The first thing Marilee Foster wants me to know when we walk into the Sagaponack Farm Distillery off Sagg Road in Poxabogue is, “I am solidly a farmer.” Marilee is a sixth-generation, full-time farmer who’s taken on distilling as an inevitable sideline. Her big brother, Dean, is off on a well-deserved ski vacation and their distiller Matt Beamer is asleep next door, in the midst of a 21-hour distillation. This leaves Marilee in charge. As she says, in this rectifying stage of the run, “it’s just monitoring. The art of it has already taken place. I’m a total beginner but I drink whiskey.”
The large German-made still is a thing of beauty—a super hot jacket of shining metal and condensing columns worthy of any steampunk exhibition—bubbling away, producing delectable aromas. The process largely involves boiling the mash liquid and then collecting the vapor as it cools and condenses back into liquid form. “It’s an old fashioned design with high tech accouterments. I like gauges. I can only do two things at once.” Spoken like her father Cliff’s daughter. Clifford Foster passed away in 2017. He collected—and piloted—antique planes as well as farming contraptions. When Dean and Marilee first got into distilling, their mom Lee declared that the farming family had finally “achieved vertical integration!”
Soon the general public can have a look at this operation. A spacious tasting room with windows onto the adjacent distillery is due to open this season. Marilee points out, “It is, in fact, an old dairy barn divided up.” A barnwood bar is topped with slices of a mammoth tree cut down on Parsonage Lane in 1984. It’s common knowledge this was a tree which an old farmer, who shall remain nameless, crawled under to sober up daily. The walls of the tasting room are covered in barnwood and the area behind the bar sports an expanse of sleek gray tile. When the space opens, it will include a patio and the sizeable frontage will be planted in wildflowers, with paths throughout.
Were there rumrunners in the Foster family back in the day? Marilee shouts, “Definitely not! They weren’t teetotalers, but they didn’t drink in public—in private…well, they were Presbyterians and Methodists.”
Marilee is planting a large rhubarb patch on the property as well. Though it’s a beautiful plant, this is not for looks. Rhubarb liqueur is just one of several small-batch products to be sold exclusively at the tasting room. In fact, the team is only waiting on the labels to arrive for the rhubarb liqueur that has already, prior to public release, won a silver medal from the American Distilling Institute. Marilee raided the old rhubarb patch on the main Foster farm, down the road in Sagaponack proper, to make this first batch. Last year, complaints were registered with Marilee at the farmstand about the resulting scarcity of rhubarb. She marvels, “Who knew how many people lived for my rhubarb?”
Their team also has a cucumber vodka in the works. Last year was a bad one for cucumbers; trials continue to find the best seedless variety for this purpose. Their Sagaponacka brand vodkas—potato and wheat—are already sold widely at Long Island liquor stores and at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton.
They’re also working on a gin and they already have 53-gallon barrels full of processed Empire Rye aging on-site. The rye is being aged in barrels made of all American oak by East Coast Wooden Barrels in Medford. Marilee says, “I love rye, so I’m really excited about that—but we hafta wait!” Plus there’s a bourbon and a traditional potato whiskey. Marilee describes the gin unabashedly as “absolutely fantastic! We’ve always grown these crops on the farm, everything is 100% from the farm. Why do it if you’re not gonna be yourself?” Now they’re growing several different kinds of wheat, and the total farmed acreage has been pared down.
For malting, grains are sent to another family farm, Valley Malts in Massachusetts, which specializes in the process. “Maybe someday we’ll do our own malting, but it’s a very specialized skill,” Marilee says, as she adjusts her glasses to again check the flow via a series of meters and gauges.
Traditionally, farmers had to start planting potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day—not for the divine blessing but because that was the right time in the calendar, when the earth began to “spring” into action. Since 1995, Marilee has marked “a consistent march” toward a later planting, now in April. This is problematic, in part, because potatoes are a long-season crop and October has become a “flood month.” Marilee doesn’t like to get into any political discussion of climate change but assures, “This is happening.”
And so this family farm team has adapted. Beamer is married to a cousin of the Fosters, so it’s “still” one family. First they tried their hands at potato vodka in “a tiny still,” and used 10-gallon barrels. Marilee says it wasn’t the best vodka but it was clear that “the thing about distilling is that you do get down to the essence of the thing—those are my potatoes! I tasted it. To capture the spirit of our Bridgehampton Loam—the terroir—is really exciting!” She notes “the white versus red potatoes produce a significantly different taste.”
While vodka, by definition, is supposed to be flavorless, nowadays it’s widely accepted that an artisan vodka can—and should—have some flavor. Sagaponacka is a “sipping vodka,” with great aromas. Marilee recommends imbibing it cold and straight, maybe alongside some of their farm’s Tiger Spud Potato Chips. But she has been known to riff on the Moscow mule cocktail—with the “Poxabogue Pony”—made with lemongrass and ginger grown on the farm.
The distillery occupies one of the last homestead farming lots in the area. It was eyed for a group of seven McMansions before the Fosters bought it. “A farm is traditionally about feeding people good, healthy produce,” Marilee says. This one is now about serving people a better alcoholic beverage.
While other farms vanished, this one “vaporized.”