By Charles Erickson
MAYFIELD – While a substantial bar is the central fixture inside Higher Ground Distilling Co., its owner is adamant that he does not operate a bar.
“It’s a tasting room,” Dave Webber said on a recent Saturday afternoon, as eight people sat inside the small building at 2513 State Highway 30. Four were at the bar and four were sitting at a table against the far wall. The company’s still, a construction of gleaming chrome with assorted dials and hatches, is in a back room and was visible to the people seated at the table.
“I didn’t need to be a bar,” Webber said. “There’re a lot of bars in the area. I wanted to give people a craft experience and a little education into what goes into our products.”
Higher Ground Distilling, which opened in November 2020, sells bourbon, whiskey and moonshine that are produced in Mayfield.
The beverages are sold by the bottle in five area liquor stores, and by the drink at nine local restaurants and bars. At the distillery, they are sold by the tasting, the cocktail and the bottle.
“Under our manufacturing and distilling license, we’re allowed to manufacture our product and distribute it,” Webber said. “So, we self-distribute.”
A representative from the party seated at the table approached the owner and provided an order.
Webber arranged four glasses on the bar and proceeded to make a quintet of old-fashioned cocktails. Three were of the Adirondack variety and one was traditional. All four received pours of Higher Ground Distilling’s bourbon, which is named 771’ – for the elevation of Great Sacandaga Lake, in feet above sea level, when it is full.
The drinks also received a cherry, some orange and bitters.
“We muddle the citrus,” Webber said. “I don’t muddle the cherry because the cherry tends to overpower the bourbon. I want the bourbon to be the star of the cocktail.”
The traditional old-fashioned was given a shot of simple syrup, while the Adirondack versions received doses of maple syrup sourced from a local vendor.
As a final step, Webber used a small propane torch to burn some oak chips and infuse smoke into the top of the cocktail. The oak is from barrels in which the bourbon was aged.
“Smoked and fantastic,” said Andy Laureti, sitting at a table with his wife and two friends. He was drinking an Adirondack old-fashioned. “Absolutely fantastic. My favorite.”
“We love this place,” added his spouse, Nichole Laureti, drinking her traditional old fashion. They have a house in Edinburg. “When we have friends up, we always bring them here. Always.”
At the bar, Decca Zimmerman, from Brooklyn by way of Philadelphia, sampled the house’s bourbon and whiskey, and let her father sample the moonshine.
“There’s something refreshing about being with my loved ones in a kind of faraway land and enjoying a drink, and it doesn’t feel as uppity or as a to-do,” she said.
“To me, what’s unique about this is how personal it is,” said her father, Jonathan Zimmerman, still a resident of Pennsylvania’s largest city and very aware of how many miles removed he was from that place.
“You wouldn’t have any experience like this at any bar in Philadelphia,” he added. “The bartender wouldn’t introduce himself or herself and wouldn’t tell you their story or explain why they were here.”
TRIAL AND ERROR AND PATIENCE
Over the course of nearly three hours on a Saturday afternoon, Webber was heard explaining to different customers certain features of the beverages. They were variations of the same conversation.
“Corn, wheat, barley and rye – typically it’s a four-grain process,” he said about the ingredients for 771’ bourbon. He was speaking to a man seated at the bar. “By American Bourbon Institute standards, it has to be 51 percent corn in the mash bill.”
Later, after the tasting room had emptied, Webber said he never tired of discussing the finer points of alcoholic beverage distillation to anyone showing an interest.
“I’m kind of passionate about it,” he said. “People don’t understand a lot of the parameters that go into a craft bourbon or whiskey.”
The owner’s friendliness is also good for business. Webber estimated that 60 percent of people who order samples or cocktails will purchase a bottle before leaving the premises.
In addition to the 771’ bourbon, Higher Ground Distilling produces Over the Dam (Good) Whiskey and Sacandaga Shine moonshine.
The whiskey shares the same mash bill as the bourbon, according to Webber, but is finished with some hard maple. The moonshine is made with corn and sugar.
“It’s not aged,” Webber said. “It’s a clear liquor. Once we second distill it, we finish it and it comes off the still at a nice temperature and proof, when the flavor’s right.
Webber had spent a career working in construction, first as an employee of his father’s residential remodeling and light construction firm in Guilderland, and then carrying on the business in partnership with his brother.
A few years ago, Webber began experimenting with a still in his garage. Pleased with the results, he wondered if he could make his hobby into a new career. He had climbed many ladders and worked on many roofs over the previous three decades and was looking for something that was less physically taxing.
He said he finished his last construction project in December 2020, a month after Higher Ground Distilling opened in Mayfield.
“He’s happier than he’s ever been,” Tina Webber said about her spouse. “He’s super proud of what he does. He’s super proud of his product.”
Tina Webber suggested Chatterbox as a name for the distillery because her husband tended to become talkative when he was experimenting with – and tasting – liquor from his garage still. Dave Webber said a search revealed other firms using this name, so he decided the name of the business, like its brands, should be influenced by Great Sacandaga Lake.
“When they created the reservoir, when eminent domain was executed, a lot of homes were just burned and had to be destroyed,” he said. “So, if you had any money saved or in your business, you moved it to higher ground, which helped to create a lot of these communities all around the edges of the flood plain.”
AN IN WITH THE LANDLORD
Higher Ground Distilling Co.’s alcoholic beverages are made, aged and bottled in a building that was formerly used as a manufacturing plant by the Havlick Snowshoe Co.
Webber’s daughter, Carly Lansburg, is also his landlord. She owns Zippy’s Ice Cream, which is in a building next door to the distillery.
“Business was really good over the summer,” Webber said. He credited the ice cream stand with bringing in new customers. “We had a tremendous amount of feedback. People were talking and we generated a lot of buzz.”
Not all customers sit in the tasting room. On this Saturday afternoon, an older man and woman, both wearing face masks, entered the distillery and the man asked if he could buy something for takeout. He left with bottles of bourbon and whiskey, for which he paid Webber $86.
In addition to the bourbon, whiskey and moonshine, sold in 750-milliliter bottles, Great Sacandaga Distilling offers 12-ounce jars of flavored moonshine. Four flavors – apple pie, sweet tea, cinnamon fire and jalapeno – are always available, along with a flavor that changes by the month.
“We hand-make all of the flavors – the simple syrups,” Webber said. “They’re all-natural ingredients, and not extracts ordered off the Internet.”