By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — When he considered going into the distillery business, Gene Marra recalled Friday, he could think of no better place to produce spirits than the community reputed to be the birthplace of baseball.
For more than 40 years, Marra had been in the restaurant business. He’d gotten to know Cooperstown very well over the past several years while working for the Moffat family, the owners of the Blue Mingo restaurant overlooking Otsego Lake.
The dream that first germinated a few years ago — opening a micro-distillery in Cooperstown, in a region already known for its high-quality craft beer — hatched Friday when he unveiled the Cooperstown Distillery on Railroad Avenue.
“I had been in the wine business for many years, and so it was a natural segue to move into distilling,” said Marra, 60, a native of the Bronx.
Already a skilled winemaker, he buffed up his knowledge of spirits by enrolling in seminars for micro-distillers at Cornell University, and later took another course in Chicago in distilling in 2010.
“As I looked at the opportunities in the field in general and examined what was at my feet — which was this great iconic town called Cooperstown — I realized its notoriety and the underpinning of what it’s all about,” he said.
“It’s cachet — with a capital C — is because of the baseball tie-in, and because of tourism, and its position in a very pretty part of New York State,” he continued. “I jokingly told people: ‘Don’t underestimate the cachet of the word Cooperstown,’ and I never did. That’s why we’re the Cooperstown Distillery, and not the Schenectady Distillery.”
And so Marra has joined a growing trend across the nation. Eighty years after Prohibition ended, there are now approximately 300 craft distillers in the country, and a new one opens each month.
October 2013 turned out to be Gene Marra’s month.
“We’ve changed the laws in this state to encourage small breweries and distilleries,” said Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, who helped Marra cut through red tape at the State Liquor Authority when the agency was reviewing his license application. “The new distilleries we are seeing help us to promote New York agricultural products. This is a perfect example of why it was important to change those laws.”
The Cooperstown Distillery, the senator noted, will also augment what he called “the renaissance taking place on Railroad Avenue.”
The distillery occupies a storage building that had sat vacant for much of the past few years. Marra and a coterie of carpenters, electricians and plumbers have been sprucing it up over the past several months, turning it both into a retail shop and a place where visitors can sample what he likes to call his “lineup” of merchandise.
Running a micro-distillery can turn out to be much more work than an imaginative entrepreneur anticipates, said Cheryl Lins, who has operated one called Delaware Phoenix in Walton since 2009. Her specialty products are various varieties of absinthe, which are stocked in some local liquor stores as well as some in New York City and are also sold on the internet.
“I didn’t know how difficult it would be start a distillery,” said Lins, a former computer programmer who recalled the initial frustrations she had in dealing with the state bureaucracy. After her license was finally approved and began turning out bottles of absinthe, she found that her product pleased the palate of enough tasters that she stuck with it.
As for Marra, Lins said she welcomes having a new player on the field. “Everybody makes their own unique, different things,” she said. “My production is so small that it is really no issue for me when another distillery comes along.”
Marra said he believes he has hit a home run with a product he calls Abner Doubleday Doubleplay Vodka. “My friend in Albany thinks it’s so good that it will be a national brand within 24 months,” said Marra, who apparently knows something about marketing.
The man who grew up just two blocks away from Yankee Stadium and worked as a vendor at the House that Ruth Built calls another one of his products “Beanball Bourbon.”
Even the packaging he has approved for the liquor highlights the baseball theme.
“There is a really powerful synergy that exists between distilling and Cooperstown,” Marra said. “If you look at it from my point of view, baseball is the engine that drives the economy of this town and I feel like I wanted to be one of the cylinders in that engine.”