Food & Drinks

Can Sunchoke “Mezcal” Save the World? | PUNCH

When the sunchokes are first scattered across the grates of the fire pit, there’s still a handful of peach stones nestled amongst the embers. Alongside the logs, which have been burning for hours, sheets of torn burlap, pulled soaking wet from a nearby wheelbarrow, are billowing steam and smoke high into the air. It’s late August in Greenport, Long Island, and it’s far too hot for anyone to be working over an open flame.

This is nothing, I’m told, compared with the pineapples, which the Matchbook Distilling Co. team smoked just three days before in a much larger, much hotter fire. Combined with water and fresh pineapple juice, they will ferment for three weeks prior to distillation and be bottled under the Ritual Sister label. The sunchokes (which, like agave, are naturally rich in the complex carbohydrate inulin) will be mixed with honey and distilled into a spirit inspired by mezcal. And the peaches? They were cooked down into sweet, smoky mash, and are now co-fermenting with leftover whey and red winter wheat for a peach brandy modeled after a fire-roasted cobbler. The plan is to call it Meteorite, named for the meteor showers taking place while the fruit was blistering in the pit.

“We like thinking about balance and flavor, and building,” says Leslie Merinoff-Kwasnieski, who, in the three years since founding Matchbook Distilling Co., has earned an industry following for her line of genre-bending spirits. “Making spirits that are just one single ingredient—they’re just not as fun or interesting to me.”

That’s why, nearly every day, Merinoff-Kwasnieski and her team are building new spirits based on what’s available from local farms, pivoting based on ingredients and yield and working without any prescriptive formula. The output is staggering: “We have three stills that run very regularly, we have 10 fermenters that are usually full, and they’re all filled with different things,” she explains. In practice, this amounts to four new releases per month, including six to 12 brandies per year, at least one shochu, hundreds of small-batch botanical distillates and any number of custom spirits and amari for bars and restaurants around the country. 

“We’ve created this facility where we have the space to create anything,” says Merinoff-Kwasnieski. “We don’t want to just be a small craft distillery that produces one brand that you only buy at our tasting room.”

But what remains central to the distillery’s ethos—and is arguably the reason it’s able to create so many different expressions of spirit—is the way Matchbook sources its ingredients. Nearly all of the products are grown or purchased locally, whether grain, wine grapes, day-old bread, or fruits and vegetables. For instance, the idea for a watermelon eau de vie came about when Merinoff-Kwasnieski ran into a farmer at a local cocktail bar. Having planted a slew of watermelons to meet an unusually high demand the year before, he lamented that the fruits weren’t selling, and were rotting on the vine. Merinoff-Kwasnieski bought 4,000 pounds of them on the spot.

Earlier this week, for the third year in a row, the Matchbook team gathered inside the distillery to break down hundreds of multicolored watermelons, sourced from two local farms. Equipped with knives, a stainless steel table and an antique Italian wine press affectionately dubbed Dolce, they cut the fruit into cubes, flinging the rinds across the room into a 16-square-foot receptacle. (Some will be pickled, others composted.) In years past, after a quick fermentation lasting just shy of a week, the liquid was distilled through a pot-column hybrid still and bottled. This year, however, the eau de vie will be diluted, carbonated and canned as a hard seltzer called Riley.

“There are moments where this process is very creative,” says Merinoff-Kwasnieski, “and there are other times when it just feels so obvious.”

Likewise, buried within Matchbook’s freeform expressionism is an obvious objective: a desire to reconnect with the very foundation of distilling through a focus on using hyperlocal ingredients and a practical need to foster symbiotic relationships with local farms. Quite simply, Matchbook asks the question of whether modern spirits can be a more productive part of a working food system. Merinoff-Kwasnieski believes they can.

“My dream is to have a couple of Matchbooks in different agricultural zones that can create really unique spirits to the region,” she explains. “So really just trying to create a mom-and-pop tier of distilled spirits.”

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