By Deb Everts
Ellicottville Distillery is about to launch New York Craft Honey Spirit — made with locally crafted honey — hopefully in early December, according to Distiller Bryan Scharf.
To craft the spirit, he ferments honey to mead, then distills it to a spirit, which is an ancient process that requires time, patience and dedication similar to distilling spirits made from grain.
“Mead is classified as a wine but, because it’s honey, it’s under its own classification,” he said. “Like the other spirits — vodka, whiskey and bourbon — it gets distilled in a copper still and smells like honey while it’s fermenting.”
Local beekeeper Bob Brachmann of Little Valley supplies the honey used for the mead. Scharf has coordinated with him to keep some of his bees on his property near the distillery. His interest in distilling mead began about five years ago when Brachmann originally put bees behind his father’s house across the street, and it evolved from there.
“I was learning about it as I dabbled with it on my own and it carried over to this business because it was something I was passionate about,” he said. “I like doing it and I like the way it tastes. It actually has a real nice character to it.”
Scharf said Brachmann brings the honey to him in five-gallon buckets. The process is a little tedious because it takes a couple of hours just to get the honey thinned and diluted; it’s also a sticky mess. For the most part, Scharf does this process on his own.
Because the process is such a different concept for some people, Scharf said it can be a little confusing, but it’s keeping with his focus of using 100 percent local agricultural products such as grains and, now, honey.
According to Scharf, honey is 80-82 percent sugar, so it has to be diluted with water at the ratio of three-pounds of honey to one-gallon of water, which results in 15 percent alcohol. He said the fermentation makes it into alcohol.
“Since 82 percent sugar doesn’t ferment, it has to be diluted before fermenting,” he said. “I take it the next step farther by distilling the mead, then putting it in oak barrels, which makes it a really interesting spirit. It’s light and not a sweet spirit, but you can taste the honey in it.”
Scharf said making a honey spirit from 100 percent honey is not done very often. It’s a challenge because it’s expensive and it can be difficult to find a good source of raw honey. He said a lot of distillers infuse their spirits with honey, while his product is truly a spirit derived from 100 percent honey. He said when bottled, it will be 40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof.
According to Scharf, his new honey spirit is going to be a limited release and he’ll have only about 400 bottles available. He said the process uses about 1,500 pounds of honey, so there is an incredible 3½ pounds of honey in each bottle.
The Ellicottville Distillery officially opened its doors for business in October 2016. In addition to being chief distiller, Scharf also manages the distillery and is in charge of most of the day-to-day operations. His partners, Charlie and Liz Bares of Ellicottville, own the farmlands where the corn and barley crops are grown making the distillery self-sustaining and allowing it to operate independently. Scharf said the ability to grow their own products sets them apart, unlike most distilleries that buy commodity grain.
The distillery currently offers the more traditional corn whiskey and vodka. Along with honey spirits, he hopes to add other products in the future including a line of 100 percent corn bourbon that he’s currently working on but, he said, won’t be released for two more years.
“There’s a demand for bourbon and it doesn’t go bad. Alcohol mellows with age. The longer it sits, the better it gets,” he said.
According to Scharf, the building housing the distillery is owned by his father, Don Scharf, who often helps him, and is an ideal place for a distillery with high ceilings and ample space. The interior of the building has a 40-by-60-foot open floor plan that was newly renovated last year to accommodate the distillery and retail area. It has a tasting room with a beautiful copper-topped bar, and upstairs there is a mezzanine for bottles and storage. The fermentors and still are downstairs, along with a bottling and labeling area, and a retail space.
Ellicottville Distillery is located at 5462 Robbins Road near Ashford Junction. Public tastings are currently held on Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m.
For more information, visit the distillery online at www.ellicottvilledistillery.com, Facebook or Instagram.