Published September 2, 2016
Keith Curtachio, Todd Snyder and Joe Nardecchia, three local award-winning homebrewers, watched friends in Buffalo’s craft beer movement open many of the region’s new breweries.
The three UB colleagues, who share a passion for handcrafted products, wondered, “What can we do that might be different?”
The answer led the trio into a beverage boomlet that is gaining strength and numbers for the first time since Prohibition: micro-distilleries.
Curtachio, Snyder and Nardecchia spent most of 2015 refurbishing and refitting a 1957 diner and custard stand in Cambria, turning the building into the Niagara Crafts Spirits Distillery and Tasting Room — a unique stop on the Niagara Wine Trail and Niagara County’s first micro-distillery.
The three create handcrafted, premium whiskey, gin and bourbon, distilled and sold on site.
The friends met through their homebrewing skills — Nardecchia and Snyder are nationally ranked judges and Curtachio taught aspiring beer makers for years at Niagara Tradition Homebrew. They also share a UB connection.
Curtachio, a 1987 UB graduate, is director of information technology for the Faculty Student Association. Snyder, who received a master’s degree from UB in civil engineering in 1996, is an instructional support specialist in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Nardecchia, a tax auditor for the state of Illinois, graduated cum laude from the School of Management in 2003.
“We were interested in starting a tourism-related business,” says Nardecchia. “After some discussion among us — and a bit of research — we decided the Niagara Wine Trail was where we wanted to be. We wanted to add another dimension to what they offered.
“We looked at buildings around Niagara County in the fall of 2014, and found one on the wine trail in Cambria we felt would work. We saw the “Right to Farm” signs and the town was very welcoming, so that worked for us as well.”
“We ended up naming our product line ‘1808’ after Cambria, in a way,” says Curtachio. “That was the year the town and Niagara County were founded.”
After knowing each other for years after meeting through homebrewing competitions and beer judging programs, Snyder says the three trust each other’s palates: “We had a feeling we would be able to make pretty good whiskey and gin.
“Distilling is a lot of science and a little art,” he says. “And it is a lot of the art that gives you the flavors.”
“To be a good distiller, it helps to be a cook and it helps to be a brewer,” adds Curtachio.
“You are blending flavors and as the distilling process progresses, you start doing the cuts. That is, you want to take the ‘heads’ — the harsher elements, acetone and methanol — out first. You do it off the top, cautiously, by taste. These are not elements that you want to be consuming.”
Niagara Crafts Spirits products, distilled in new Kentucky copper stills, come out of the distillation process between 160 and 180 proof and are then brought down to the trio’s chosen alcohol content: 88 proof.
“That is 44 percent alcohol,” Nardecchia explains. “To get our gin down from 180 to 88, for example, we use specially filtered water — what we call ‘reverse osmosis water’ — slowly added to reach 88 proof.”
At that point, the distilled product will be Niagara Crafts Spirits 1808 Gin.
“It is a very flavor-forward gin,” says Curtachio, “a light, clean taste achieved with a botanicals mix of juniper, fennel, coriander, a little cardamom and lemon and lime peels that is added to a ‘gin basket’ at the top of the still during the distilling process.
“In small-batch production, it is always a little different each time. This is where the handcrafting comes in. None of it is wrong — it’s just what you want the product to taste like,” he says.
The trio’s first products were 1808 Silver Corn Whiskey (an unaged spirit handmade from traditional corn mash), as well as 1808 Gin. A Cherry-Wood Smoked Corn Whiskey has been fermenting, and there is also 1808 Gold Bourbon, aging in small barrels.
“We can turn around our white whiskey in a week,” Snyder says. “Bourbon must be aged — for months or years.
“We distill bourbon in small batches and age it in hand-crafted barrels: new five-gallon, charred American white oak. This allows us to produce a depth of rich flavors that are reminiscent of big batch bourbons that are aged for several years.
“But brewing is the key. You can’t make good whiskey without good mash,” he says.
Curtachio, Snyder and Nardecchia create their mash with corn from farms in Niagara and Oneida counties. Their business is a New York State Farm Distillery, required by law to use at least 75 percent New York State agricultural ingredients in their products.
Being located in farm country on the Niagara Wine Trail helps to keep the business local.
“Our corn comes right from the farmers here — our neighbors — delivered to our silo out back,” Nardecchia says. “We use the corn for our whiskey, bourbon and gin. Any leftover spent grain goes back to the farms as feed for livestock.
“We also take wine from any of the wineries that wasn’t bottled for one reason or another, which we distill and turn into handcrafted gin. We accept product leftovers from any of the other businesses on the wine trail, which not only includes wine, but also mead and hard cider,” he says.
Nardecchia adds that Niagara Crafts Spirits is focused on producing as little waste as possible: “Sustainability — how we operate our business — is very important to us.”
That commitment extended to remodeling the former Cambria Café, which now houses their business.
“We did most of our own remodeling work,” Curtachio says. “The ash beams in the ceiling are from Todd’s father’s farm in Broome County, N.Y. We created the bar out of a slab of solid pine to give the tasting room the right look.
“The son of the original owners still lives next door and he is excited to see the building coming back to life.”
“We are making a commitment to the community,” says Snyder. “We love being here and we want our visitors to enjoy their visit and feel comfortable coming back.”
Niagara Crafts Spirits Distillery and Tasting Room is located at 4408 Ridge Road, Cambria. The tasting room is open from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and from 1-5 p.m. on Sundays.
Now through Dec. 17, members of the UB community with a valid UB Card will receive a 10 percent discount on bottled spirits and gift items.
Products are sold in 375-and 750-milliliter bottles. A tasting flight with a souvenir 3-oz. shot glass is $7 and includes sampling of the spirit either straight up or with mixers.
There are several signature cocktails available in the tasting room as well.