A Trio of Women Take Over Saratoga Courage
A Look Inside Artisanal Brew Works in Saratoga
Remarkable Liquids Brings World-Class Craft Brews to Region
SARATOGA COURAGE DISTILLERY
This summer, Saratoga Courage, producer of the award-winning Pick Six Vodka, came under the controlling ownership of three women: Holly Shishik, Serene Mastrianni and Kellie Fisher, who now own the distillery with Kevin McCarthy. The tragic passing of Serge Shishik, who founded Saratoga Courage with his wife Holly, brought about this circumstance. It was Serge’s wish that the distillery remains under family control.
A women-owned distillery is very rare in the spirits industry, even in the craft spirits industry. Saratoga Courage, in all likelihood, is just one of three women owned distilleries in the northeastern U.S., with the others in Boston, New Hampshire and New York City. All are local craft distilleries. There are no women CEOs among the international and national distillers.
The small number of women in the craft beverage industry is surprising but expected. Surprising, because women are highly involved in producing and selling other craft edibles, including heirloom vegetable and heritage livestock farming. But homebrew and home winemaking supply shops report that 80 to 90 percent of their customers are men. Many of the craft beverage producers started as homebrewers or home winemakers.
Recently, women such as Marianne Barnes, Kentucky’s first female Master Distiller, are starting companies to create spirits that will be available beyond the local markets. She partnered with three men to purchase the Old Taylor Distillery, started in 1881. Barnes worked up the production ladder for years with Brown Foreman, owner of Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester. Surprisingly, her background was in chemical engineering.
A technical background is also something the ladies of Saratoga Courage share: They all have degrees in pharmacy. Holly is the only one who is currently a pharmacist; Serene and Kellie are account executives for pharmaceutical and medical companies. Also, the three are relatives, sisters in-law and cousins. And McCarthy is Uncle Kevin.
The three women are in charge of sales, marketing and product development. Kevin is in charge of production, and he should be, as a retired GE executive with extensive production experience. Serge, who was also a pharmacist, created a proprietary elaborate gravityfed filtering system that produces the extremely clean tasting and smooth Pick Six vodka. It takes someone with Kevin’s background to manage the system.
Unbeknownst to many drinkers, it is the quality of the water that creates the taste in vodka. Some vodka aficionados prefer that the vodka has some hint of the product that it was distilled from. However, most prefer their vodka with a clean, crisp taste. The final taste profile comes from water, which is used to bring the nearly 100 percent alcohol content of the distilled liquid down to a drinkable 40 to 50 percent.
The taste quality of the well water is why Serge chose to purchase that particular rural Saratoga County property for the distillery. And it is the primary reason, as well as having been distilled six times, that the vodka has received so many regional and national awards and is the prime source of the distillery’s current success.
Saratoga Courage also produces a line of “moonshines”—flavored vodkas that are simply line extensions. Developing other spirits is the key to future growth. The ladies said that they are considering bourbon since it is the current “hot” craft spirit. When asked if they ever considered developing a gin—a neutral spirit flavored with herbs and other botanicals—the answer was “also under consideration.” Historically, pharmacists blended herbs, botanicals and other substances to create medicines.
Although the distillery has the appearance of a production plant, it hardly has the feel of a workplace. Perhaps it is because they are family and have a similar background. It also may be that they are just having fun producing the best possible product—the primary reason one usually enters into the craft beverage business.
ARTISANAL BREW WORKS
Having fun while producing something you are passionate about is why Kurt Borchardt and Colin Quinn created Artisanal Brew Works in Saratoga Springs. Kurt and Colin are full-time teachers at Saratoga High School. Their passion for beer, especially brewing beer to accommodate their discerning tastes, and for homebrewing led them to create a business that revolves around that passion.
Artisanal Brew Works has a tasting room that befits a craft beer brewery. The production facility has the high-tech look of a clean, slick and modern factory. This is in part because Kevin had a long career as a chemical engineer for International Paper and GE before deciding to go back to school and be a teacher. His engineering background enables the brewery to seamlessly produce their beloved brews: Belgium style beers.
That love for Belgium beers led Kurt to do something unique—create a room in the brewery that looks like a cross between a clean room and a lab. It is here that Kevin, using his chemical engineering experience, creates their own proprietary yeasts for Belgium style beers, which they use to brew three Belgium style beers. They even use a number system on the tasting room taps, just as the monks traditionally did.
They also try to use New York State ingredients as much as possible, always exceeding the minimum mandated by their license. One of their Belgium style beers is brewed solely with New York state hops. Other beers include various IPAs, English style ales and seasonals that are all brewed with a high percentage of New York hops and malts.
Presently, their beers are available only at a few locations such as The Local in Saratoga. So visiting the brewery is a must. The tasting room is a cozy, crafty kind of place, offering live music, in addition to their beers. On Sundays, football games are shown on their two large TVs.
Whenever we visit our niece and her husband in Boston, he and I always try to sneak out for a few at Jack’s Abby Brewery, which makes some of the world’s best beers. Jack’s Abby beers have won numerous awards. They include gold medals from the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival, the U.S. craft beer industry’s singular event. But alas, they were not available outside the greater Boston area—until now.
Earlier this year, a visit to the local beverage center brought a delightful surprise: They had a variety of Jack’s Abby beers. After making a few inquiries, I discovered that the beers came from a small, five-year-old Altamont distributor, Remarkable Liquids.
Remarkable Liquids is the offspring of Spencer Noakes and his partners. Spencer was an accountant working for a large firm; it was just a job to him but afforded him a well-endowed lifestyle. At that time, craft beers were on the rise, and craft beers became Spencer’s passion. However, access to craft beers was exceedingly difficult. So sensing a need, and being bored with his profession, he began distributing craft beers in Central New York. His part-time endeavor evolved into a full-time job. Shortly thereafter, the company, Premier Beverage, was purchased by a much larger beer distributor.
After Spencer worked for the large company for a number of years, dissatisfaction set in because craft beers were only a small part of what the company offered. So he and a number of other employees left to form Remarkable Liquids, intending to create a company that only offered world class craft beverages.
They certainly succeed in meeting that goal. In addition to Jack’s Abby, offerings include Kentucky’s Against The Grain , Westchester County’s Captain Lawrence, Brooklyn’s Evil Twin, Bronx’s Gun Hill, Troy’s Rare Form, Granville’s Slyboro Cider House ciders, and Albany’s Nine Pin Cider Works’ ciders. They are also the importer of De Brabandere Brouwerij, Freigeist, Kulmbacher, Mahrs-Brau, Mikkeller, Brouwerijvan Steenberge and many other artisanal beers, ciders and meads.
It is remarkable for a small local distributor to succeed when the competition is two huge local companies with exclusive rights from the two dominant beer companies in the world, AB InBev and SABMiller. The big boys also distribute craft beers. However, the production volume necessary to meet the big boys’ minimum precludes most small craft beer brewers from that distribution channel. The only options left are self-distribution or firms such as Remarkable Liquids.
Remarkable Liquids is small only when compared to the other guys. They are a large, highly efficient facility that is constantly moving goods throughout the state. Their success enables them to remain true to their mission of offering only world-class artisanal beverages. And we are the beneficiaries.
Saratoga Courage Distillery
Artisanal Brew Works
41 Geyser Rd., Saratoga Springs
Northeastern Industrial Park, Altamont