License to ‘Still | Plattsburgh’s First Distillery Since Prohibition

Corn mash churns and bubbles as the sour scent of fermentation wafts throughout Mountain Spirit Distilling’s building on Plattsburgh’s retired Air Force base.

(DoNorth/Kody Mashtare)

Corn mash churns and bubbles as the sour scent of fermentation wafts throughout Mountain Spirit Distilling’s building on Plattsburgh’s retired Air Force base.

A pump carries the mash into the stripping still, where an electric element heats it to a rolling boil. Steam curls from the surface. Owners and distillers Dan Paquin and John Whiteman keep a sharp eye on the temperature.

Twice distilled, cooled and condensed back into liquid, the alcohol sparkles from the spout at 190 proof – 95 percent alcohol – nearly potent enough to power an IndyCar around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  

“After talking a little bit, we decided we could easily wrap our heads around the science of operating a still,” Paquin says.

Both Paquin and Whiteman homebrewed beer and wine for years before their meeting at J. Hogan Refrigeration and Mechanical, a company in Peru, New York, where they both still work.

After the duo decided to start a business, things naturally progressed. They thought existing local beverage companies saturated much of the area’s craft beer, wine and cider markets. So they decided on liquor.

“Craft distilleries, in my opinion, are where the craft beer industry was about 18 years ago. There’s still a lot of room to grow,” Paquin says.

The owners have resuscitated one of the base’s relics. Mountain Spirit Distilling opened September 1, 2017, at 35 Florida St. — the retired explosive ordnance disposal building — and currently offers whey vodka and two types of corn whiskey.

Some retired buildings have slowly decayed since the Air Force decommissioned the base in September of 1995 — ghostly memorials to the massive operation. But in the remnants of the base, Paquin and Whiteman found opportunity. Just behind Mountain Spirit Distilling lies the airbase’s 275-acre aircraft ramp. Beyond that, the Adirondacks loom on the horizon, layered in varying hues of blue.

“If you look at the backdrop of the mountains, it’s amazing,” Paquin says. And aside from the rolling mountains, they seeked an industrial-style building for functionality. “For distilling, industrial is better; it is a chemical process.”

The cement-block building, built in 1956, served as the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) building until the 1990s. The Air Force sent some unwanted explosive and flammable weapons there before they brought them to the EOD range and blasted them out of existence. On the building’s front wall, the faded outline of letters that once spelled “Explosive Ordnance Disposal” still stands out against the tan paint. To Paquin and Whiteman, this made the location even more novel. They are, after all, “distilling something that’s more flammable than gasoline.”

Mountain Spirit’s two whiskies share the same recipe, and the owners distill all products at least twice: first through the stripping still, then through the final still. They use a New York state brewers malt, which contains different sugars than a distillers malt.

“There are a lot of non-fermentable sugars in the malt that are carrying over into our mash, and when we run that, those flavors carry over (into the spirit,)” Paquin says.

When the finished spirit flows, the owners immediately filter, proof and bottle some of the batch as Adirondack Glow, an unaged “white whiskey” similar to moonshine.

“You can definitely taste the corn that we use,” Whiteman says of the Adirondack Glow.

They put the rest of the batch on charred-oak chips to age. Eventually, they filter and bottle this portion as Workin’ Man’s, a “spirit distilled from grain and cane.” Paquin and Whiteman modeled this liquor after bourbon, but because it doesn’t spend at least two years in an oak barrel, they can’t legally label it as such. The recipe, however, does meet the legal requirements.

“It looks, tastes and smells just like a bourbon,” Whiteman says. And according to them, this production process affords some benefits.

“We can get a good age profile quicker than in a barrel,” Paquin says. He and Whiteman can control the flavor by adjusting the amount of chips they add and how burnt those chips are, which is known as the “toast.” The duo designed and built their activated-carbon filter, which uses charred-walnut chunks to pull out any lingering impurities.

According to law, 75 percent of Mountain Spirit’s total ingredients need to be products of New York. And this includes the whey they ferment to produce their vodka, Driven Snow.

An enzyme in the distillers yeast converts about half the whey’s lactose into glucose, a preferred sugar, which assures an excess of byproducts are not produced and retained within the vodka mash, Paquin says.

“It makes a nice clean product kind of early.”

He and Whiteman aim for 190 proof directly out of the still, and if the vodka’s proof drops lower, the flavor quality drops in tandem. When that happens, they simply send it through the  final still again.  

“I don’t care if we’re in a hurry; I don’t care what the deal is. We make sure to hit our marks. It will be that 190 proof,” Paquin says.

That determined attitude reverberates throughout the owners’ ethic and vision for both business and life. They still clock up to 60 hours a week at J. Hogan and often stop by the distillery after work.

“We’re a blue-collar distillery,” Paquin says. “We don’t call in a whole lot of help. We figure it out and do it ourselves.”

Paquin and Whiteman designed, built or modified most of their distilling equipment. They engineered their stripping still to run continuously and without supervision by adding an overflow safety switch. They also built the tank and hot-water heating system for their final still. Hot water is a safer alternative to the electric element of the stripping still, Paquin says.

Along the building’s back wall, the owners built their tasting room, open 5 to 9 p.m. on Fridays and 12 to 9 p.m. on Saturdays. With help from their families and some pine Paquin cut from his wood lot in Malone, New York,  they completed the woodsy tasting room. Live-edge pine boards cover the lower half of the walls, layered like shingles. The windows peer out over the aircraft ramp and to the mountains.

Mountain Spirit’s products have found their way to the liquor shelves of Bobby’s Lounge and Monopole in Plattsburgh; Indian Bay Marina in Willsboro; Fuzzy Ducks in Morrisonville; and Gioiosa’s Wine and Spirits, also in Plattsburgh. The owners bottle Adirondack Glow at 50 percent alcohol by volume and Workin’ Man’s at 40 percent. All Mountain Spirit liquors cost $32.50 per 750 mL bottle.  

Paquin and Whiteman have brought Plattsburgh its first distillery since prohibition, and they plan to eventually introduce gin and coffee-flavored vodka to their line of spirits.

According to Paquin, he has the business experience, and Whiteman has the young energy, ideas and ambition.   

And business aside, “We just want to have a good time,” Whiteman says. “There’s nothing better than making liquor.”

Issue 10: Winter/Spring 2018

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