The lore of the Long Island potato has always fascinated Rich Stabile. He’d stare out at the seemingly endless fields through a car window as a kid, on his way out to Nassau Point with his parents. As the years went by, he watched as those fields were replaced with rows of neatly planted grapevines.
“I have such fond memories, watching a lot of the farms migrate over,” Stabile, owner of Long Island Spirits, explained in a recent interview. “Long Island always was famous for potatoes.”
At the height of the Long Island potato industry, before World War II, it’s believed that there were over 200,000 acres of potatoes being farmed on Long Island.
In a 2019 interview with Newsday, Mattituck potato farmer Martin Sidor estimated that just a handful of potato farmers remain, farming a little over 1,000 acres.
But you can still find some Long Island potatoes for sale. You can also open a bag of deliciously crisp North Fork Potato Chips made at Sidor Farms.
And at Stabile’s distillery in Baiting Hollow, you can toast the famous spuds with their original LiV vodka, in production since 2007.
The triple-distilled, naturally gluten-free vodka has since been recognized as a double gold winner at the NY International Spirits Competition for its floral aromas and distinctively creamy mouthfeel.
Just as potato farmers were tasked with diversifying their crops, Stabile has since branched out into different spirits and new flavors, from partnering with local wineries on private-label brandies to fruit liqueurs, botanical gin and rum.
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the distillery quickly stopped making liquor and instead produced nearly 100,000 bottles of hand sanitizer for front-line workers. Last year they debuted a line of four canned cocktails made with corn-based vodka: Southampton Lemonade, Last Summer Lime Fizz, Long Island Cold Brew Tea and Watermelon Crush.
“Everything else has to age, so it was a good entry point for us,” Stabile said, adding that the cocktails drove production of corn-based vodka, to which many people’s palates have become accustomed through the soaring popularity of national brands like Tito’s.
And though founded as a vodka distillery, whiskey — and bourbon in particular — now accounts for the majority of Long Island Spirits’ business.
“We still make a ton of vodka, but the nuances in our bourbons and ryes have taken us to the national stage,” he said, adding that American whiskeys have surged in popularity.
“The American palate has rediscovered bourbon. It’s our natural spirit,” Stabile said. “People develop a taste for bourbon and then they’re very adventurous. They’re exploratory.”
Whether making vodka or whiskey, it all begins on the farm. The sunny tasting room overlooks the very fields where they’ve sourced potatoes, corn and grains.
As a breeze billows through a field of winter rye, Stabile explains that the cleansing cover crop will soon be harvested, ground, mashed, distilled and ultimately bottled for their Rough Rider Bull Moose label. The spent grains are then repurposed as animal feed at local farms.
Steps away, a cavernous former horse barn houses nearly 750 barrels of sleeping spirits; their flavors intensify as they mingle with wood, char and air and emanate aromas of damp vanilla and gentle smoke.
Unlike regional wineries that depend on an annual harvest, spirits are produced year round. Grain is stored in twin silos that overlook the sprawling land due north. Beyond the treeline and below the steep bluffs lies Long Island Sound, an influential factor in the whiskey’s terroir and source of no shortage of local legends about Prohibition, which set off an illicit race between bootleggers, baymen, rumrunners and authorities all around Long Island.
The property itself is not immune from those stories, either. One telling goes that the main barn’s twin cupolas were lit up as an “all clear” signal for smugglers during the era.
In honor of the distillery’s 15th anniversary earlier this year, Stabile released its Field & Sound bourbon as a way to pay homage to the water that continues to influence production, though now in a perfectly legal way.
“We get the maritime influence,” Stabile said. “It’s got a hint of salinity from the Sound — similar to the western part of Scotland.”
Only 6,000 bottles were released during the initial run in February, with the second batch currently in production. In addition to the note of salinity, the 60% corn, 33% rye and 7% malted barley bourbon has notes of winter spice, vanilla and caramel.
Field & Sound is their first bottled-in-bond bourbon, a federal designation that dates back to the 1890s and set a standard of quality and authenticity for American whiskey.
“It was the Wild West,” before the law was enacted, Stabile said. “People didn’t know what the hell they were drinking.”
Stabile prefers his whiskey high-proof and on the rocks, sometimes with a lemon peel, most times without.
Before whiskey, he was first allured by wine, helping his paternal grandfather crush grapes for homemade wine at his Brooklyn home. On his mother’s side, his grandfather worked as a beer distributor, earning one of the first licenses in the 1930s.
“I have a picture of his license on the wall,” Stabile said. “It runs in our DNA.”
It wasn’t until his professional career in the engineering world that Stabile refined a taste and affinity for whiskey.
Stabile worked in electrical engineering, tasked with connecting large clients with the product. “It was a very high stress job,” he said, recalling how it was at times uncomfortable to fly around the world and address a room of stressed-out people with bad news: the product was late, or there were other unexpected delays.
On the other hand, his days off were spent exploring, notably in the Japanese countryside. “I’d shoot up, take a bullet train and visit Hibiki in Yamazaki,” he said. “At the time, you could go there and talk to the distillers. It was really interesting.”
In the late 1990s, Stabile joined the mad dash to tech on the West Coast before returning east with his wife post 9-11 to settle down and start their family. Disenchanted with how the tech industry was trending, he yearned for something new.
He enrolled in distilling courses through Cornell University and immersed himself in research. Can you even make a bourbon outside of Kentucky? (The answer, by the way, is yes: a bourbon is technically a whiskey made anywhere in the U.S. with mash that’s a minimum 51% corn.)
Stabile dreamed that one day he’d start a distillery and soon enough found himself at work on the dilapidated barn that would ultimately become his production and tasting room.
“It was a big jump. It was a lifestyle change,” Stabile said. “It’s a dirty, wet, messy job.”
When he opened the doors to his distillery and tasting room in 2007, he was just the 100th in the country.
Now, New York State alone is home to more than 160 distilleries, many of which have joined LI Spirits locally. More wineries have begun producing brandies and Wölffer is making pink gin. Heading east along Sound Avenue, Joe Cunha opened Twin Stills Moonshine in 2016 and even farther east, Matchbook Distilling opened in Greenport two years later. Betterman Distilling opened in Patchogue in 2019 and in Riverhead, Montauk Distilling Co. opened its doors downtown in 2020.
“There’s a lot of fun innovations that have happened in the industry. The smaller companies have really driven a lot of the whiskeys to be better across the board — even from the bigger guys,” Stabile said, adding that he’s glad to have been at the forefront of the craft spirit renaissance.
Inside the distilling barn, imaginations run wild as Stabile and his team of distillers concoct different mash bills and experiment with different yeast strains, char levels and types of stills. “All of these components go into what you’re ultimately making,” Stabile said.
Some of that finds its way to the market, like their Rough Rider double casked straight bourbon — now one of their best sellers. After aging in new oak, it gets transferred to French oak that was used for brandy distilled from local pinot noir, chardonnay and merlot grapes.
One constraint of the industry is that you can’t reap the benefits overnight, especially when it comes to aging spirits. So Stabile is playing the long game.
He points to a stack of blackened casks and explains that there’s brandy inside, in its sixth year of aging in former bourbon barrels. In another corner, there are casks of rum that’s been aging for about seven years.
“We’ve got these small little pilot projects we’ll release at some point,” Stabile said. “You certainly have to be patient.”