherry barrels, depending on what it's aging.
  • The rye whiskey takes a nap.
  • Bottles are filled directly on the premises.
  • Nozzles for filling bottles.
  • Crates of booze ready to be shipped
  • The tasting room is open for visitors
  • Visitors enjoy a few drams.
  • Don't leave without picking up a few bottles straight from the source.

All photos by Liz Barclay

In 2007, Brian McKenzie (a former bank Vice President) and Thomas Ear McKenzie (a farm boy from Alabama) crossed paths at a craft distillers conference. After bonding over their shared love and interest of making whiskey, the unlikely duo decided to open Finger Lakes Distillery in Burdett, NY—a town located in the wine-making Finger Lakes region, within spitting distance of Seneca Lake. The landscape traps some of the summer heat and allows it to carry over well into the winter, providing an ideal environment for growing grapes, grains, and other raw materials of booze production. The result? A fine location for producing an array of local spirits, including whiskeys, brandy, and gin.

A year after meeting, the two McKenzie’s (unrelated by blood) installed a 350-gallon Holstein Co. hybrid pot still, which they imported from Germany. Just days before Christmas 2008, the still ran its first batch—a vodka made of grapes harvested from the surrounding vineyard. Housed in a Scottish-style distillery, complete with bold black lettering in the style of Scotland’s Islay whisky makers, the young company draws the majority of its raw materials from within New York state. The building is built with reclaimed local lumber, increasing the green focus of the operation and helping to draw attention from the folks behind The Good Food Awards (Finger Lakes was a finalist in 2012).

The McKenzie’s vision has succeeded, and the business they built has blossomed in its short history—joining the Seneca Lake Wine Trail as the only distillery member and gaining strong following for its Irish-influenced pot Whiskey and American-style Rye.

Click through the gallery above to see some behind-the scenes shots from the distillery. And if you want to taste the goods, check out this list of stores, bars, and restaurants that carry Finger Lakes Distilling Products. If you’re in the area, you can also swing by to visit the tasting room, which is open daily from 11am-5pm.

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