Big New Upstate NY Distillery

An air force general, some organic grain — and a big new Upstate NY distillery

Madison County Distillery: Coming soon

Mike Basla had a stellar career in the U.S. Air Force, attaining the rank of lieutenant general (three-star), serving as the service’s chief information officer and head of its 77,000-member cyber operations unit.

Now, he’s helping run a distillery on a 90-acre farm outside Cazenovia, N.Y.

“I can’t think of a better retirement than sitting here on this farm, holding a drink I helped make,” he said.

Basla, along with his son Adam (they’re pictured above) and son-in-law Pat Ruddy have been working since last year to open the Madison County Distillery at 2420 Route 20, just east of the village of Cazenovia.  After a few delays, they hope to start producing spirits by the fall. A tasting room will follow.

The building went up in late 2016 along Route 20 east of Cazenovia. It’s a 5,000-square-foot  rustic wood structure built on a former farm field. It currently has no sign, leading passersby to wonder what’s going on. It’s past the Hampton Inn on the south side of Route 20, and almost directly opposite Caz Cans.

One of the project’s delays, according to partner Pat Ruddy, was anticipating a change in state law: It allows distilleries using New York ingredients (farm distillers) to begin selling New York beers and cider, as well as spirits, in their tasting rooms. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill in July, taking  effect immediately.

“It changed our business model a little,” Ruddy said. “When we heard they were going to do this (last year), the production area shrank and the tasting room area grew.”

The production area is already in use. The tasting room is still a work in progress. At some point there will also be an event space.

“Right now, we want to get something in the bottle,” Adam Basla said. “That’s the top priority.”

Like many start-up distilleries, Madison County will begin with clear, or unaged spirits, like vodka and gin. These do not require aging in wooden barrels, like most whiskeys (bourbon, rye etc.) do. They can be ready within a few weeks. Whiskeys and barrel-aged spirits will  come later.

The initial lineup for Madison County Distillery includes:

– Stone Quarry Vodka. It’s made completely from organic local corn and spring water. “Who else can say their vodka is made from organic corn and fresh spring water?” Ruddy said. “That’s our calling card.”

– Coach’s Classic Gin: This will be similar to a London dry-style gin. “It’s juniper-forward,” Adam Basla said. “Coach” is Mike Basla’s nickname.

– General’s Gin: This one will be more of a “craft spirit” with different botanicals (not as juniper-heavy as the London style).

– Mad Cow Moonshine. This will be an unaged whiskey (moonshine or white lightning).

The Baslas and Ruddy hope to move into aged whiskey soon, using smaller barrels at first to speed up the process, before venturing into longer, traditional aging.

The still at Madison County Distillery was manufactured in Germany by Carl, a well-known still maker. It’s a 650-liter still, good-sized for a start-up, and can make batches from 200 to 800 gallons, Ruddy said. It’s designed for continuous distillation (used in vodka) but can be outfitted for what is known as the “pot still” method, traditional for some whiskeys, like Irish.

Mike Basla grew up in Lyncourt, a Syracuse suburb, and attended Bishop Grimes High School. As his Air Force career was winding down, he decided to return “home” and purchased a 200-year-old farm called The Maples. “So I have the farm and I have to consider — what am I going to do with it?” He initially thought about opening a brewery using ingredients from the farm.

Mike Basla ditched the idea of opening a farm brewery in favor of a farm distillery. “There’s lots of breweries, and distilleries are the coming thing,” he said. The distillery not only uses ingredients produced on the farm, it allows Basla to put together a business that will reunite  his family.  His son, Adam, has been living in Germany while working for a defense contractor.  “This is bringing us together,” Mike Basla said.

Though the still itself comes from Germany, much of the other equipment and all the ingredients will be American, and mostly local. Licensed farm distilleries in New York must use locally grown ingredients. Mike Basla plans to hire returning veterans to work on the farm (not necessarily in the distillery).  While the distillery’s motto will be “Lift Your Spirits!,” the veterans’ work on the farm will use “Lift Your Spirit!,” Basla said.

One reason Mike Basla bought the farm in the first place, his son Adam said, “is so he could own a piece of America.” The farm is managed by the Gianforte family, who are growing organic grain for the distillery’s use. Wheat and rye (pictured) are already in the ground; corn is coming soon.

Mike Basla and his son-in-law, Pat Ruddy (above right), along with Mike’s son Adam, plans to make Madison County Distillery a true “grain to glass” operation. Though they are currently buying some ingredients, like corn, from other local suppliers, they eventually hope to source almost all their ingredients from the 90-acre farm. “I really want this to be self-sufficient,” Mike Basla said.

New law helps distilleries

The timing of a new law in New York couldn’t be better for the Madison County Distillery. The law that went into effect in July allows “farm distilleries” in the state (those that use New York ingredients) to sell New York-labeled beer, wine and cider in their tasting rooms. This catches the farm distilleries up with the farm wineries, breweries and cideries, which all had the ability to sell each of the other state-labeled alcohol products. This benefits the distilleries, which have a new revenue source, and creates more exposure for all New York beverages.

Madison County Distillery will become the third hard liquor maker in Madison County, joining Life of Reilley Wine &  Distilling Co. also on Route 20 near Cazenovia and Old Home Distillers in Lebanon. They are among the more than 110 farm distilleries operating in New York, most of which opened since 2011. (The number of New York farm distilleries jumped from 10 in the first quarter of 2011 to 114 by May 2017). There are also dozens of larger distilleries that do not have a farm license. Follow news on Upstate New York’s distilleries (and its breweries and wineries) at

Posted:  August 04, 2017
By:  Don Cazentre