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Whiskey hits the Wine Trail in Niagara County

CAMBRIA – Three talented friends have taken their homebrewing skills to a new level with the opening of their Niagara Craft Spirits Distillery and Tasting Room – a first in Niagara County.

The three award-winning homebrewers spent the past year turning the 1957 building at 4408 Ridge Road, Cambria, into this unique business. It originally served as Beyer’s Drive-In, a popular custard stand for nearly 30 years.

The three distillery owners, Joe Nardecchia, Todd Snyder and Keith Curtachio, largely use local ingredients. They handcraft and sell their premium product – 1808 Silver Corn Whiskey, an unaged spirit handmade from traditional corn mash – as well as an 1808 Gin, on site. A Cherry-Wood Smoked Corn Whiskey has been fermenting and will soon be ready to tap into as well.

Their theme is, “Great Spirits, Small Batches.”

In the homebrewing world, where the three initially met, Nardecchia and Snyder are nationally ranked judges, while Curtachio has been teaching brewing classes at Niagara Tradition Homebrew in Kenmore for years.

Watching friends open many of the Niagara Frontier’s new breweries, they decided to take a less traveled road and open a distillery, scouting locations in Niagara County.

“It was a bit of a leap of faith,” Snyder admitted. “But, we all have good palates, and we had a feeling we’d make pretty good whiskey.”

“We came here because we wanted to be on the Niagara Wine Trail,” Curtachio said. “We’re looking to be a tourism business. We wanted to start small and not be a mass distributor.

“We looked at buildings elsewhere in Niagara County, but Cambria just jumped out,” he said. “We saw the ‘Right to Farm’ signs and it’s just very friendly.

“This building had (last) been a restaurant, the Cambria Café, and everything started falling into place,” he added.

The son of the original owners, Ken Beyer, still lives next door, and “he’s very excited to see the building in use again,” Curtachio said.

Beyer, whose parents, Richard and Alene, started Beyer’s Drive-In, said, “I make beer and wine as a hobby, but these guys are serious and they’re doing it on a business scale.

“I’m glad to see it,” he added. “I hope they do well. They’ve put a lot of work into bringing the building back into good shape. I think it’s a good thing.”

The trio closed on the building in December 2014 and made their first batch of 1808 corn whiskey on Nov. 1 of this year.

They did most of the remodeling work themselves, adding touches like pine for the bar and ash for beams in the tasting room culled from Snyder’s father’s farm in Whitney Point, N.Y.

All three have a connection with the University at Buffalo. Nardecchia is a UB graduate, while Snyder and Curtachio work there. A Western New York native and current Cheektowaga resident, Nardecchia is a tax auditor for the state of Illinois. Snyder is an environmental engineer who lives in Williamsville, while Curtachio, of Amherst, is an information technology director.

The three brought their own individual skills to this new venture and rely on each other as they create their products.

“Distilling is a lot of science and a little art,” Curtachio said.

Snyder concurred, adding, “Brewing is the key – you can’t make good whiskey without good mash.”

The trio creates its mash with corn from farms in Niagara and Oneida counties. The business is a New York State Farm Distillery, which requires that it must use at least 75 percent New York State agricultural ingredients in its products.

The process starts at the corn silo, which holds eight to 10 tons of dried corn. From there, the corn is ground into meal, “which looks a little gelatinous,” once it rests in the “mash pot,” Curtachio explained on a recent tour.

Next, it’s cooked to convert starches to sugar and cane sugar is added to increase the alcohol content and add character to the finished product. The mash is cooled to allow yeast to be added and the yeast feeds on the sugars to produce alcohol during the fermentation process.

Once the fermentation is complete, the mash is transferred to one of three small-batch, Kentucky copper stills where the alcohol is boiled off and collected. The final result is a farm to bottle whiskey with “a smooth character,” which the trio said may be sipped or used as a base for a favorite cocktail.

The spent grain, incidentally, goes to a local farmer to feed his very happy pigs, Curtachio noted. He said it also makes “beautiful compost.”

Curtachio said that the point where, “The liquid goes into the stills is where the magic starts.”

As the liquid heats up in the stills, the men extract some to taste.

“This part is the art,” Curtachio said. “We have to get past the head and determine where to make the cut. This is done with our noses and by taste. Moonshiners will tell you they take the first quart (off to dispense of). This is not an exact science.”

Why is it called 1808?

“Because that was the founding of Cambria,” Curtachio said. “The town has really embraced us, and we’ve been embracing its history.”

And, he added, it’s called “silver” because of its clear color.

The distillery is usually in production on Saturdays and a small window allows patrons in the tasting room to peer in and view the three copper stills “cooking” or distilling the spirits.

Snyder said, “We can turn around white whiskey in a week. But, you don’t know until it’s ready.”

Snyder and Curtachio spent a recent afternoon passing samples pulled from the still back and forth to determine its readiness. They also ran samples out to Nardecchia, who was manning the retail end that afternoon in the adjoining tasting room, for his input.

Curtachio explained, “Everyone’s palate is different. What you’re tasting is different from what someone else tastes.”

Snyder added, “It will always be a little different, in small-batch production.”

The distillery’s small oak barrels contain its whiskey, which is aging to create classic American bourbon in coming months.

When exactly?

It’s impossible to say, but aging is determined by the size of the barrel and by temperatures, so Curtachio said their small barrels will expedite the process.

While the three have long belonged to the Niagara Association of Homebrewers and have experimented with beer-making for decades at home, one must be licensed to distill spirits. Curtachio said they went through extensive state and federal background checks in pursuit of their distillery licenses.

Their products are 88 proof, which means they contain 44 percent alcohol, Nardecchia explained.

“Most spirits are 40 percent alcohol, so they’re 80 proof,” he said. “We picked the numbers 88, because it works well for us and sets us a little apart from the others.”

Cambria resident Jackie DeLorenzo recently stopped into the tasting room and ended up taking an impromptu tour of the production area with her husband.

“I tried the 1808 silver and it was very smooth and delicious,” DeLorenzo said. “I remember when this was a custard stand and was very surprised to see that they had started this business here.

“I thought, ‘Let’s stop in and try it,’ ” she said. “We live around the corner and are on the Niagara Wine Trail and see all of the buses and limos and it’s all very exciting. We’re right in the middle of it and I love it.”

The tasting room is open from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturdays for the winter months.

A taste flight with souvenir shot glass is $3 for three quarter-ounce samples.

They sell their products in 375-and 750-milliliter bottles.

They also serve a “White Niagara” signature cocktail, made with their 1808 Silver Corn Whiskey and a few drops of maple syrup produced by Snyder’s father’s farm.

For updates, visit: http://niagaracraftspirits.com; https://facebook.com/NiagaraCraftSpirits/ or https://twitter.com/ncsdistillery.