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Clayton Distillery: An Emerging Spirit in the Thousand Islands

Alcohol production is big business in New York right now. The New York State Brewer’s Association is just shy of 100 registered breweries at the moment, and the New York Wine & Grape Foundation is reporting 320 major wineries in the state (as well as an astounding 1,438 small family vineyards on record). Hard liquor distilleries aren’t quite as abundant, numbering slightly fewer than 40 major facilities throughout the state. “Distilleries are certainly less frequent than the microbreweries or independent vineyards, but the number is catching up,” explained Michael Aubertine, managing partner and operator of the Clayton Distillery located in the Thousand Islands-Seaway Region of New York. “There’s been four others under construction in New York State since we opened, so it’s not unreasonable to expect distilleries to start seeing the same level of interest from the public.”

Though hard to fathom considering the emphasis on small business in Northern New York, especially on that of alcohol, Clayton Distillery is the premier location to find independently produced spirits north of the Adirondacks. “There’s no feeling of exclusion at all with the local vineyards and breweries,” clarified Mr. Aubertine. “We’re all in the same boat together, so there’s plenty of camaraderie between the local entrepreneurs.”

Opened in April of 2013 by three liquor enthusiasts (Mr. Aubertine, and two business partners: Roger Howard and Michael Ingerson), the business became a notable fixture of the Thousand Islands area when the doors were opened on the company’s brand new 2,560-square-foot facility on Route 12.  The road runs parallel to the St. Lawrence River, west to east, until it merges after 50 miles into Route 37, near Ogdensburg.

Two of the founders are well versed in construction practices — one, an architect and another a construction manager — having worked on multimillion dollar building projects. It comes as no surprise, then, that the facility was meticulously designed for maximum functionality, as well as an accommodating, rustic ambience. It’s a modest building, able to house all the necessary equipment needed to produce gin, vodka and moonshine, among other spirits. Half of the building is a well-stocked merchandise shop, illuminated entirely by natural light. One can purchase sweatshirts, snifters, caps and (of course) bottles of liquor in the shop, all emblazoned with the company’s elegant “C” logo.

The room’s main focus is a tasting bar about 15 feet wide, where visitors can sample the available liquors, either straight or mixed, and also chew on assorted bar snacks. During my visit, the enthusiastic Jackie Singer was distributing samples, walking patrons through her personal opinions of the drinks and how they differ in taste from those of the larger, corporate spirits producers. Even though it’s located a short drive from the towns and attractions lining the St. Lawrence River rather than within walking distance of a hotel like some of the local wineries, the founders have successfully curated the facility’s features to justify the travel.

The founding of the distillery resulted from relatively simple motives, and, as with many of the Northern New York alcohol producers with whom I’ve spoken, they can be traced back to the proprietors’ enthusiasm for learning the trade. As Mr. Aubertine became interested in the process, he began researching the steps to start an enterprise, took some classes on distilling and began planning construction of the facility.

A natural extension of the practices of founders’ backgrounds as contractors, the new Clayton Distillery facilities are LEED-certified, meaning they were designed with the intent to “save energy, use fewer resources, reduce pollution and contribute to healthier environments for their occupants and the community.” Mr. Aubertine cited 10 years of designing other LEED-certified, as well as a desire to have a positive impact on the community and landscape around the distillery, as obvious motivation. The building is currently in a self-described “Phase 1” of construction, with two more in the works. The current five-year plan will result in a wing for extended retail space, restrooms and offices, followed by an expansion of storage space.

At the moment, the distillery only has two liquors available for purchase: the Flagship Vodka and Two Dog Moonshine, both produced exclusively from corn. Pending the approval and return of paperwork filed with the state government, the facility will begin sale of limoncello, a lemon-flavored liqueur made from local citrus. Though uncertain of how long the approval process would take, Mr. Aubertine figured the autumn season would be a reasonable expectation for release. Additionally, he informed me that local strawberries, rhubarb and maple syrup would be finding their way into future production of Rhubarb Fraise and Maple Bourbon, respectively. As with all of their products, these will be for sale exclusively on the premises in Clayton.

With hours available for visit seven days a week, and an impossible-to-miss facility located on Route 12 in Clayton, the Distillery is an easy addition to the itinerary of your next foray into the North Country.

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