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Rum-making in spirit of the law

Prohibition has been dead for more than 80 years, but only recently has alcohol production again begun to flow in Buffalo.

The city gets its second craft spirit maker Saturday when Black Squirrel Distillery opens to the public, offering its first 200 bottles of rum-like spirits.

Recent changes to state laws have made it cheaper and easier for small upstarts to open distilleries, sparking a boomlet of local craft spirit makers. The New York Farm Distillery Law greatly reduced licensing fees and allowed distillers to sell spirits directly to consumers on site by the glass. That gives distilleries the ability to open tasting rooms, which attract customers and tourists, and help increase sales. Changes to state laws also have made it easier for small upstarts to get into the distilling business, as long as they source more than half of their raw materials from within New York State.

To make Black Squirrel, maple syrup is fermented, distilled in a traditional copper-columned pot, then aged in French or American oak. Everything about that process is identical to the way rum is produced, except for its use of maple syrup instead of sugar cane, sugar cane juice or molasses.

That slight distinction is what prevents Black Squirrel from being classified as rum, but it’s also what makes Black Squirrel’s existence in New York State possible. Since there’s no sugar production here, and distillers are required to use state ingredients, Black Squirrel swapped out sugar for local maple syrup from the New York Maple Exchange in East Concord. The distillery’s production uses about 600 pounds of maple syrup per week. The drink is not maple flavored, but drinkers may detect a hint of maple in the finish.

“Everything about it screams rum, but it’s its own thing, like Bailey’s or Jagermeister,” said Jason Schwinger, who co-founded Black Squirrel with partners Matthew Pelkey and Brian Fending. “Our hope is that in the future, when someone makes a rum-style spirit with maple syrup, people will say, ‘Oh, you’re making Black Squirrel.’ ”

From the outside, the quaint, peach-colored structure at 1595 Elmwood Ave. near Amherst Street looks more like a tiny beach house than a liquor distillery.

The owners said they were aiming for the vibe of a speakeasy crossed with a sugar shack. There is no traditional sign adorning the building, just the silhouette of a squirrel above the door, made from blackened planks of wood. Inside, the former diner evokes a well-used juke joint, all distressed wood and exposed rafters.

The actual distillery in the back is off limits, but the tasting room in front is open to the public and has space to hold 40 people. There, a slab of polished maple wood balances atop oak barrels. Black and white photos on the walls show the various stages of maple production, along with some old portraits of Prohibition-era, rum-running families.

Indeed, much about Black Squirrel’s aura recalls the Prohibition era. The bottle’s hand-dipped wax seal is patterned after early 1900s bottling methods. The name Black Squirrel is a nod to Canadian distillers secreting booze across the American border during Prohibition, something like the way the dark Canadian species of critter discreetly made its way here from Ontario.

And Schwinger is proud to tell of his great-grandmother Anna Hartmann, a woman who he says ran a speakeasy in a now-demolished building on the very same corner of Elmwood Avenue and Amherst Street.

The distilleries now popping up in the city are the first ones to do so since Prohibition wiped them out nearly a century ago. Though requirements have eased, liquor production is still regulated to the teeth. Even today, it’s a felony to own a still without the right government papers.

But several local entrepreneurs have leaped at the chance to try their hand at the age-old craft.

Lockhouse Distillery has been making vodka at 255 Great Arrow Ave. since 2013. Next up will be Niagara Distilling Co., which is readying its space at 459 Ellicott St. to make gluten-free spirits from scratch, including its Scarecrow vodka, 1812 gin, and Cobblestone moonshine, bourbon and rye. It has an enclosed glass tasting room and retail store.

The Larkin District will get two new distilleries this spring. Buffalo Distilling Co., which makes bourbon and apple brandy, will move to 860 Seneca St. May 1. It has been producing spirits on a farm in Wyoming County since 2012, but will expand its operations at its new location in the city, adding hop-infused vodka, gin or whiskey, and possibly aged rye or single-malt whiskey. Housed in a 120-year-old building, it features a “retro-industrial” tasting room.

Just a half mile away at 500 Seneca St., Tommyrotter Distillery will make vodka and gin infused with herbs, flowers and spices. Its tasting room will be perched on a mezzanine overlooking the production floor.

And Lakeward Spirits is making a home in a long-empty warehouse on Vandalia Street in the Old First Ward, where it will make whiskey, gin and botanical infusions.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com