hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues February-March 2018


From life’s apples, gourmet vinegars

Fruit reductions highlight flavors as orchard-based distillery branches out


Derek Grout shows off a couple of varieties of his new Hudson Valley Vinegar brand, produced from apples grown at his family’s Golden Harvest Farms in Valatie. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


The 200 acres of spindly, gray apple trees stand silent and dormant on a chilly afternoon in January, but the front campus of Golden Harvest Orchards and its adjacent business, Harvest Spirits Distillery, are abuzz with activity.

Inside the Golden Harvest retail store, customers snap up cider donuts, local honey and bags of apples. In the distillery, groups of visitors are led through a tasting session of wares that include apple-based gin, whiskey and vodka, as well as brandies derived from locally grown Bartlett pears and Bing cherries.

And off to one side of the tasting counter, on a shelf, stand the latest inventions of owner and distiller Derek Grout: a new line of craft vinegars made from the apples grown just a stone’s throw away.

Grout grew up in his family’s apple-growing business, which has operated as a U-pick orchard since the 1950s. He opened Harvest Spirits Distillery in 2007. Operating it as a separate business from Golden Harvest Orchards, Grout delved into the craft of making apple-derived vodka. The vodka was so well received that he expanded the distillery’s offerings to include Apple Jack brandy, pear brandy, an apple-based whiskey, cherry brandy, peach brandy, and an apple-based gin.

Grout sees the new line of vinegars as a natural extension of his love of alchemizing apples and other local fruits into drinkable elixirs.

“I began experimenting with vinegars in 2014, and in 2015 I really began investing time into it,” he recalled.

Intrigued by the idea of vinegar as a wellness booster, Grout chose to create, as his first vinegar for retail sale, one that he dubbed Fire Apple Vinegar. It’s tonic of pungent ingredients such as turmeric, garlic, chipotle peppers, lemon, ginger and local honey, and it’s now his best seller.
“It’s quite an intense experience,” he said, after slugging back a sample and wincing a bit. “People like to take straight shots of fire vinegar as an immunity enhancer or use it in salads and bloody marys.”

Grout now has expanded his vinegar offerings to include apple cider, balsamic apple, black raspberry, peach, and maple.

His maple vinegar is the result of a collaboration with Crown Maple Estate, a maple syrup producer in Dover Plains (Dutchess County). The result is the first New York state maple vinegar, an earthy, slightly sweet concoction.

“Our maple vinegar starts from a mixture of 42 percent maple syrup, 50 percent water and 8 percent alcohol,” Grout said. “It has a certain tang to it while retaining some sweetness.”
Customers, he added, love it in salads, marinades, cocktails, and even drizzled over ice cream.


Focusing on flavor
All of Grout’s vinegars are raw, unfiltered and probiotic in nature. Vinegars that contain live cultures are nothing new, but Grout said his process of distilling and then aging his vinegar in small batches is what sets his product apart.

“Most vinegar on the market is mass-produced by one company,” he explained. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but store-bought vinegar is just made from hard cider that’s been fermented and then acidified.”

In contrast, a vinegar such as his balsamic variety is the result of a more involved process that includes boiling down a concentrated reduction of the fruit and then barrel-aging the product. Both of these steps contribute to an end result of thicker, more flavorful vinegar.

“Making vinegar is like making bread: Yeast can flop or make a good, airy bread,” Grout explained. “Besides the apples, the main ingredients are oxygen and ethanol alcohol, and ethanol in distilled spirits is what bacteria eats to make vinegar.

“Historically, vinegar was made by wine going bad,” he added. “The wine would sit and oxygenate too long and, voila, the world’s first condiment.”

Behind the distillery’s tasting room is where the evolution of vinegar happens. Grout makes his way through a labyrinth of chilly hallways and warehouse rooms where crates of apples are stacked to the ceiling. Here, wooden barrels age the vinegar varieties.

In the absence of industrial-scale vinegar-making machinery, Grout makes it happen through “MacGyvering together” a processing barrel that contains the mother of the vinegar -- a compound of cellulose and acetic acid -- plus 10 percent ethanol alcohol.

A precisely constructed spout in the barrel’s center allows for air to enter, while also being narrow enough to keep pesky fruit flies out.

“The 10 percent ethanol will turn into 5 percent acidity,” Grout explained. “What most people don’t understand is vinegar is made from alcohol being broken down by oxygen.”

Once the oxygenation and fermentation process is complete, the vinegar is encased in wooden barrels made of either Hungarian or American oak for aging.

In the infancy of his vinegar-making business, Grout didn’t have a formal brand name for his product. But he recently settled on Hudson Valley Vinegar, a nod to the region where the apples are grown.

“My goal is to replicate world’s best vinegars and make them in the Hudson Valley,” he said. “The two things that make a true balsamic are cooking down and reducing the fruit, followed by barrel-aging. Most of what we drink in the states is not true balsamic but a facsimile of it. I like the idea of having a quality craft vinegar that originates in upstate New York.”

Grout’s vinegars are sold in thick, glass 8-ounce bottles that retail for $15 a bottle. Later this year, he plans to roll out a 15-ounce size.

And he’s not finished with expanding the flavor profiles of the vinegars. His latest mission is to collaborate with a local brewer to create a malt vinegar.

This year, Grout will begin selling his vinegars online under the Hudson Valley Vinegar brand. A few specialty stores already carry the vinegar, including Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany and Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington, Mass.

Although his vinegar business depends largely on word of mouth at this point, Grout says it’s already built a loyal following.

“People who come back on regular basis make me feel there’s huge potential in this category,” he said. “There’s so much vinegar being consumed in this country that’s made in Italy, and more artisanal vinegars could be made by apple growers in the United States. We could export it, as is being done with American beer.”


For more information about Hudson Valley Vinegar, visit www.hudsonvalleyvinegar.com or call (518) 758-1776.