Home Articles Tenmile Distillery cares about making whisky. You should care too.

Tenmile Distillery cares about making whisky. You should care too.

by Chris Perugini

I’ve lived in Western Connecticut my entire life, but the drive through my home state’s northwest corner always impresses me with its natural beauty, winding roads, and quaint towns. My GPS estimated a 57 minute drive door-to-door from my house to Tenmile Distillery, just minutes over the border in the hamlet of Wassaic, NY. With so many distilleries out there and so little time, the physical proximity of Tenmile to my location was a huge contributing factor to me paying them a visit in the first place. My first impressions of Tenmile came from word of mouth alone. I had heard good things from a few friends with palates I trusted, yet my reservations remained steadfast.

A new distillery is doing American Single Malt whisky, but this place is doing it the RIGHT way.

Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. I hear it about once a week these days so I always set realistic expectations when it comes to new players in this burgeoning sector of the whisky world. Unlike most new distilleries, though, Tenmile has a unique ace up their sleeve in the form of Master Distiller Shane Fraser. Before becoming Master Distiller at Tenmile, Fraser spent three decades working in the Scotch whisky world including time at Royal Lochnagar, Oban, Glenfarclas, and finally at Wolfburn, where he held the role of Distillery Manager. With that breadth of experience, I couldn’t help but wonder how an unknown distillery in the middle of nowhere with no established product line landed someone like Fraser to take the helm. However they brought him on board, my interest was thoroghly piqued.

I arrived at the distillery on a chilly, overcast Thursday afternoon in February. The lights were on but it looked like no one was home. My car was one of four vehicles in the parking lot. The main building is split up into three sections: the operations room, where most of the production happens, a large event space and seating area, and the bar/tasting room. I was immediately struck by the operations area and its creative use of limited space. Both the wash and spirit stills barely fit against the peak of the ceiling. In fact, Tenmile was quick to point out that a crossbeam had to be trimmed a bit to accomodate one of the pot stills. It’s a fun, quirky accent that gives the room character.

Tenmile Distillery

Distiller Cole Peck was the first to greet me upon arrival and guided me to the stunning, wood-paneled bar at the far end of the facility. Co-owner Joel LeVangia and Fraser were only a few minutes behind him and bartender Tim Guy was scurrying here and there behind the bar, making preparations to serve anyone bold enough to visit a distillery on a Thursday afternoon…


It didn’t take long for me to get the impression that my guides don’t just love whisky; they truly love making it. In other words, these are my kind of people. After some small talk, I asked if we could tour the facility. Fraser skipped the standard tour script immediately as my production questions came fast and furious. When I asked how much of this could go on the record, LeVangia was quick to jump in and emphatically declare that, “we have no secrets here.” Tenmile does everything in the name of quality, which usually comes at the expense of both time and output. They welcome anyone who aspires to replicate what they are doing. As LeVangia continued, Tenmile is lucky enough to have enough start-up capital to build a solid foundation without cutting any corners. Most new distilleries quickly realize that it’s not as easy to do everything the right way as expenses start to pile up. As we went over production details, I was struck by how downright…ordinary…everything sounded. Most American Single Malt producers put a uniquely “new world” spin on a very traditional form of whisky: from unusual barley types, to beer yeast during fermentation, to unusual species of oak, American Single Malt often presents as the quirky cousin of the global malt whisky family. Even American distilleries that use traditional fermentation and distillation techniques often age their malt in new oak instead of used oak. This single, subtle departure from the norm has a huge effect on the final product.

Tenmile sources all of their malted barley from Hudson Valley Malt in nearby Germantown, NY. They’re using a two-row, winter barley varietal called Scala, though Fraser couldn’t commit to using it in perpetuity. Tenmile uses a standard dry distiller’s yeast that Fraser likes both for consistency and because they can buy it in bulk. LeVangia was particularly proud to show off their wort chiller, used to ensure that the wort is brought down to low enough temperatures before pitching the yeast, resulting in a long, slow fermentation process. The distillery currently does four fermentation runs each week with room for more runs as production increases, but with an unusually long, 160-hour fermentation time, it’s not hard to imagine all six fermentation tanks continuously in use in the near future. Fraser opened up one of the tanks that was about four days into the process and let me give a quick sniff. While it had all the hallmark yeasty aromas of distillers beer, I was struck by the fruitiness that was already coming through.

I kind of wanted to try it.

As we made the long, 50 foot walk back over to the stills, something immediately caught my eye and had me briefly questioning what country I was in. It’s not often that you see the name “Forsyths” on distilling equipment when you’re on this side of the pond. Forsyths is as big of a name in Scotland as Vendome is in the United States. In addition to their two pot stills (wash and spirit), Tenmile also has a small column still and a custom gin still (also from Forsyths) for their unaged product line. For a new operation, the lock on the spirit safe looked vintage—and it was—a functional memento that came into Fraser’s possession at some point during his thirty years in the Scotch whisky industry. I visited on a day when the stills weren’t in use but even if they were, their distillation is so gentle that you wouldn’t be able to see any activity in the sight glass anyway. Couple that with upward-sloping lyne arms and shell-and-tube condensers and it’s clear that Tenmile is aiming for a light and fruity spirit that can be versatile in a variety of cask types. It’s too bad there was no fresh new make spirit running through the spirit safe.

I would have wanted to try it.

You don’t see Forsyths in the US very often.

We made our way outside to one of two warehouses currently aging 1,200 barrels of whisky. The warehouse we visited was a barn in a previous life. Current production rates have Tenmile filling approximately 300 barrels each year. The vast majority of the whisky I saw looked like it was aging in standard ex-bourbon barrels, but I noticed sherry, port, and rum casks as well. There were also some smaller 15 and 30 gallon barrels towards the back of the room as well as a variety of unusual wine casks. Tenmile’s co-owner (and LeVangia’s father-in-law) John Dyson is the long-time owner of Williams Selyem winery in California’s Russian River Valley, so the distillery has a reliable connection when it comes to sourcing wine barrels.

If you’ve never been inside a warehouse aging single malt whisky, it’s an olfactory experience like none other. Bourbon warehouses are great and have their own unique charm, but there’s something truly special about the smell of a malt whisky warehouse. After chatting a bit about hot topics like American vs. European oak, I half-jokingly asked where the whisky thief was so we could try something on the spot. Fraser admitted that it wasn’t anywhere nearby but what we would be sampling next at the bar was cask strength. I knew there was plenty of whisky waiting for me, but the experience of drinking whisky directly from the barrel always makes the experience that much more special.

I really wanted to try it.

Tenmile Distillery Warehouse

We made our way back to the main building for a flight through most of Tenmile’s whisky range. For a distillery that laid down their first barrels in 2020, I was surprised at how many different bottlings they’ve already done. Tenmile’s single malt whisky is called “Little Rest”. As described on the Tenmile website:

“We call our single malt Little Rest because of a steep hill near the distillery that in days past required an extra horse to pull a full cart uphill. A hamlet grew at the top of the hill so horses and drivers could have “a little rest.”

The inaugural range consisted of their First Edition, Classic, Pinot Noir Cask, and Bourbon Cask expressions. It should come as no surprise that these were all bottled at 46% ABV, without chill filtration or adding coloring. I’m sure Shane wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s not where we started though.

You can tell a lot about a distillery by their new make spirit and how they talk about it. I’ve tried lots new make over the years that I wish I hadn’t. I’ve tasted a handful of decent new makes that are palatable, but not something I’d voluntarily reach for. When I was offered Tenmile’s new make to kick off our flight, I could tell that it was something they were proud of. Now I know why. That same exact fruitiness I smelled in the fermentation tank was back alongside some expected graininess, sweetness, and spice. It was the first pour of new make I considered finishing if I didn’t have so many glasses in front of me. I’m glad I saved room. I was about to become the first person outside of the distillery to try their new Spring Release series, comprised of four new expressions: Founder’s Edition, Port Cask, Double Matured Cask Strength, and Oloroso Sherry Cask Strength. As I sipped my way through each whisky, I had to remind myself that at three years old, everything I was tasting would just barely meet the Scotch Whisky Association’s aging requirement to be officially called Scotch whisky. Consciously, I KNEW that I was in the United States, but everything about this experience was reminiscent of distillery visits in Scotland.

I finally tried it. And I loved it.

Each whisky in the new series had something different to offer and as a comparison point, LeVangia brought out 2023’s First Edition and Bourbon Barrel expressions to demonstrate just how much their whisky has evolved. My favorite of the entire range was the Double Matured Cask Strength (featuring a fun cotton candy profile), with the Bourbon Barrel and Oloroso Sherry expressions as a close second and third. Pricing for these bottles might be a bit jarring to a casual consumer. The current whisky offerings available on Tenmile’s online shop range anywhere from $150 to $235. It’s quite steep, but I see it as pricing that comes with the territory: whisky being made with absolutely no corners cut, made in extremely small quantities, and released to a market where triple digit price tags for whisky is fast becoming the norm rather than the exception. As the operation hopefully scales, they expect to settle into both a friendlier pricing model and higher age statements. The distillery is also taking a page out of the California wine scene with a “Distillery List” that you can join to pre-order upcoming releases.

The bar/tasting room at Tenmile

Before we knew it, the conversation strayed further and futher off-topic. Fraser regaled us with fun anecdotes from his time at Oban and Glenfarclas. We talked about Japanese whisky, whisky auctions, and favorite pours. It was a whisky nerd’s dream. As things wrapped up officially and I said my good byes and thank yous to Shane and Cole, LeVangia asked if I wanted to see their locker room, where patrons can rent lockers for on-site bottle storage. I couldn’t say no. The largest locker belonged to LeVangia himself and as I browsed through bottle after bottle of whisky in his stash, we identified two that needed to be examined a bit further: a 22 year independent bottling of Glen Grant and a bottle hiding in the back that felt like destiny for me to find—a 2007 SMWS Benrinnes aged 9 years in a first-fill Oloroso butt.

The rest of the conversation is officially off the record, but Tenmile Distillery may finally prove me right yet. I spent a lot of time in the mid-2010s predicting that American Single Malt’s best market was going to be American Scotch drinkers. As the 2020s arrived and the ASM segment won over one bourbon drinker after another, I was ready to throw in the towel on my forecast. I’m glad I held on to that towel just a bit longer. Tenmile is doing what no one else in the US has done yet: make a product that truly honors the legacy of Scotch whisky. In my opinion, Tenmile makes whisky not just for the Scotch drinker, but for anyone who appreciates quality in craft spirits. LeVangia put it best himself as we sipped on that 22 year old Glen Grant. “We really care about making whisky.”

Now that I understand the DNA of the distillery, I care too.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Tell me a little bit about your whisky journey. What brought you to where you are today?

LeVangia: Whisky was pretty opaque to me until my early thirties, and it was a Japanese whisky that first showed me the beauty, complexity and simplicity that can be contained in a little dram. After that dinner party, when I discovered how much Yamazaki 25 cost (even then) I started out to find something as good at a semi-reasonable price. The difficulty in finding an equivalent set me reading, and even though my tastes evolved through the process to a more nuanced position in the spectrum of whisky between Hibiki and Springbank, I wound up learning a great deal. I was fortunate to find a stalwart partner in my father in law, John Dyson, who had been itching to honor his MacGregor heritage for years and Tenmile Distillery represents a purists’ take on the proper approach to producing Single Malt Whisky.

Frazer: I commenced my career at Royal Lochnagar in 1990 and after 14 years working my way through various roles, I moved to Oban (2004) where I was given a more senior role within a small team. I then moved to Glenfarclas (2007) to begin my first role in Distillery management and I soon found out that I was to be heavily involved in all aspects of the Distillery Operations. This was great education but working and being on call 24 hrs a day I eventually decided that I needed a more work/life balance role.

I became the Distillery Manager at Wolfburn (November 2012) in the very North of Scotland. It was at Wolfburn that I really began using all of my knowledge gained from all the other distilleries to develop the type of whisky I wanted to produce, which is light/fruity/cereal flavored new make spirit that would mature into lovely whisky. The highlights came when Wolfburn picked up its first Gold medals at 3 different competitions. This showed me that my sacrifice to leave an established distillery and take the plunge in opening a new one worth all the hard work and belief I had in myself and the faith the owners had in me. After several job offers from many different countries, I applied for the role of Master distiller at Tenmile Distillery, where I was lucky enough to be successful. I started in 2019, helping to organize the distilling equipment and connecting pipework, then went all in to production in January 2020. I decided that to make the best spirit, we need take our time. “Quality not quantity” is the key to success.

Every craft distillery is trying to differentiate themselves and I think a lot can be learned from the core values of a business. What is the mission statement of Tenmile Distillery and how does it set you apart?

LeVangia: John Dyson does a good job of making sure everyone hears the sentence: “Make the best spirits from the best ingredients with the best people.” and, “Quality is best achieved through a fanatical attention to detail.” Which together make up the core tenets of what we are trying to do. To this we can safely add the idea that we have a healthy respect for technologies developed by farmers over hundreds of years. When you have intelligent people engaged in a repetitive process that they care about, you can expect that they will take the time to improve upon and simplify it to a certain point. Past that point it sometimes happens that a few generations of business school graduates will comb the beaches of products for every last iota of profit and in that process degrade some aspects of the thing itself. The act of “improving” is sacrificed to “expanding.” We will never be on every liquor store shelf in the world, we’ll make enough for New York—give people another reason to come visit. Staying committed to that idea will help us keep our focus on quality, and that discipline will be what sets us apart.

What are your metrics for success? In an industry with an extremely challenging start-up phase, what do you think is the most important factor in achieving those goals?

LeVangia: Douglas Cruickshank told us early on, “If you make a good spirit and you put it in good wood, you can’t go far wrong.” Our focus has always been on getting those two parts right. John Dyson’s leadership of Williams Selyem in California gave him and us a fairly simple formula for success that goes back to the mission statement. You never know exactly what you’re going to get, but I think the most important “start up phase factor” was doing all of the homework from Mike McCaw to Michael Jackson, to keep from making any of the simple or obvious mistakes of ignorance. Ultimately, a distillery is a nearly perfect machine, similar to the 100-year-old technology of a 35mm Film Camera. Both things have been long since fine-tuned to a high polish, but how many people actually know how to build one? And once you have the camera, does that automatically mean you get a great movie out of it? If John is the Studio Chief, I’m the Producer and Shane is the Director, we still need all of us to be in complete agreement about the aims of the project and to respect one another’s roles and contributions to be able to come out with something great—so we are very lucky to have that.

Shane, you have a lot of previous experience in the Scotch whisky world. What unique perspective does that experience bring to the creation of a malt whisky in the United States?

Fraser: My first perspective was for us [Fraser, John Dyson, and LeVangia] to really agree on what flavor profile we wanted for the spirit and funnily enough, they had the same ideas as me! They wanted light, fruity new make that would mature into a world class whisky. The process I do at the distillery is like stepping back 40-50 years in Scotland, using my skills and taking the time and effort to do everything correctly with no production targets apart from producing high quality spirit.

How does the American consumer base change the strategy of your production methods? How do Americans preferences compare to that of a more global audience?

Fraser: No, I did not change how the spirit would be made to suit the American consumer. I think older scotch drinkers in America are brand loyal, which is very similar to Scotland. I find that more people will try different whisky, especially people who are new to tasting single malt. I find it interesting that most of the United States like a slightly sweeter drink and we have tried to cater for that with our recent expressions. We have found that we have converted many bourbon drinkers to our whisky because it has a slight sweetness.

Worldwide, I find that consumers are looking for stronger expressions, whether it be more ABV or more smoke.

You chose New York State as the location to produce and age your whisky. What was the logic behind this decision?

LeVangia: John Dyson and I are both proud New Yorkers. John’s life in public service (separate from his life as a farmer or his life as a titan of industry, John packs a lot in) included the creation of the “I Love NY” advertising campaign that launched a thousand ships of tourism ad campaigns. During one of his stints as either Secretary of Agriculture or Commerce, the New York State Legislature passed the “1976 Farm Winery Act” which was updated in 2012 to the “Farm Winery, Brewery and Distillery Act” thanks to Ralph Erenzo of Tuthilltown fame. Once that happened, John’s interest in producing a single malt ramped up, and it took about four or five more years for he and I to line ourselves up to actually get the thing done. In point of fact, New York’s Legislature has created the friendliest legal framework to incubate a vertically integrated agricultural value-added business in the United States. Unfortunately there are fewer and fewer of those legislators still fighting the good fight a decade later, so John gets his lance and heads up to the windmills of Albany every once in a while to make the case for all the craft distilleries that have sprung up since 2012.

American Single Malt as a category is finally breaking through to a mainstream audience. What do you see as the next step in the evolution of this space?

LeVangia: Acceptance. There are several outfits doing great things. It will be important to demonstrate that we can make a world-class product that concedes nothing to the established powerhouses of single malt. Once we’ve done this with a properly distilled and aged single malt, we can win the interest and affection of stalwart single malt drinkers in this country whose brand loyalty currently belongs to older, more pedigreed distilleries. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

From unusual yeast and barley to aging in local oak, many American Single Malt producers are adding unique twists during production to help shape the flavor profile of their whiskies. Tenmile is unusual in that your production methods are actually quite traditional. Can you speak to that a bit?

LeVangia: We’re a little bit lucky that it is unusual to adhere to tradition. We think it’s important to respect and observe the form before making any attempts to change things. Shane is actually making whisky in a pretty old-fashioned way for modern standards. Masaharu Taketsuru learned to make whisky in Scotland in the early 1900’s and there are reports as early as 1950 stating that the 1830’s were the “Golden Age” of single malt. Two hundred years later we should make wholesale changes? Let’s first prove we can be technically proficient (or even superior) and then, if we decide there’s an improvement we want to implement and we have a truly excellent theory—we might innovate. Most likely, though, I’ll push to build a second distillery for that. All that being said, our burgundy barrels and upward tilting lye pipes are atypical, though certainly not unheard of—we’ve got a couple of wrinkles but nothing heretical.

Fraser: We use 100% New York grain grown locally by various farmers and gently malted by Dennis Nesel in Germantown. Everything is done gently. The mashing takes 5.5 hours. We pump our sugary wort slowly from our mash tun to create a wort free from solids. Our fermentations are nearly 7 days—we start then at a very low temperature of 13 degrees C (55 F) so the yeast gets time to adjust to its surroundings and multiply before producing alcohol up to 9.5% abv .

Distillations are also slow and gentle—around 5.5 hours for both wash and spirit runs to help us produce a very fruity/malty new make spirit. Our Lye pipes angle upwards from still to condenser and we underfill our stills to get more copper interaction and create more reflux. Although we run the stills slow, we want them to run warm. This process helps the copper to act as a catalyst to remove any heavy notes in the spirit. Air rests are also important between distillations. The stills are opened and allowed to cool so that the copper recovers for the next day’s distillation. We use used oak casks for our maturation along with used bourbon barrels and sherry casks direct from Spain. This gives our matured whisky a more Scottish style than some of the American single malts that are around.

The growth of the whisk(e)y market over the last 15 years has been unprecedented. Why do you think this is the case? Where do you see the whisky world in another 10 years?

LeVangia: Whisky is a proven, versatile spirit. Michael Jackson puts it better than I ever could in his Malt Whisky Companion: “The single malts are the most natural of spirits, formed more than any other by their environment. For the same reason they are the most individualistic. One arouses the appetite before dinner, another soothes the digestion; one likes to follow a round of golf, another prefers a book at bedtime. No other spirit offers such diversity of character. Among the others, Armagnac has perhaps the greatest diversity, but is still primarily an after-dinner drink.”

Whisky’s complexity, nuance and depth will keep on capturing the imagination of people for generations to come. What I hope is that the success of Japanese distilleries and ourselves lead a charge for smaller batches of heirloom grains that produce complex, rich whiskies that are nevertheless accessible and popular. This, I think, is the hardest thing to do and therefore the most interesting.

Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t discussed?

LeVangia: I think I’d like people to know that they can rely on us, John’s principles, my research and Shane’s experience, to produce a single malt whisky that’s done properly. This is useful because it makes us a good starting point from which to venture out to the wider world of whisky. You should be able to start with a distillery and say to yourself, “I know these guys are doing it right, so I can judge everything else against them.” I’d like it if we were known as that distillery, the “correct” distillery. Our current customers are learning the value of aging in the barrel in a very real way, since everything we’ve released has come from when we started production in 2020—there will be some barrels from January of 2021 for the first time this year, but we are staying as close to the front of our production as we can (until we get too popular…).

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