When Monte Sachs wants to do something, he doesn’t horse around.
Or, he does, but only when he’s focused on his day job as an upstate veterinarian specializing in steeds — or perhaps when he’s naming his spirits at Catskills Distilling, which launched its first small-batch spirit in 2011.
Sachs favors loopy monikers, like Peace Vodka (a nod to the land across from his distillery in Bethel, NY, where Woodstock raged four-plus decades ago), Most Righteous Bourbon, and Defiant Rye, but that shouldn’t intimate a lack of seriousness or talent. Far, far from it. With his duo of copper-pot German-made stills, sincerity and adherence to local sourcing, and science-geek precision, his well-crafted hooch is nothing to joke about. Although horse-play happens to be what lead him to distilling in the first place.
“I grew up in Connecticut, but I went to veterinarian school in Italy,” says Sachs of his years studying equine beasts at the University of Pisa. While there, he made friends with some folks who owned nearby vineyards, and took them up on an offer to help make grappa. Grappa, it turned out, was gripping (he now makes two versions at his distillery via the traditional steam-injection method he learned in Italy). “I thought it was the coolest god-damned thing I’d ever seen!” he says. When he finished up school and headed back to the states, he started his veterinary practice, but the distilling bug had run away with his heart like a wild beast.
So when he decided to make whiskey and a whiskey-like buckwheat spirit – the latter the only one of its kind in the country, as far as he knows – Sachs took a cue from his experience in learning the tradition of grappa at the source. His syllabus for whiskey study: Oh, just phone up a godly bourbon legend to pick his big brain. “Lincoln Henderson was Brown-Forman’s (Woodford Reserve, Old Forrester) Master Distiller for 40 years. When I decided to make whiskey, I tracked him down. Lincoln had just retired. I mean, not only is he a master distiller, but he consulted for every major whiskey company in the world. He’s beyond god-damned cool!” As it turned out, Henderson was a trained chemist, so with Sachs’s science background the two men hit it off. “He taught me to make whiskey.”
Legally, he can’t refer to the buckwheat spirit as a whiskey, but damn if it doesn’t taste like a very fine and complex one. Made from 80% buckwheat and the rest corn and malted barley, it smells rich and luscious, like a spicy, decadent fruit cake filled with booze-soaked yellow raisins, and tastes at once like vanilla beans, caraway, and orange peel but with a grainy, peppery finish that leaves things on a serious note (despite the Little Rascals-reminiscent “Otay” on the bottle; Sachs likes to smile, and he wants you to, also). He ages it for about two years in new charred and toasted oak barrels, using a slightly sped-up aging method of temperature fluctuation based on research from ol’ Lincoln himself.
Right now, Sachs is making the The One and Only Buckwheat, the duo of grappas – one yet-to-be-released version made from Riesling sourced from local Hudson Valley winery, Brotherhood; the other made from a rare, aromatic hybrid, vulvin muscat – the Most Righteous Bourbon, Defiant Rye, his Curious Gin from on-site botanicals, a Wicked White Whiskey, the wheat-based Peace Vodka, and a wheat whiskey he’s tooling with. He even distills for a few other spirits producers – you know, in his spare time. “I start with the most difficult thing. That way, the easy will be really easy,” Sachs laughs. “Makes sense to me.”
Why wait for summer? Come try Catskill Distilling Company’s Buckwheat yourself at Good Spirits, our annual cocktail and food pairing party next month. More info and tickets here.