When Kevin Pike and Robin Touchet moved to the Hudson Valley in 2012, they were in search of the land that would later become Branchwater Farms. “The goal was to find a place that we could preserve and make economically viable for future generations,” Kevin says.
From cheese to spirits
In 2014, they closed on an 80-acre plot of land in Milan, NY, that would later expand to a total of 100 acres in 2020. The original plan for Branchwater wasn’t to be a distillery. “It was cheese,” Kevin laughs. After quickly realizing that cheese wasn’t going to be a viable option, they considered creating an apple orchard and growing grapes for a winery. Both of the options were deemed inadequate, however, due to the climate of the Hudson Valley, the amount of maintenance grapes and apples require, and the fungicides that the crops would require.
Both Kevin and Robin have extensive experience in the wine business. They previously worked together at a wine import company, and Kevin has since started Schatzi Wines, which imports from small, family-run wineries in Europe. He currently still works in the wine business while also managing Branchwater Farms.
The duo say that their previous and current experience in the wine sphere has aided them in opening Branchwater. Kevin says that the biggest benefit is the connections to buyers and distributors, which has given them the opportunity to sell Branchwater spirits across the United States. Robin adds that they faced a “big learning curve with selling spirits,” since she and Kevin were not originally in the spirits business. “I’ve found that the applicability of spirits is very different from wine.”
Per their website, the name Branchwater Farms has multiple origins. First, it’s a term for water from a creek – an ode to the Wappinger Creek that flows through the farm. Additionally, it’s a term for ordering a bourbon mixed with water in Kentucky – “a bourbon and branch.” Their website states, “names like Branchwater Bourbon have a sing-song sonority we just liked.”
Regenerative farming and being a land stewardship
Acknowledging their roots has been an important part of creating the Branchwater identity. Robin and Kevin have an entire section of their website dedicated to a discussion about land stewardship and farming in a way that is regenerative and responsible. When asked why land stewardship is important to them, Robin aptly responded, “Why isn’t it important to everyone?”
She elaborated that farms have a real responsibility towards land stewardship and managing their practices to ensure that the land isn’t being transformed in a way that is destructive to the environment. “We have to learn to live with the land,” Kevin says. Branchwater has a unique spread of environmental elements across its 100 acres, including lots of forest, wetlands, and a steep, wooded slope.
“My instinct when we first got here back in 2014 was to drain the swamp and push the fields forward. Because we didn’t have the money to get this started right away, we were able to take a step back and see what the land would really do, and I think we benefited from the delay,” Kevin says. “It allowed us to take a pause, look at things, and understand what we have. That changed our relationship with the farm.”
They utilize a variety of holistic farming ideas. They’ve started using compost tea, which is the water that is leftover after compost is steeped in it. Compost tea is beneficial because the compost’s nutrients and compounds help plants to better utilize the nutrients that are already in the soil. Their website states, “If the soil is healthy, the plant will take care of itself. So, the goal is to build soil through biodiversity, increased humus, and an expanding mycorrhizal fungi network, and compost is the essential food for building soil.”
They also limit the frequency of tilling the fields, since tillage commonly fractures the soil’s structure and can create a whole host of poor side effects, including surface runoff and soil erosion. Branchwater’s website says, “plowing creates the erosion of topsoil, releases CO2 into the atmosphere and destroys the fungal network in the soil that allows plants to take up nutrients and release them back into the soil.” As grains are annual crops, they still have to resort to plowing every 12 months.
Kevin and Robin say that regenerative farming is important not only for their crops, but also for their spirits, since everything starts in the soil. Particularly for grain growth, having healthy soil allows the grain to store more carbohydrates and creates more sugar to facilitate the fermentation.
Almost every regenerative agricultural system involves the rotation of animals. While they don’t have enough fields to incorporate large livestock herds and still grow enough grain for use in the distillery, they do have lots of wetlands and a fascination with birds, so in the spring of 2021 Branchwater Farms welcomed its first flock of ducks. They work with different breeds of ducks for both meat and egg production and are working on a breeding program. In the spring of 2022, they added a flock of chickens. Both eggs and meat are available at their farm store.
The trifecta: gin, brandy, and whiskey
As far as the production of spirits goes, Branchwater keeps it simple. They use two steam-powered copper pot stills for gin, brandy, and whiskey production. Robin and Kevin share that they were never interested in producing vodka, so they don’t have the machinery to do so. Regardless, they still create more spirits than a typical distillery. Initially, they started making gin to have something to sell while they waited for the brandy and whiskey to age, but they quickly discovered that they enjoyed producing different types of spirits. “We like spirits that have a complexity. We like that flavor: we don’t want a neutral spirit,” says Robin.
Kevin shares that producing brandy was always on the list of things they wanted to do. “We enjoy the fruit application spirits the most because they are unique,” he says. “In Europe it’s a huge thing, everyone has a brandy or a schnapps after dinner. We figured that because the Hudson Valley is so rich in fruit, it has to be a part of what we’re doing.” Robin quickly concurred: “We live in a place where there’s such a tradition of orchards and fruit that we figured it was a great way to highlight all that the Hudson Valley already offers,” she says. “It’s creative and fun!”
Handle with care
The precarious process of creating brandy starts with the fruit on the tree. “You have to start with the selection of the fruit and cut out any bruises or cuts in the skin,” says Kevin. “If you have any open cuts in the fruit, fruit flies can get in and create that vinegar odor, and that creates problems in the distilling process because you can’t get that taste out.”
Kevin and Robin put extreme emphasis on handling the fruit carefully. They share that they aren’t “willy nilly” and believe that the purity and the flavor expression in the spirit can only be revealed properly by utilizing the highest quality fruit. “Maybe we’re not cool kids, but we feel that using impure fruits masks flavor,” Robin says. “It all starts with the quality of the fruit.”
They also believe that’s what sets them apart from the many other distilleries in New York State. “A lot of distilleries are happening now. We decided we had to go in the quality direction or in the bulk direction, and doing the fruit is a statement in the direction of quality,” Kevin says.
Branchwater Farms’ brandy flavors currently include pear, apple, and black currant. Going forward, they would like to produce brandies from apricots, cherries, carrots, and beets.
Their pear brandy “embodies the experience of eating a perfectly ripe pear.” It is made from 100% Bartlett pears grown in New York State. The pears are fermented in small batches at different stages of ripeness to “capture the essence of the whole fruit.” Then, the pears are held in stainless steel for a minimum of six months. Like Branchwater gin, the pear brandy is distilled to 83% alcohol before being cut to 43%. Branchwater states that it takes 10 pounds of pears to make a 375ml bottle of brandy.
Their limited-edition Branchwater black currant brandy is made from black currants grown here in the Hudson Valley. Branchwater’s website states that “These black currants were grown just ten minutes away from our farm by local legend Greg Quinn, who in 2003, single-handedly reversed a ban on growing currants in the United States that had been in place since 1911.” Branchwater only yields about 110 liters of alcohol from 5,000 pounds of black currants, which is approximately 8.5 pounds of fruit in each 375ml bottle. Like the pear brandy, the black currants are held in stainless steel for one year before being cut with water, bringing the final product from 85% alcohol to 41%.
Finally, Branchwater’s Apple Brandy is oak-aged and made from a blend of apple varieties including northern spy, Ben Davis, and Rhode Island greening, among others. Before resting in oak casks, the apple brandy is cut from 85% alcohol to 72%, and then after, it is cut once again down to 41%.
Their Branchwater gin is made from triple-distilled wheat grown at the farm and contains a “unique blend of organically certified botanicals including juniper, citrus, and cardamom.” Branchwater gin is distilled to 85% alcohol and then cut with water from the well to 43% before it’s bottled.
Their limited-edition Branchwater wheat whiskey is made from 100% wheat grown on the farm and is double-distilled to over 160 proof. Following this, the whiskey is aged in oak, before being finished in pinot noir and chardonnay barrels for 18 months. Before bottling, Branchwater wheat whiskey is cut to 45% alcohol. Only about 500 bottles were produced during this limited release.
What’s the secret?
When asked if they have any “secret” ingredients or recipes, Kevin and Robin laughed. “Quality, temperature, and fermentation,” Robin says.
Kevin says that the key is being able to control the temperature, the mixing, and the fermentation process overall to yield the most flavorful product possible. “That’s the secret ingredient.” He also shares that for distilling gin, they mill the grains batch by batch, which prevents them from oxidizing and distorting the taste.
Kevin says that he believes that Branchwater is one of the only distilleries in the area that distills above 160 proof. “That keeps the quality of the ethanol the highest it can be.”
A community provider
Branchwater Farms also recently opened a small grocery store, appropriately named Branchwater Provisions. Robin always wanted a store at the farm, as she believes it’s important for them to be a provider to the community. They hope to grow the weekend farm store into a more permanent grocery in the years ahead.
“It’s amazing to see who wanders in here. There are people who are up for the weekend and neighbors who have been watching us for years,” she says. “We’ve met so many wonderful neighbors this way. It’s been really amazing.”
Branchwater also holds a farm distillery license that allows it to sell all New York State wine, beer, and spirits, allowing them to support other local farms, distilleries, and businesses. They’ve carried products from Another Moon Brewing Company, Suarez Family Brewing, and Sundström Cider.
As far as food goes, Branchwater Provisions carries products from a variety of Hudson Valley farms and businesses including Chaseholm Farm, Kinderhook Farm, Harney & Sons, and Clermont Coffee, among many, many others. “We really believe in growing this organically,” Robin says in reference to the farm and the provisions store. “It’s also nice to have something open in the winter. Our driving force really is the community element and highlighting the people who show up for us.”
Kevin and Robin have been looking long term a lot lately. Kevin has been inspired by Hirsch Vineyards, a winery in California who came up with a 300-year plan for its winery and farmland.
“We’re just short-term caretakers of this land, so land stewardship goes far beyond what we’ll be able to do here,” Kevin says. “We are trying to come up with our own 300-year plan. It’s not as easy as it might seem to identify the farm as it is and the steps that need to be taken. We want to conserve the land beyond us.” •
To learn more abut Branchwater Farms you can call them at (845) 758-8628 or visit them in person at 818 Salisbury Turnpike, Milan, NY, or online at branchwaterfarms.com.