Above: Delaware Phoenix began with absinthe and has recently expanded into whiskey. Photo by Jacob Pucci.
Delaware Phoenix Distillery grew out of a personal hobby and an 8-gallon still.
Proprietor Cheryl Lins, a pioneer among upstate New York spirits makers, began experimenting with making absinthe back in 2006, a couple of years after moving to Delaware County from New Mexico.
“I like to say I crash-landed here,” she said. “I needed a change of climate.”
She traded desert heat for long, snowy winters, and then decided to heed her friends, who, after tasting her spirits, urged her to trade in her careers as a computer programmer and an artist as well.
Today, Lins is still a one-woman show, but her absinthes, and more recently, whiskeys, have earned accolades far beyond her Catskills and New York City markets—and helped launch a mini-boom of upstate New York distilleries.
When Lins opened Delaware Phoenix in 2009 with two versions of absinthe, Meadow of Love and Walton Waters, she was the first in the Empire State to produce the formerly outlawed concoction, two years after the federal government relaxed its rules on sales of the “green fairy.” Lins’ products almost immediately made waves through the burgeoning absinthe community, both here and abroad.
In 2010, the New York International Spirits Competition awarded gold medals to her Walton Waters absinthe and her Rye Dog whiskey. Reviewers at the Wormwood Society, a consumer education and advocacy group named after one of the primary ingredients in absinthe, rate Meadow of Love as the second-best traditional absinthe worldwide. Both Walton Waters and Blues Cat, a limited-time product produced in 2011, rank in the group’s top 15.
The process to make Delaware Phoenix a reality began in earnest in 2007, soon after Lins’ new hometown of Walton was hit by a devastating flood. That event prompted the name for her distillery: “Delaware” for the county and the river that runs through it, and “Phoenix” from the mythical bird that rises from the ashes of its predecessors.
Lins applied for state and federal licenses, a process that took roughly 18 months and a sizable upfront financial commitment. Under current law, prospective distillers must obtain a workable commercial location that fits within certain guidelines and purchase and set up all the distilling equipment—all without the promise that the equipment can even be used. In addition, Lins had to get special permission to distill within the village of walton, as zoning did not permit it.
“All of the laws on the books are holdovers from Prohibition,” Lins said. “They expect Al Capone to come back from the dead and take over the liquor industry.”
Currently, Lins produces four whiskeys—corn, bourbon, rye and an un-aged rye known as “Rye Dog.”
A new wheat whiskey is under development, as well.
Lins, 60, does all the work: grinding the grain, creating the mash, ferment- ing the mash, distilling the mash to create low wines, distilling the low wines to make whiskey, barreling and aging the whiskey, hand-bottling and sealing each bottle. She also loads and delivers all the products herself.
Lins’ old-school methods and commitment to local products fits in well with the recent shift in attention to local agriculture and producers.
“When i have a chance to take advantage of locally grown grains, that’s what I’m going to do,” Lins said.
Along with grains, another locally grown Catskills product may eventually find its way into Lins’ stills. After a banner apple crop in the fall of 2013, Lins began contemplating production of an old American classic: applejack.
Since Lins first fired up her 8-gallon still nearly a decade ago, the craft distilling movement has taken off in the state.
“When I started, there were maybe four or five craft distillers in New York,” Lins said. “Now there’s around 50.”
Delaware Phoenix Distillery is located at 144 Delaware St., Walton, 607-865- 5056, and is online at delawarephoenix.com. Its local retailers include Catskill Cellars in Downsville, the Liquor Cabinet in West Hurley, Ray’s Fine Wines and Spirits in Delhi and Breakey’s Liquor Store in Walton.
This article originally appeared in the print version of the 2014 Catskills Food Guide, our annual publication covering local farms, restaurants and food purveyors. Find a copy near you here