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Cold, Hard Drinks of the North Country

There is no ignoring the North Country’s winter. Local business owners know that better than anyone. But where some see nuisance, others see opportunity. The Adirondack Coast’s rapidly expanding adult-beverage business uses the region’s unique chill to produce distinctive beverages. Ice spirits offer a sweet and sophisticated example of what all dessert beverages should be: low-alcohol, refreshing and flavorful. Concocting these drinks requires far more than cold temperature. The practice, adopted from our northern neighbors in Canada, demands precise labor and know-how. These factors make ice high-end alcohols increasingly popular. The term “ice” does not refer to the temperature that…

wine glass

These cold-weather grape wines combine high sugar content, full flavors and a crisp acidity. (DoNorth/James Heffron)

There is no ignoring the North Country’s winter. Local business owners know that better than anyone.

But where some see nuisance, others see opportunity. The Adirondack Coast’s rapidly expanding adult-beverage business uses the region’s unique chill to produce distinctive beverages.

Ice spirits offer a sweet and sophisticated example of what all dessert beverages should be: low-alcohol, refreshing and flavorful. Concocting these drinks requires far more than cold temperature. The practice, adopted from our northern neighbors in Canada, demands precise labor and know-how. These factors make ice high-end alcohols increasingly popular.

The term “ice” does not refer to the temperature that these alcohols are served but the temperature of the main ingredients months and often years before. The task of making these spirits centers on timing.

These ice drinks can be found right here along the Adirondack Coast. If grape is the flavor of choice, head to Snow Farm Vineyard. Like apples? Try Elf’s.

Snow Farm Vineyard sits along the bank of Lake Champlain. So getting there calls for a short ferry ride. While the view of the lake alone makes the ride to Grand Isle worth it, Snow Farm Vineyard offers more than just a scenic setting.

Green fields and long rows of grape vines make up the majority the property at Crescent Bay Farm, where Snow Farm rests. Since its founding in 1996, Snow Farm has served award-winning wines across its polished-mahogany bar to guests. The production begins and ends on Crescent Bay land. Grapes picked from the 11-acre span are processed into spirits in the same building they will be served.

Not one of those wines should be overlooked. Local spirits hold unique flavors that vary from winery to winery, grape to grape. But if time allows for only one glass, ask for the ice.

Patrick Barrelet, co-owner and head wine-maker of Snow Farm, harvests the typical grape between August and October. But ice wines, true to the name, remain on the vine until the grapes freeze.

“It has to be in the 20 degrees Fahrenheit range,” says Barrelet, who studied oenology at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, France. “If they’re not solid, it doesn’t have the same effect.”

The freeze causes a natural separation of water and sugar, making the remaining flavor much different than that of a standard harvest. From orange zest to almond and honey, staff and guests struggle to agree on a taste.

Once the crop makes it into the production room, the pressing and fermentation mirrors that of any other wine. But the results? Distinct as a fingerprint. The two wines, the Vidal Blanc Ice Wine and Vignoles Late Harvest, have both received an assortment of awards. Recently, the Vidal Ice received a perfect double-gold by the Tasters Guild International Wine Judging.

“It’s a very decadent, delightful dessert wine,” says Julie Lane, who bought into Snow Farm and the Crescent Bay property with her husband David in 2012.

The Snow Farm ice wines are not the only chill-changed alcohols being sold in the Champlain area. Just minutes from downtown Plattsburgh, another family business embraces the winter to create a drink in the way they know best: cider.

The Adirondack Cider Company at Elf’s Farm illustrates what hard work can accomplish. A lot has happened since owners Tom and Diane Frey first moved to the region in 2004: a quick beginning, too many awards to list and a devastating 2011 fire that diminished years of work into a pile of ash.

Quitting would have been understandable. Rebuilding, admirable. But Tom and his family decided on the unthinkable. They expanded. Their upcoming ice cider marks another milestone in their timeline.

The making of their soon-to-be beverage mimics the process occurring on the grapevines intended for ice wine. But rather than leaving the apples on the tree, they are picked and stowed outside. Thousand-gallon containers hide on the shaded side of the Frey’s mill before the season rolls in. As weather varies, the fruit will freeze and thaw repeatedly. The separation of water and sugar occurs on a large scale.

A few months after the cider passes through the remaining stages of production, a sweet, low-alcohol cider will be available for sale in the summer.

Like the other ciders and wines lining the shelves of the Frey’s tasting room, this upcoming ice cider will hold quality unparalleled by big-name producers. With no added water, sugar or chemicals, customers of Elf’s enjoy fresh, local products. It’s something the family takes pride in, and no profit can replace that.

The climate here isn’t for the feeble. Cold hits the North with tremendous force. When that happens, there is nothing wrong with turning on the heat and waiting for spring. It’s normal. But there is something very right with freezing grapes and apples, making a sweet drink for a sweet buzz. So that’s what cold-loving craftsmen do.

Issue 4: Winter/Spring 2015

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