One of the most important milestones in American craft distilling happened in upstate New York 15 years ago thanks to legislation hammered out and passed in Albany. Few remember it, though, and virtually no one recalls the hero behind it.
John Torgersen first noticed the economic boon that distilleries could provide while working on rigs and oil tankers in Europe’s North Sea in the late 1980s. He would spend his time off touring the distilleries of Scotland, where whiskey in particular is held in reverence somewhere between soccer and Robert Burns.
Torgersen saw that not only did the distilleries themselves provide jobs—never mind a delicious product—but that they supported attendant industries, including farming, coopering and hospitality (for tourists like himself).
He relocated Stateside in 1996, and settled in Middleburgh, N.Y., about 45 miles west of Albany, where he worked as a safety director for private companies and for a trade group representing firms that did federal dredging and marine construction. He never forgot the Scottish distilleries.
In fact, they gave Torgersen an idea. Middleburgh and surrounding Schoharie County were grappling then as now with those twin banes of much of upstate New York: declines in population, especially in younger residents, and jobs, especially manufacturing. How to turn things around a bit?
Why, make whiskey, of course.
Torgersen already distilled (illegally) at home and routinely whipped up for festivals a cocktail called “flip” that had been particularly popular in the early 19th century with cadets at West Point—complete with a froth that Torgersen created by plunging a hot poker into the mix of egg, spices, sugar and alcohol.
The leap to commercial distilling did not seem all that chasm-like then. After all, New York by the late 1990s was home to several of what were being called craft breweries; and the number of smaller wineries in the state had ballooned during the past couple of decades.
Torgersen filed incorporation papers with the state in January 2002 for what he decided to call Storm King Distilling, after a prominent mountain north of West Point. His flagship offering would be a whiskey distilled from corn, and he worked with researchers at Cornell to isolate just what type of white corn he would use.
That corn would come from New York farmers, a commitment of Torgersen’s meant to lift as much of the local upstate economy as he could with his distillery, which would be the sole standalone one in New York when it opened (some wineries made spirits such as brandy on the side). He picked a motto he felt reflected this focus: Distilling the Spirit of New York.
Then Torgersen hit a wall. A three-year distillation license for New York operations wishing to make spirits other than fruit-based brandies cost $39,575. That was too much for Torgersen without him seeking investors, which he did not want to do. He simply wanted to distill whiskey from local corn for local sales.
The start-up costs for that alone were enough for him working solo. The added licensing fee, a vestige of Prohibition-era oversight meant to curb supposed vice, seemed insurmountable—and arbitrary, given the relatively low state fees for wine and beer startups.
Undeterred, Torgersen approached the staff of local state Assemblyman (now Congressman) Paul Tonko as well as the New York Farm Bureau. Both saw his conundrum immediately, as well as the potential economic impact the distillery could have in fostering small business and fomenting economic growth, especially in struggling upstate.
Torgersen and his allies wielded these arguments very effectively, and the state legislature responded, passing a bill that lowered the nearly $40,000 three-year licensing fee to as low as $250 for producers making fewer than 35,000 gallons of spirits annually. Governor George Pataki signed the bill into law in September 2002.
For Torgersen, though, the victory proved bittersweet. He basically ran out of time and money fighting the regulatory ghosts of Prohibition and soon left the state for another role in the commercial maritime industry.
Storm King never opened, but Torgersen’s pioneering work on behalf of lowering New York’s licensing fee would inspire similar movements in other states and pave the way for dozens of New York distilleries that did.
This was adopted from Whiskey Business: How Small-Batch Distillers Are Transforming American Spirits.