Take a stretch limo to New York's first legal weed harvest then watch William H. Macy play a ukelele
I did, so why don't you?
Seems just like yesterday I was riding the Amtrak, blissed out on fall foliage and en route to New York State’s first legal cannabis harvest at Beak & Skiff just outside Syracuse. Turns out that was actually in October and we are now just weeks away from a new year, as I was helpfully reminded by Wendy Gillette, a television reporter for CBS News and Bloomberg, who I ran into at the launch party of actor William H. Macy’s alcohol brand, Woody Creek Distillers at Ploume—the ritzy subterranean lounge within the buzzy new NoMad spot, The Ivory Peacock. Sorry for the delay—I was living!
Macy, the actor you probably know from his performances in the Oscar-nominated Fargo and Emmy-nominated Shameless, is now in the liquor game as the company’s Chief Storytelling Officer (a great job title!). Playing us a ditty on his ukulele, this marked my second bizarre run-in with Wendy. The first being the aforementioned jaunt to Beak & Skiff, a bustling apple orchard, bakery and general store, distillery, cidery, concert venue, bed & breakfast, and now ambitious pioneer of New York’s newly minted legal cannabis space where we ended the evening doing an impromptu whiskey tasting in a stretch limo. And now this: William H. Macy on a ukulele, promoting whiskey (among other spirits).
Is it the weed and alcohol being weird, or just me? Wendy turned around her piece a lot faster than I did, which you can watch here:
So, how did I get from here to there?
Many moons ago, I was just minding my own business living in Chicago, unsuccessfully home brewing massive batches of craft beer and DIY hard cider I could never finish or seem to get rid of, when I started noticing it: heirloom ciders. Unlike the ubiquitous gross, overly saccharine, commercial-produced hard ciders, these were interesting and not to mention really good.
Until that point, most bars only carried Woodchuck or Magner’s, so the idea of distinguishing foreign heirloom apple varietals from Yakima Valley and Michigan leaning into sophisticated production methods like dry hopping or barrel-aging was kind of beyond my comprehension. Then, like magic, the cider industry blew up.
Fast forward a few years later to when I was living in Brooklyn, and it seemed like every other week there was some coveted new cider on tap. Riffing off classic European methods with a splash of American innovation, heritage cider opened the door to ice wines, pommeau, and non-apple and co-fermented fruit cider variations like pear, cherry, pineapple, and rose.
Today, they’re on the menus at celebrated restaurants, merit their own bars, statewide festivals, celebration weeks, and conferences, and now have designated professional certification programs churning out “pommeliers.” There are about 130 cideries presently in New York alone, up from maybe five or six at best a decade ago.
Even though cider makes up 2% of the overall beverage production in the U.S., there’s a unique undercurrent driving this new wave of production and its respective legislative challenges as a categorical wine that more frequently aligns with the craft beer industry than viticulture. That makes it kind of an outlier, in a sense—something that’s been back of my mind while envisioning the future legal cannabis landscape.
So, when a historic apple orchard and cider house space snags the honor of New York state’s first legal cannabis harvest and invites you to come check it out, you go.
Once upon a time, an onion and dairy farmer met at the local farmer’s market and decided it was a good time to get into the apple business. Establishing Beak & Skiff Orchards in 1911, the two families began selling apples to small grocers, which continued until the 1970s when they opened a country store and market to the public.
Five generations later, they unveiled their line of 1911 Established hard ciders, followed by a distillery in 2010. And as the first 15 state-approved marijuana processor licenses, guests will soon be able to buy THC products alongside their line of CBD-related seltzers, balms, and supplements.
Today, visitors can pick apples on their sprawling campus, take part in cider and spirit tastings, stock up on apple doughnuts and other baked goods, watch a concert, or book an overnight stay on the property. Along with their growing line-up of craft beverages, their massive production facility serves other New York brands that use their bottle processing. Next up: they’re presently building the country’s largest 15,000-square-foot edibles production facility at Beak & Skiff Hemp House. Heirloom apple pipes, anyone?
Should you decide to embark on the journey, it’s about a 25-minute ride from the Syracuse train station to the orchards in Lafayette using Uber or Lyft. This tidbit will absolutely be front of mind when you want to leave and realize that between the spotty reception and sizable distance, there are significantly less drivers available to pick you up on a whim. Honestly, just book a car back as soon as you get there because when the sun goes down, it gets pretty chilly!
Despite its generous acreage, the property was completely mobbed with groups of friends and families decked out in red flannel, all taking advantage of the unusually warm October day to pick apples, taste ciders, and picnic. We drove to the edge of one of the countless rows of apple trees, picking Snapdragons and taking iPhone photos of the sweeping Finger Lakes views that would never do it justice.
At the distillery, I spotted shelves packed with honeymelon vodka and canned honeycrisp cocktails before making our way to the Hemp Research Facility where they now process CBD and THC cannabis products. As a sustainability-demanding millennial, I was delighted to learn that this first harvest was sungrown (get with the program, New Jersey), and I could still catch a glimpse of a few sticky plants lingering behind. The first strains include Slurricane, Mimosa, Biscotti, Jet Fuel Gelato, and Wedding Cake.
At the cider house, I met with head cider maker, Yann Fay. Growing up between Brittany, France and the U.S., he has the unique privilege of early exposure to cider in his household, but wouldn’t start working professionally until many years later.
Though cider is often lumped in with beer, its production method is much more aligned to wine—a clear connect for anyone who loves natural and pet nat wines. And in New York, there’s obviously a special relationship that’s rightfully earned its Big Apple moniker. Along with Cornell University’s historic apple breeding program that has engineered more than 250 apple, grape, berry and vegetable varieties, including three apple varieties in 2020, the state has its own definitive apple guide. Printed in 1905, Spencer Ambrose Beach’s The Apples of New York includes pages of painstakingly meticulous descriptions and gorgeous lithographs documenting and categorizing various apples cultivars in New York state that has remained a historical and cultural stalwart.
Not only is The Apples of New York an essential read for anyone who geeks out over heirloom apples, cider, food history, agriculture, or just your run-of-the-mill antiquarian, but it’s a reminder of the importance to document New York’s nascent cannabis landscape for future generations. (Something I would imagine someone at Cornell Hemp School of Integrative Plant Science must doing right now—or definitely should).
For now, Fay is doing both hard ciders and CBD seltzers—with more products in the works now that they have the legal license and forthcoming production facility. And Beak & Skiff proudly has the only Snapdragon hard cider under their wing.
After wandering through the orchards to pick apples (a clandestine spot to smoke out of them), I hit up the country store and left with three very large bags of goods. Unsuccessfully spending an hour trying to get an Uber or Lyft back to town, the team at Beak & Skiff linked me up with Wendy and a stretch limo, which carried us back to downtown Syracuse, all while taking bourbon swigs in the backseat. Having ridden in a stretch limo maybe twice in my life, this was a pretty exciting moment for me.
Realizing I knew nothing about Syracause, I made last minute call to hit up Saint Urban—a French- and Italian-inspired wine restaurant that has picked up Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence for three years in a row. Blown away by everything I ate, I found myself pleasantly surprised wishing I was staying a little longer before hopping the train the next morning back to New York City.
Here is a photo of the scallops. I wish I was eating that right now.
A few weeks later, New York’s Office of Cannabis Management announced the approval of the first 36 Conditional Adult Use Retail Dispensary License (CAURD) dispensaries that includes 28 justice-involved individuals and 8 nonprofit organizations. Which means that hopefully the rest of us will be able to get our hands on some genuine New York state flower in the coming year. And when you do, you can smoke it while watching William H. Macy play the ukulele while singing about getting laid.
Beak and Skiff
2708 Lords Hill Road (Rt. 80)
Lafayette, NY 13084
Saint Urban Wine Bar
124 Dell Street
Syracuse, NY 13210
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