“Fire, Water & Grain: The Story of Empire Rye” — How a New York Spirit Got Its Own Documentary

“Fire, Water & Grain: The Story of Empire Rye” — How a New York Spirit Got Its Own Documentary

Empire Rye Doc Poster

Whiskey is (usually) a slow business. New categories develop only sporadically as distillers explore corners of the market while introducing consumers to new flavor profiles. While emerging categories like American Single Malts and Indiana Rye are creeping into our drinking vocabularies, one relatively new category is getting its moment in the sun with a new documentary in wide digital release.

Released for streaming on June 14th, 2023, Fire, Water & Grain: The Story of Empire Rye examines the development and codification of its namesake spirit.

Over the past decade, a group of New York State distillers has banded together to define the Empire Rye category, complete with standards outlined by the Empire Rye Whiskey Association. Whiskey-obsessed brothers Alec and Ryan Balas filmed and directed the documentary, with Craig Dacey acting as co-executive producer. Fire, Water & Grain is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and TUBI TV.

Drinkhacker sat down with Alec Balas to talk about the inspiration behind their documentary, including lessons learned during filming and why production took them far beyond New York itself.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Balas Brothers Rye Documentary

Drinkhacker: How did you and your brother decide to make a documentary about Empire Rye?

Alec Balas: It all started as a way to connect with our Dad. We created our podcast, The Bourbon Library, as a way to archive our weekly whiskey calls with him and got heavy into researching the whiskeys we were drinking. Early on, we decided to do an episode about George Dickel and learned about the work Nicole Austin was doing and how she had started her career at Kings County. She was a major part of getting the concept of Empire Rye off the ground.

For us, whiskey is a beautiful storytelling medium, and we had been knocking around some ideas for a new film project to build on what we had been learning. We knew we really wanted to do something related to rye. Partially because the vertical was growing and because it seemed like we could carve out a fresh story in whiskey. We were blown away to see that one of the most historically significant rye projects in the history of whiskey was happening in our backyard, and it was exciting to get really granular about it.

We wanted to be very specific about history’s role in the future of rye whiskey. We wanted to assure that the film reexamines the American whiskey tradition and that we could help to restore New York State’s vital contribution to that history, not just with Empire Rye but bourbon as well. We love Kentucky whiskey, but frankly, it’s only one part of the story.

Drinkhacker: Which distilleries did you visit in production, and which distillers did you talk to? How did you go about sourcing interview subjects? How receptive were potential subjects?

Rye Grain

Alec Balas: We started our interviews with the closest ones to our studio in Hudson, New York. That meant visiting Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery (Hudson Whiskey), then Coppersea down the road. Frank, the farmer we featured, was also in that immediate area as well. Then we traveled down to Brooklyn to visit Colin Spoelma at Kings County and Daric at Van Brunt. My brother and I made a trip up to the Finger Lakes and Rochester to meet Brian McKenzie and Jason Barret.

Then we made the voyage to Kentucky, where we interviewed Nicole Austin at Stizel Weller, which was magical. It’s funny how the person that started the journey for us was one of our last interviews. We had actually had Brendan from Hudson Whiskey on the podcast before so we knew we could get him to sit down with us. Then it’s sort of a domino effect of being like, hey we have Brendan from Hudson Whiskey already interviewed, do you want to be in this film? And people were really receptive. The whole group had worked so hard on creating Empire Rye, they were just so glad that the story would get to be told in this way.

Chris from Coppersea was harder to get but that’s because he’s this mythical kinda old school guy. You have a better chance of meeting him by just showing up at the distillery than trying to reach him via email. Mostly because he’s out there making whiskey. Everyone was really welcoming, I think most distillers I’ve met are. They’re passionate and hardworking people, so I’m sure it’s nice when people have an interest in what you’re doing.

Nicole Austin

Drinkhacker: What do you wish the whiskey drinking masses knew about Empire Rye that they might not be aware of? What makes it different or special?

Alec Balas: We tasted a lot of Empire Rye as you can imagine, and every single one is an entirely different experience. That’s the thrilling part of this story. A small group of sophisticated craft distillers created an admittedly rigid set of rules to even the playing field. They relied on regionality and whiskey magic to create something that changes with every season, barrel, and hand that touches it.

What we think is super cool is that there isn’t this concentrated effort in reigning anyone’s creative juices, but that they were aware that these boundaries could create an infinite amount of incredible results. Unlike the “big guys” in whiskey, no one, at least in our experience, is aiming for a consistency or full continuity in Empire Rye as a category. It’s what sets this style apart and makes it a very thrilling and lasting juice to chase. Rye as a grain is a sort of mystical beast and each batch of Empire Rye is truly a miracle.

Empire Rye Manhattan

Drinkhacker: What do you think is next for the Empire Rye category?

Alec Balas: Empire Rye is one of the most important styles to come out in the last hundred years, and we believe it will remain on the shelves, a hundred years from now. We hope that whiskey folks can start to look at regionality like wine connoisseurs do and start to chase things outside of their comfort zones.

I think Empire Rye should inspire drinkers to look in their own backyards for what’s being crafted. Empire Rye is helping to drive that conversation and will be much more than a footnote in the future. Much like Tennessee Whiskey as a category, but with the voracity of the New York attitude, I think it’s going to only get louder and prouder. More distilleries have joined the conversation, and it’s lining up really beautifully with very smart farmers, universities, and science-minded whiskey lovers who want to further explore a whole world of rye varietals. I hope it causes brands and distilleries to look at what could be the work their so-called competitors are doing and ask “How can we collaborate?” and “How can we build something together?” I think it’s going to be a beautiful, beautiful future.

Drinkhacker: What were some of your best memories from filming/production? What were the biggest challenges?

Alec Balas: One of my favorite memories from the production of the film was visiting Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery. Brendan O’Rourke was so hospitable and generous with his time. It was actually at Tuthilltown where I was converted into a rye fan. Brendan was showing us some of the Rickhouses and used a whiskey thief to pull some rye straight from two of the barrels. The juice from those barrels was like no rye I’ve tasted before. The first barrel was a little over 6 years and was absolutely delicious. It had these earthy, grassy sweet notes. The second was so floral and minty. He even did a little blend of the two barrels right there in my glass so I could see how they tasted together and it was so exciting. This was really early on in the filmmaking journey and opened my eyes to what rye could be and how important Empire Rye would be in the whiskey industry.

Drinkhacker: Are there other spirits categories you’re excited to cover in future documentaries?

Alec Balas: We are huge whiskey fans across the board, a major part of that being bourbon, and we are always looking for stories in that category. It’s a perfect excuse to drink great whiskey and meet the craftspeople who make it and love it. Their passion is always so alluring. We always toy around with diving into mezcal and tequila, but it really does come down to finding a good story to tell. One spirit that really intrigues me is Cognac. I really don’t know much about it but it seems so luxurious and easy to love. The age statements are ridiculous and there is so much story in those years, it’s hard to not want to find an entry point there and see what stories blossom.

Drinkhacker: What’s your favorite way to drink Empire Rye?

Alec Balas: My favorite way to drink Empire Rye is neat! I enjoy it in other ways, of course, it makes a great Manhattan, but during the filming of our documentary, we got used to trying it neat so we could pull the most flavor and get a clear picture of the profiles of each distillery. And if it’s a really special day like some we experienced, I’d say right out of the barrel with the farm that grew the rye, just down the street.

David Tao is a writer for Drinkhacker.

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