Rock Valley Spirits


LONG EDDY, NY — It was five generations in the making, but in 2018, Jim Milk and his wife Terry returned to his family’s roots in the Catskill Mountains. 

In a tranquil valley they settled in to fulfill their dream of establishing a craft distillery.

The original farm is located “down home,” just a long stone’s pitch from the new distillery. The latter, which the Milks call “up home,” was homesteaded by Jim’s great great-grandfather, John Hoffman, sometime in the 1860s.

A family tradition

“He started with a log cabin, and then built a house, which is still standing in 1875,” Jim recalled. “That was back in the day when you pulled up with your ox and said ‘that’s a good spring here; looks like pretty flat land, so this is where I’m going to build.’”

Then came Will Milk, “who was somewhat of a legend in the fur-trapping world, as well as being a talented blacksmith, beekeeper and woodworker,” Jim continued. “As a home beverage enthusiast, he was known for making wine out of just about everything that grows here, like dandelion, elderflowers, elderberry and methegin,” a honey-based wine.

“Years after he died, we found bottles stashed away in all parts of the house and barn,” recalled the Milks.

It was all part of the family’s history of making spirits the old-fashioned way.

Back when he was a youngster, Jim’s family moved out of the area when the “cauliflower boom went bust in the 1950s,” but he and his older brother returned to the farm during the summers. They took the Erie & Lackawanna Railroad from Akron, OH to Hancock or Binghamton, “back to the family farm the day after school let out, and would spend all summer with Grandpa.”

A few years passed, and while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Akron, he met his future wife Terry, also a student of mechanical engineering.

More years went by, and the Milks lived and worked in various locations around the world, such as Mexico, Peru, Montreal, Slovenia and Brazil, before returning stateside.

“Our goal was to make enough money to retire early, and come back here while we still had the strength to do something… Fate smiled on us, and we came back here.”

Brewing a business

Nine years ago, the Milks bought 95 acres just “up home” from the original farm, and started making their own brew in a 13-gallon still hooked up to a few milk cans. For their personal consumption, of course, perhaps inspired by Great-Grandpa Will Milk.

He was “well known for providing a wide array of wine, beer and liqueurs,” Jim said. “Like all farmers in our remote corner of the Catskills, he worked with the wilderness instead of against it,” using what nature provided.

“We got pretty good at it,” and later—with some research assistance from their oldest daughter Joanna—discovered that the New York State Farm Bureau had created a new category in which small distilleries could produce certain alcoholic beverages using New York State-sourced ag products.

With this in mind, they decided to form Rock Valley Spirits, which in addition to selling directly to the public, offers its products at two local farmers’ markets (Narrowsburg and Callicoon), various wine and liquor stores, and is featured in several fine dining establishments.

The tasting room is open every Saturday from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m.

Building on

“Terry and I are both engineers, so we got out our spreadsheets, designed the distillery, and started scaling up from 13 gallons to 75 gallons,” said Jim.

The couple spent several years rebuilding an old barn to house the equipment, adding a cozily delightful tasting room, and letting their stock of craft brews—such as raspberry infused vodka, elderflower liqueur, vodka, gin, barrel fermented gin and their signature American malt whiskey—ferment to get just the right taste.

The stills and columns are fashioned from copper, and fermenting takes place in traditional open top wooden vats. They grind their own grain at the distillery, and mash in a traditional Lauter tun.

“We branched out to using stuff that’s growing wild here on the farm,” said Terry. “We make an infusion of wild raspberries, with a beautiful color red, and the golden one, an elderflower liqueur.

“Just like Jim’s grandfather Will Milk, we make a lot of alcohol out of things that grow wild, enough for people to want to come out here as a destination and see the tasting room.”

She noted that after Christmas, visitors should call ahead to tour the distillery or sample the tasting room.

Noting that their distillery fills a niche for the “influx of people who want to be a part of the community,” the Milks agreed that more people are moving up here “in search of a lifestyle.”

“People love the idea that it’s wild foraged components that Terry picks around the farm,” said Jim of some of their specialty creations. 

According to Terry, Rock Valley Spirits works its magic in two ways: the spirits in the bottles, and hallowed spirits of her husband’s relatives buried in the nearby Rock Valley Cemetery.

“We think Will would be proud, and you can just about feel them saying that the land stays in the family,” she said.

Jim Milk, Terry Milk, Craft Distillery, Rock Valley Spirits


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