By Peter Boody
After years of dreaming, planning and intense work, Dean Foster and his brewer-still man Matt Beamer last week fed their first load of homegrown potatoes into the fermentation tanks at the Sagaponack Farm Distillery just over the railroad tracks on Sagg Road.
Called a “mashing in,” it marked a milestone in Mr. Foster’s longstanding plan to save a family farm that has been struggling ever since potato prices began to drop over the past decade as a result, he believes, of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Five days later, on Monday, January 30, Mr. Beamer threw a valve to let the resulting pale beer-like liquid into the towering copper and stainless steel contraption that is their massive Bavarian-Holstein still. If H.G. Wells had built a space ship in 1895, it might have looked just like this.
After about five hours of heating, cooling, condensing and circulating from pot to hat to reflux tower and on to spirit safe, the red potato distillate — as clear now as vodka — was to go into charred oak barrels to age and become a sipping spirit akin to the best of whiskeys.
Messrs. Foster and Beamer have a good idea what it will taste like. They’ve made it before using an exact replica of the still, 40 times smaller, which Bavarian-Holstein set up for them in a shed behind the distillery building so they could practice while waiting for the real thing. The big one arrived from Germany in multiple crates on three flatbeds last summer. It’s taken all these months since then to get the final approval from the Suffolk County Department of Health to begin operations. The permit came a week before the first mashing in.
“We’ve had this barreled up for over a year now,” Mr. Foster said of the cask-aged red-potato sipping spirit, which he legally can’t call a whiskey because it’s not made from grain and for which he has yet to think of a proper name.
“It just keeps getting better and better,” Mr. Foster said. “We’re getting a feel for the 10-gallon barrel and the question is when do we stop.” Meanwhile, samples have been delicious. “These red potatoes actually have a strawberry note,” he confided, describing the drink as “a mix between a bourbon and a Scotch and something else.”
Mr. Foster and his sister Marilee, who retails produce from the main family farm at her stand down the road in Sagaponack Village, have grown red, blue and white potatoes for the distillery. After putting all the reds and blues and some of the whites they have on hand into casks, they’ll use the rest to make Sagaponacka Vodka, which will require a longer and trickier distilling process but no aging.
Mr. Foster hopes to have Sagaponacka available at the tasting room he’s setting up next to the distillery by sometime this coming summer. It also will be available at local and New York City liquor stores.
Messrs. Foster and Beamer have been talking about a farm distillery for years, every time Mr. Foster went out to snowboard in Utah. A Michigan native, Mr. Beamer is married to Mr. Foster’s cousin and, until moving to the farmhouse next to the distillery building more than three years ago, he lived in Utah, where he made a name for himself as an award-winning craft brewer after founding the Park City Brewing Co. and working for 11 years at the Wasatch Brewery.
Making the switch to vodka and whiskey-type spirits is not a big leap, he said. “Whiskeys are what beers want to be when they grow up,” he said with a laugh, explaining that the liquid that goes into the still is essentially a potato beer.
The distillery is located at the former Kominsky farm, which the Fosters bought a few years ago.