This story was originally posted on syracuse.com
By Don Cazentre | email@example.com
It started in 1911 with apples — just apples. Fresh sweet cider hit the market in 1979.
Then came the 21st Century, and a big pivot toward alcoholic beverages.
Today Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards in LaFayette is building a drinks-based empire through its alcohol brand, 1911 Established. It makes hard cider, vodka and gin, bourbon and brandy, and more. It’s packaging pre-made cocktails in cans. At its tasting room and at fairs and festivals, it whips up cocktails and alcohol-based slushies.
The alcohol business now accounts for more than 50 percent of Beak & Skiff/1911′s total revenues, said company president Eddie Brennan, a member of the fourth-generation to run the business.
You can see it firsthand at the 2019 New York State Fair, where 1911 Established has grown into two big locations. The bigger one, introduced last year, is near the west entrance of the Horticulture Building. This year, there’s a second stand near the Expo Center on the Fair’s west end.
Both stands will offer hard cider on tap, and the Frose’, a wine slushie. The bigger stand has cocktails, like last year’s big hit the Tipsy Cow and the new innovation for 2019, the Dizzy uNYcorn (a colorful concoction with 1911 Tropical Vodka, lemonade, and blue curacao.) You can also buy 1911 Vodka by the bottle to go (in sealed packages).
1911 also has a new State Fair-themed hard cider, Sweet Apple, which will be sold through the run of the Fair (Aug. 21 to Sept. 2) at stands throughout the grounds. It is likely the closest thing to an official drink of the 2019 Fair.
“The State Fair has really become a major showcase for us,” Brennan said. “It’s almost grown into its own business. And the timing is perfect since the alcohol beverage stands at the Fair are a good way for us to remind people that fall apple picking season is just around the corner.”
And while you’ll find Beak & Skiff apples around the fairgrounds, you won’t find a Beak & Skiff-themed stand there. Brennan says its been years since the legacy orchard had that kind of presence at the Fair.
Beak & Skiff is the biggest and probably best-known apple business in the orchard-rich Central New York region. It’s sprawling Apple Hill campus just south of Route 20 on Lord’s Hill Road (Route 80) is a major destination each fall.
Despite that, Brennan said, without the alcohol business now known as 1911 Established, the family orchard might not have survived to the fourth generation.
“I think at the end of the day you have to credit the hard cider and the spirits with saving and preserving this orchard,” Brennan said. “It’s just too challenging these days to survive as a standalone orchard.”
The big change started around 2000-2001, with a family member named Steve Morse. Morse and his wife Candace Beak Morse had come to the orchard in the mid-1970s, when the business co-founded by her grandfather first started selling its own apples retail, and offering U-pick, instead of just supplying them wholesale to other retailers.
At the dawn of the new century, Morse came up with the idea to use some of the surplus apples to make apple wine and hard (alcoholic) cider. It was a way to add revenue, Morse found, and a good way to make use of some of the dinged up or ugly apples that people might not buy on the stand.
The cider house wasn’t much to look at: It was housed in the garage of a house amid the orchards on Route 20.
“But they were making 40,000 gallons a year out of that garage,” Eddie Brennan said. Today, 1911 distributes hard cider in 14 states, from New England to Georgia and west to Ohio.
A few years later, in 2009, Morse oversaw another big innovation, when he began making apple-based vodka at a distillery built across Route 20 from the cider house, just east of Lord’s Hill Road. It was real vodka — despite the use of apples it had (and has) no discernable apple aroma or flavor.
Soon after that, 1911 added gin and flavored vodkas.
The 1911 Distillery at 4473 Cherry Valley Turnpike (Route 20) also opened a full-service shop and bar/tasting room, where you can purchases bottles and drinks by the glass.
In the last 10 years, the innovations have been coming fast:.
— In 2013, the 1911 vodka became available on cruise ship lines like Celebrity, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. Today, the line of 1911 spirits is still available on cruise ships but otherwise it is limited to New York state distribution.
— Just in time for fall apple picking season in 2013, Beak & Skiff opened its big new Visitor’s Center on what it calls its Apple Hill campus. A centerpiece of the center is a full bar/cafe where you can buy bottles of all the 1911 spirits and ciders, and get those drinks straight or in cocktails at the bar. (The center has also become a busy venue for concerts each summer). Last year, for the first time, Beak & Skiff kept the Apple Hill visitor’s center open through Christmas.
— Starting in 2015, and continuing over the next few years, 1911 built and expanded a bottling and canning plant across Lord’s Hill Road from its main Apple Hill campus. The plant now packages multiple arrays of bottles, cans and mixed-packs.
— In the fall of 2018, the 1911 distillery began rolling out its first whiskey — a bourbon — and also began featuring brandy and a brandy-cider blend called Pommeau. (The brandy is made from apples, but the bourbon is made the traditional way, with corn and other grains).
— This summer (2019), the company joined a hot new trend, offering a line of pre-made cocktails in cans. Flavors include Honeycrisp Cocktail and Strawberry Lemonade Cocktail. Both will be available throughout the Fair.
“Change is the only constant at Beak & Skiff,” Eddie Brennan said Monday during a demonstration of the new cocktail, the Dizzy uNYcorn. “Apples aren’t our only future, it’s our past, and something we’re very proud of and will continue to do. … It’s really all about innovation.”