Making Rough Rider whiskey at Long Island Spirits

When Rich Stabile launched Long Island Spirits distillery in Baiting Hollow in January 2007, he imagined it becoming a regional staple behind its signature drink, LiV Vodka. A decade later, as distilleries have sprouted up across the nation, Long Island Spirits has expanded to include whiskey, gin and fruit-based sorbettas, ships its products across the country and will soon export to Canada and possibly Europe. 

“It’s been an exciting 10 years,” Stabile said. “We’re thrilled at the progress we’ve made. It’s blossomed and I couldn’t be more excited about the reception we got in the marketplace.”

Stabile, 55, was born and raised on Long Island and his family had a second home in Nassau Point. As he grew up in the area, he watched as all the potato farms became wineries and one day the idea came to him to make vodka out of the iconic Long Island potato.

While the business began with vodka, it’s been the whiskey that’s really taken off, he said, and now makes up about 80 percent of the business. The popular Rough Rider bourbon drew its inspiration from local vineyards. Stabile said he’d often receive requests from wineries to create a private label brandy.

Rough Rider whiskey is aged in charred new American oak for a minimum of four years. A second maturation in merlot and chardonnay casks from local wineries lasts three to six months. Champagne yeast was used to make “The Big Stick” rye whiskey, another example of how the North Fork has influenced Long Island Spirits’ products.

“It’s the influence of being out here in wine country,” he said.

When he began the business, limited infrastructure existed for craft distilleries, he said. At the time, Long Island Spirits was only the 100th craft distillery in the country, but now there are more than 1,400, creating a network of people who really understand the craft.

Rich Stabile of Long Island Spirits.(Credit: Krysten Massa)

Rich Stabile of Long Island Spirits.(Credit: Krysten Massa)

“That’s been really helpful as the industry has emerged,” he said.

This year, he estimates they will ship about 15,000 cases of whiskey, but new fermenters that are expected will allow for production to triple in 2018.

Inside the distillery, Stabile has a core team of distillers from different backgrounds who he said “put their passion into every bottle.”

Matt Nikitopoulos, a 26-year-old from Wading River, is currently filling in for the head distiller, who recently moved.

“It’s a little bit science and a little bit art,” Nikitopoulos said. Coming from a chemistry background, he didn’t always have this career in mind but said he loves what he does and wants to learn as much as he can.

Making different products requires a delicate touch, he said, and much of the work is very calculated.

Nikitopoulos, Liz Ashby and Ricky Levatino do everything from making the mash to bottling the product. 

Ashby said she loves every part of the process. The 28-year-old Riverhead native said there is no downside to her job.

A bottle of Rough Rider Bourbon. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

A bottle of Rough Rider Bourbon. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

“It’s crazy busy,” she said. “You need to be very motivated.”

Ashby said a lot more goes into the process than people might think. Some days, employees might arrive at 6 a.m. and not leave until 10 p.m., she said.

The hard work pays off as the product continues to improve, she said.

For Stabile, the best part is seeing his ideas come to fruition. From the original idea to sourcing the products and watching all the magic happen inside the distillery, it’s like a circle of life, he said.

“Being part of that whole ecosystem is really just exciting for me,” he said. “Actually making something that people have really grown to love.”