The recently opened Canandaigua-based distilling company offers gin, corn whiskey and vodka
CANANDAIGUA — For something that has been taboo for so long, let’s just say Whit Sobey is finally able to offer what he enjoys making to others.
Now that he’s three months in operation, it only seemed like forever — more than two years — for Sobey to obtain the necessary approvals to open his small Tuition Distilling Co. and begin making spirits bright for those who enjoy local craft beverages.
Today, decades after drinkers toasted Prohibition’s end, owning and operating a home still for making alcohol without the necessary permits can result in a visit from a modern-day revenuer.
Sobey is legit.
Like a handful of other distilleries in the immediate Finger Lakes area — Hollerhorn in Naples, Black Button in Rochester, Hidden Marsh in Seneca Falls and Honeoye Falls (which this fall collaborated with Canandaigua-based Star Cidery on an apple brandy) — spirits makers took advantage of state law that led to a boom in craft breweries and cideries.
Sobey has been bottling Tuition’s Butler’s Pantry gin, FLX-VDK vodka and Paddle Wheel corn whiskey since opening in August and offering tastings around town, including at Ryan’s Wine and Spirits and the most recent Canandaigua Wine Walk.
“Consumers realize that you can actually buy really cool, good stuff here,” Sobey said. “As far as the adult beverage side, spirits is the last one to really start to fire and get underway.”
And it has been, and continues to be, a work in progress for Sobey, who said he likes to make things, in general, and really enjoys making spirits.
Sobey is starting slow to get it right.
“Probably the nicest part is when you make something and you can share it with somebody else, and they like it,” Sobey said from his base of operations, in warehouse space off North Street. “My life would have been totally different if my friends didn’t like what I was making. Or I didn’t like it.”
Sobey, who was in sales and marketing in the ski industry before moving back to the Canandaigua area, started home brewing beer as a hobby. While living in Buffalo, he visited a few start-up distilleries and was surprised at what he saw.
“Before that, my perception of a distillery was Jack Daniels — that’s what it had to be, something massive,” said Sobey, referring to the huge Tennessee-based whiskey maker.
But these nearby distilleries were tiny; in fact, tinier than where Sobey operates now. And distilling gave him new direction.
“So I started out with a little hobby, and it grew and grew,” Sobey said.
So much so that his wife said that if it got any bigger, he’d have to make a business out of it. And several years later, the product is in the market.
Sobey designed the distilling system itself. Actually, he does a lot on his own, everything from sweeping the floors to making the booze to selling it to offering tastings.
“I’m the only guy,” he said, although his wife gets credit for the business name. “It will be a success if it pays for the kids’ college tuition. That snowballed into Tuition Distilling Co.”
Because he’s operating as a farm distillery, he’s required to use at least 75 percent of the ingredients from New York state.
No problem there, as much of the corn, malted barley and grains he uses comes from the Phelps, Manchester and East and West Bloomfield areas, he said.
Right now, his maximum capacity is 80 gallons and he’s got some 300 bottles under his belt.
Making gin allows Sobey to don scientist and craftsman’s hats and experiment with all sorts of combinations of botanicals and essential oils that make gin, well, not vodka or whiskey.
“My generation was always like, ‘My grandparents drink gin,’” Sobey said. “Gin’s exciting and is probably the most exciting to make.”
A good example of this is the Butler’s Pantry, which carries a flowery aroma. The taste is different for everyone, or so it seems to Sobey. Some taste pepper notes, others cucumber and juniper.
Everyone’s palette is different, especially with gin.
“When vodka is running at the right proof, you can taste it and know what it’s going to look like. Whiskey is kind of the same way,” Sobey said.
With gin, Sobey continued, “you don’t know exactly what the end product is going to be.”
Both the vodka and whiskey have distinctive tastes, with the corn whiskey resembling the aftertaste of tequila. All of the spirits work well in cocktails, Sobey said, and the company offers up suggestions for each.
At tastings, Sobey is not allowed to use mixers or whip up little mixed drinks. He offers less than a finger of his spirits to try, along with lessons and stories behind each of them.
For one curious customer, he was able to dispel the notion that liquor is not just something to get drunk quicker, but a craft beverage like any other.
“Vodka is not just vodka. Gin is not just gin. They’re all different,” Sobey said. “The reward for me is you get to share it with somebody who has an appreciation for the work you put into it. It’s not a huge, laborious job, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of detail and steps to go through to get the product out.”
For now, Sobey makes the product and it’s off to the store shelves, a very important part of his cash flow, he said. He’d love to get to the point where he’s able to take a week or two to make a barrel of whiskey and set it aside for years to age.
Like spirits themselves, growing the business takes time, but as interest in the making of craft cocktails grows, time may be on Sobey’s side.
“You don’t have to go far to sit down and have someone make you a $20 cocktail, where it takes them 5 minutes to make it,” Sobey said. “Those places are around and people are interested in that stuff. And if you have a local product in there, that’s even better.”