By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN –The rickhouse, where fine whiskey is aged, is bright, high-ceilinged, and there’s 7,000 square feet of it.
And the 550 barrels of aged whiskey it stores today – en route to 1,500 – will allow Cooperstown Distillery’s brands to compete with the best whiskeys in the world, proprietor Gene Marra will tell you.
“This elevates us to the status of the Big Boys,” said Marra, who, believing in the power of “The Cooperstown Brand,” has been operating and expanding prize-winning offerings from the plant at Railroad Avenue and Leatherstocking Street for seven-plus years now.
The 7,500-square-foot two-floor addition, begun last October, is among the largest private projects in the village in decades, and the first time the village has applied for a CDBG (federal Community Development Block Grant) – $100,000 – to help a private entity expand.
“It’s a big deal!” exclaimed Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh Kuch. “It’s important that businesses know the village is willing to work with them on this type of expansion and development.” Not just manufacturing, she added, “but apartments – in the right location – to increase our housing stock.”
Otsego Now CEO Jody Zakrevsky said the county IDA assisted in the financing, one, because it contributes to Cooperstown as a tourist destination and, two, the project doubles the distillery’s workforce from five to a dozen employees.
The expansion was further made possible through new investors Marra identified, who may be introduced at an official ribbon-cutting, delayed by the coronavirus threat to perhaps sometime in July.
“They very much believe in Cooperstown whiskey becoming a national, even international, brand in the near future,” the owner said.
The new initiative has been on Marra’s mind for a while, he said in an interview, but was inspired most recently in 2019 when Cooper’s Legacy Bourbon received 95 points – a “Liquid Gold” rating – in Jim Murray’s Whisky (the Brits spell it without an “e”) Bible.
Murray, who lives in Britain but has a second home in Frankfort, Ky., the heart of bourbon-making country, is the foremost arbiter of whiskey (the Yanks use an “e’) in the world, receiving several thousand bottles a year to test.
Marra, a restaurateur since he was 26 and later a vineyard owner as well, came to Cooperstown in 2009 as a consultant to Michael Moffat’s Blue Mingo restaurant, and returned in 2013 with wife Montell, daughter Clara and son Gabriel. (Clara, a rising junior, is working for her dad while waiting for college to reopen.)
Marra and his team – it is now led by Daran Bottger, Ames, head distiller, and Mike Deflumere, New Berlin, assistant distiller, both trained at Cornell – have developed their own brands from the start, beginning in 2013 with lilac-flavored Fenimore Gin, Glimmerglass Vodka and Beanball Bourbon.
The distillery’s last few years have been focused on the “Cooperstown Select Whiskey Portfolio” – a bourbon, rye, American whiskey and, Marra said, the “soon to be released,” Cooperstown Select Single Malt Whiskey, “an American interpretation of Scotch whiskey.”
The proprietor calls them “ultra-premium whiskeys,” which will retail for $50-70 a bottle.
“We’ve been making young whiskey,” Marra said, “which is good, but now we’re developing more aged whiskey, which is what the market is clamoring for. It establishes us as a noteworthy whiskey producer.”
What’s happening now “is about being able to have a library of aged whiskeys that can be released, with more character, more finesse, and will ultimately command a higher price in the market, particularly the five-year-old brands.”
The expanded brewery – it’s gone from one still, to two and, now, to four – is also introducing its Cane High Spiced Rum and an apple brandy, “made from locally sourced apples from Cherry Valley,” the publicity says.
All the grain used to distill these new products is Upstate grown, by century-old Inverness Farm in Canajoharie. Plus, the barrels that store the liquor are made of Upstate wood.
As it has in the past, tours will begin again, probably in July. “We see the rickhouse as a site for private events and parties,” Marra said. “It’s a viable reception/wedding site. There’s a lot of potential.”
By Labor Day, the distillery also plans to open the Saratoga Beverage Exchange on that
community’s Broad Street, similar to the Cooperstown Beverage Exchange at Main and Pioneer, and featuring such brands as Saratoga Revolutionary Rum, Victory Vodka and Back-Stretch Bourbon. “We’re super excited about that,” Marra said.