We climbed a creaky metal ladder, my mother and I following Gable Erenzo into an attic splotched with October sunlight. “These are all experiments,” he said, gesturing to a jumble of three-gallon oak casks, 53-gallon whiskey barrels and seemingly every size in between.
The attic — in Gardiner, N.Y., above the tasting room where Erenzo and other employees of Tuthilltown Spirits pour sips of their New York Corn Whiskey and Hudson Manhattan Rye — exhaled a museumlike aroma of wood and dust.
It was a fitting smell. We’d planned our trip to the Hudson Valley to visit artisans who have recently begun bringing back hard cider and apple brandy — the stuff of colonial taverns, Revolutionary War rations and local myth. A 1940 New York travel guide describes gnomes who danced under the full moon and “brewed a liquor that shortened the body and swelled the head.” Henry Hudson’s crew, it continues, is said to have made their acquaintance: “When the sailors departed, they were distorted by the magic distillation, which, we moderns know, was Catskill applejack.”
My mother, thankfully, remained undistorted. But when I tried the oaky, vanilla-scented apple distillate that Erenzo drew from a small cask, my head did swell a bit with thoughts of another legendary place: France, particularly the province of Normandy, home of refreshingly funky ciders and fruity, mysterious Calvados.
We hadn’t come to New York only because of the cider and brandy revival; we’d come because I’d heard that producers were looking to France for inspiration. Glynwood, a farmland conservation nonprofit group, had recently launched its Apple Exchange, bringing cidermakers and distillers to the Hudson Valley from the Norman region of Le Perche, a gastronomic stronghold of “stone houses with red-tiled roofs and herds of white cows on dazzling green pastures,” as Exchange facilitator Colette Rossant once wrote. The French have shared traditional wisdom and techniques. Online, I’d even discovered Cafe Le Perche, a local bakery that had installed a French wood-burning oven and begun replicating the region’s distinctive baguettes.
A patch of Normandy in New York? It was a captivating idea. And, at the very least, a good excuse to spend a warm fall day among farms, estates and factory towns turned weekend destinations.
What we found, of course, wasn’t quite France but a uniquely American culinary landscape — part historic farmland and part farm-to-table escape, with a hint of joie de vivre. Think George Washington retired to Mount Vernon, savoring his usual applejack with the Marquis de Lafayette.
My mother and I began the day in Beacon, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, an artsy town worth exploring if you have the time. Driving west, we crossed the Hudson River’s Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, a stretch of rusted steel that won an American Institute of Steel Construction “most beautiful bridge” award in 1964. Like so many things in the Hudson Valley, it’s both unusually grand and unusually quaint.
The same is true of the 101-year-old Soons Orchard and Farm Market, a sweep of Colonial-looking houses and barns near the town of New Hampton, containing an explosion of mums, homemade jams, apple-sorting equipment and children on their parents’ shoulders — all of which manages to convey not disorder but lively abundance. “It’s conceivable that people could miss everything going on over here,” said Jeff Soons, who is seeking a license to open a tasting room for his Orchard Hill Cider Mill.