We climbed a creaky metal ladder as my mother and I followed Gable Erenzo into an attic splotched with sunlight. "These are all experiments," he said, gesturing to a jumble of 3-gallon oak casks, 53-gallon whiskey barrels and seemingly every size in between.
The attic -- in Gardiner, above the tasting room where Erenzo and other employees of Tuthilltown Spirits pour sips of their New York Corn Whiskey and Hudson Manhattan Rye -- exhaled a museumlike aroma of wood and dust.
It was a fitting smell. We had planned our trip to the Hudson Valley to visit artisans who have recently begun bringing back hard cider and apple brandy -- the stuff of colonial taverns, Revolutionary War rations and local myth. A 1940 New York travel guide describes gnomes who danced under the full moon and "brewed a liquor that shortened the body and swelled the head." Henry Hudson's crew, it continues, is said to have made their acquaintance: "When the sailors departed, they were distorted by the magic distillation, which, we moderns know, was Catskill applejack."
My mother, thankfully, remained undistorted. But when I tried the oaky, vanilla-scented apple distillate that Erenzo drew from a small cask, my head did swell a bit with thoughts of another legendary place: France, particularly the province of Normandy, home of refreshingly funky ciders and fruity, mysterious Calvados.
We hadn't come to New York only because of the cider and brandy revival; we had come because I had heard that producers were looking to France for inspiration. Glynwood, a farmland conservation nonprofit group, had recently launched its Apple Exchange, bringing cidermakers and distillers to the Hudson Valley from the Norman region of Le Perche, a gastronomic stronghold of "stone houses with red-tiled roofs and herds of white cows on dazzling green pastures," as Exchange facilitator Colette Rossant once wrote. The French have shared traditional wisdom and techniques. Online, I'd even discovered Cafe Le Perche, a local bakery that had installed a French wood-burning oven and begun replicating the region's distinctive baguettes.
A patch of Normandy in New York? It was a captivating idea. And, at the very least, a good excuse to spend a warm fall day among farms, estates and factory towns turned weekend destinations.
What we found, of course, wasn't quite France but a uniquely American culinary landscape -- part historic farmland and part farm-to-table escape, with a hint of joie de vivre. Think George Washington retired to Mount Vernon, savoring his usual applejack with the Marquis de Lafayette.
We began the day in Beacon, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, an artsy town worth exploring if you have the time. Driving west, we crossed the Hudson River's Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, a stretch of rusted steel that won an American Institute of Steel Construction "most beautiful bridge" award in 1964. Like so many things in the Hudson Valley, it's both unusually grand and unusually quaint.
The same is true of the 101-year-old Soons Orchard and Farm Market, a sweep of Colonial-looking houses and barns near the town of New Hampton, containing an explosion of mums, homemade jams, apple-sorting equipment and children on their parents' shoulders -- all of which manages to convey not disorder but lively abundance. "It's conceivable that people could miss everything going on over here," said Jeff Soons, leading us to an out-of-the-way machinery shed. He showed us a small room he is outfitting with dark wainscoting and oak panels: a tasting room for his new project, Orchard Hill Cider Mill.
Hard-cider producers are now scattered throughout the state (for a good overview, see the Hudson Valley Cider Route map, unveiled this year), but Soons and his partners are diverging from most of the crowd by making cider that, like French examples, is bottle-fermented. Its delicate, champagnelike fizz comes from yeast respiring within the bottle rather than infusions of carbon dioxide.
Orchard Hill also plans to release an apple liqueur in the style of Pommeau, the French blend of Calvados and fresh apple juice often consumed in Normandy as an aperitif. Orchard Hill's test batch, with its syrupy richness, is almost certainly the only product of its sort being made in the United States.
At Tuthilltown, Erenzo told us that the distillery's long-term goal is to make a softer version of Calvados, without the harsh, volatile flavors that can linger in French brandies until they've sat for decades. "I like Calvados," he said, "but you have to age the hell out of it."
Farther north, in Annandale-on-Hudson, Adam Fincke gave us a tour of Montgomery Place Orchards and Annandale Cidery. "We've got a lot of books printed in the late 1700s that talk about Jefferson's and George Washington's favorite cider apples," he said. Many of the orchard's more than 60 kinds of apples are heirloom American varieties. The cider -- sweet, complex, extracted in 2-gallon bursts on a tiny press -- is packaged not in wine bottles but in Mason jars.
Still, as the sun sank behind the earthy fall foliage and dusk settled over the orchard, it was hard to forget about France. An hour or so later, we parked on a quiet street in the town of Hudson, where the manager of Cafe Le Perche was outside, preparing to lock the door.
"We haven't had anyone here since 2," he said; he had sent the staff home early. Would he still serve us? Yes, he would.
Past a long zinc bar, in a high-ceilinged room filled with rustic wood furniture, I ate a sandwich of Dijon-crusted pork loin with onion jam and caramelized apples. But it didn't taste French. It tasted, I think, like New York.
If you go:
*Where to stay: Union Street Guest House, 345-349 Union St., Hudson (518-828-0958; www.unionstreetguesthouse.com). Greek Revival home turned boutique hotel in historic downtown Hudson. Rooms from $200.
Inn at the Falls, 50 Red Oaks Mill Road, Poughkeepsie (845-462-5770; www.innatthefalls.com). A 36-room inn in a quiet part of town, recently bought by the Best Western chain and fully renovated. Rooms from $110.
*Where to eat: Cafe Le Perche, 230 Warren St., Hudson (518-822-1850; www.cafeleperche.com).
Homey French-influenced fare featuring artisanal breads. Sandwiches, salads and entrees $9-$22.
The Historic Village Diner, 7550 N. Broadway, Red Hook (845-758-6232; www.historic-village-diner.com). A remarkably well-preserved early-20th-century diner offering classic American dishes. Breakfast specials from $4.50.
*What to do: Soons Orchard and Farm Market, 23 Soons Circle, New Hampton (845-374-5471; www.soonsorchard.com). A family-run orchard featuring apples, fresh cider, homemade baked goods and other produce and regional products, with a hard-cider tasting room coming shortly. Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Tuthilltown Spirits, 14 Grist Mill Lane, Gardiner (845-633-8734; www.tuthilltown.com). Adjacent to the historic Tuthilltown Gristmill, offering tastings of its handcrafted spirits (Thursday through Sunday, $10) as well as tours (Saturdays and Sundays, $15 including tasting, $10 without). Tours by reservation only; may be booked online.
Montgomery Place Orchards and Annandale Cidery, 8 Davis Way, Annandale-on-Hudson (845-758-6338; www.mporchards.com). The orchard isn't regularly open to the public, but its hard cider and other products are available at its farm market at routes 9G and 199 (Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed in winter). Group tours can sometimes be arranged by calling in advance.