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Clayton Distillery will try to put customers in high spirits

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CLAYTON — Along with the arrival of spring, north country residents will have a second reason to be in high spirits in April.

Clayton Distillery has made April 1 the target for opening its new 2,560-square-foot facility at 40164 Route 12. Vodka production started in earnest at the farm distillery in mid-February, and several 1,000-pound batches of mashed corn are now fermenting in stills. Starting next week, that alcohol will be sent through a 250-gallon copper pot still to prepare it for bottling.

It’s an exciting prospect for co-owner Michael L. Aubertine, who engineered and led the construction of the micro-distillery, which broke ground in July. After putting in 15-hour workdays for the past two months, he will soon operate a semiautomatic machine to fill 400 bottles of spirits per hour.

“This has been a lot of fun for me to figure out,” said the 44-year-old entrepreneur, who has spent the past 20 years doing similar design work for Aubertine and Currier Architects, Engineers & Land Surveyors in Watertown.

Customers who visit the farm distillery will first notice its rustic exterior designed by Mr. Aubertine. The building appeals to the eye with its shiplap pine siding, galvanized steel roof and visible rafters. A 110-foot sawtooth fence borders the parking lot to accentuate the rustic aura.

“We wanted to make it look like an old barn,” said Mr. Aubertine, who grew up on his family’s farm in Cape Vincent. Still owned by his parents, Terry and Linda Aubertine, the farm grows corn, rye, wheat and oats for production at the distillery.

The first attraction customers will notice when entering the distillery is the pot still, visible through glass doors that lead to the production area. At the retail space in front, they’ll be able to purchase shot glasses to sample vodka, gin, limoncello and what Mr. Aubertine calls moonshine, a bourbon that has not been aged. For sale only at the store, six-bottle cases of spirits will start at $28.99. Also offered will be T-shirts, hats and mugs.

Guided tours of the facility will teach customers how spirits are distilled from start to finish. Giving a reporter a tour Thursday, Mr. Aubertine began by talking about a large outdoor still filled with 46 tons of corn used for vodka production. The corn is transported inside the facility with an augur, which funnels it to a roller mill. The mill grinds the corn into powder before it’s channeled into the masher heated by steam, which is set at 190 degrees. After about an hour, the temperature is dropped to 167 degrees before a mixture of yeast is put in to start the fermentation.

“The yeast eats the sugar in the masher and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide,” Mr. Aubertine said.

The alcohol is then stored in 500-gallon stainless steel tanks for about four days to ferment, a process that increases its alcohol content to more than 10 percent. It’s next pumped to the 250-gallon copper pot still that heats the alcohol at 174 degrees. For about seven hours, alcohol is vaporized and condensed inside a 16-foot-tall vodka column. The finished product is 95 percent pure grain alcohol. Finally, the pure alcohol is blended with water to produce the right concentration needed for various products; the vodka will have a 40 percent alcohol content, while gin will be 44 percent.

Mr. Aubertine’s goal is to sell more than 10,000 bottles of spirits during the first year of production. While producing spirits to sell, he will stow away barrels of bourbon that will need about three years to age. Two 53-gallon barrels will be produced each month, enabling the distillery to make 24 barrels a year.

If the business draws enough sales in its first year, he said, it will construct two additional buildings at the site — both more than 2,000 square feet. One would include additional retail space and offices and the other would provide extra room to store whiskey barrels.

Mr. Aubertine likes the chances of his distillery’s success in Clayton, about a mile-and-a-half from downtown. “We have a lot of traffic flow here, with good visibility and (room for) expandability.”

When the business opens in the spring, it will have two full-time and four part-time employees.

Mr. Aubertine co-owns the business with Michael L. Ingerson and Roger R. Howard, who work full time in Clayton and Watertown, respectively. The project was made possible partly by a $99,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase equipment.

Though he’s putting in long hours, the entrepreneur is savoring the freedom of being his own boss.

“Figuring this out has been fun for me,” he said. “After sitting behind a desk for the past 20 years, it’s nice to get back into farming again.”

Clayton Distillery will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Visit http://claytondistillery.com for more information.

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