As a home brewer who worked in liquor sales and marketing in her mid-20s, Leslie Merinoff Kwasnieski thought about all of the spirits that were regularly being made, and of the many new directions there still were to explore. “So many spirits weren’t being made.” So, she set off to make them, co-founding Matchbook Distilling in Greenport, New York. At Matchbook, Merinoff Kwasnieski specializes in nonconforming spirits—those that defy categorization. Emphasizing the importance of distillers working within the food system to alleviate waste, Matchbook produces tailored booze for clients as well as a house line of spirits, ranging from a sparkling watermelon eau de vie to a musk melon brandy. Here, Merinoff Kwasnieski breaks down a typical Matchbook day.
I wake up early and until 9 a.m. I’m at Matchbook’s sister property, the Lin Beach House, drinking coffee and crushing computer work. We put out two unique releases every month, and they need names, bottles, and labels, plus the government regulations to get the labels approved.
I head to the distillery, a 2-mile journey, and go straight into a preproduction meeting with Scott D’Antonio, our head of production. With so many different ferments, distillations, and infusions, there’s a lot of choreography. At 10 a.m., we meet the rest of the team in the lab to talk through any foreseeable challenges and projects on the horizon. Though, with living fermentations and mysterious aging chemistry, you can only plan so much.
“We also love working with bakeries like She Wolf in Brooklyn and Carissa’s on the South Fork. We take their day-old breads and doughnuts, then co-ferment them with malt to make doughnut or day-old bread whiskey.”
I start up our boiler, then kick on the stills I’m running—Matchbook’s brandies, nonconforming spirits, and botanical distillates. Then I head to our 10 fermenters. I smell and taste the ferments, looking at temperature, gravity, and pH levels. This time of year, we have a lot of whole, fresh citrus macerations, including yuzu and Buddha’s hand. We also love working with bakeries like She Wolf in Brooklyn and Carissa’s on the South Fork. We take their day-old breads and doughnuts, then co-ferment them with malt to make doughnut or day-old bread whiskey. The government doesn’t like us calling these whiskeys, but as soon as we figure out how to get those labeled, they’ll be fun to release.
Winter is also a great time for growing koji, which is a passion point for us. It’s a culinary mold that produces tons of enzymes and can essentially replace the role of malt. In fall and winter, we make shochu from squash fermented with koji and grains. In the deep winter, we produce a bunch of koji bourbon.
After watching the stills and making necessary cuts, I further projects along that have already finished fermentation and distillation, so filtering or sweetening things. Generally, we know what flavors will work for our nonconforming spirits. If something isn’t working, we have so many options at our disposal. We can add botanicals or distillates, we can create macerations, we can redistill, we can add spirits to wine. In France, winemakers don’t refer to making wine, they refer to raising wine. It’s a term: élevage. It’s such a romantic concept and how I think of everything we do: We’re not so much making things, we’re just massaging the ingredients into their best form.
“The importance of biodiversity cannot be overstated. It’s about soil health and clean air, but also cultivating varieties that will be resistant to the impacts of climate change, allowing us to try to mitigate food shortages. Plus, biodiversity tends to be freaking delicious.”
We work with a few different farms, including Treiber Farms. Pete Treiber is a passionate collaborator of ours, and in February we meet to go through seed catalogs, looking for produce we want to work with this spring, summer, and fall. We can be powerfully influential with farms since our buying power—the amount of agriculture we need to produce these spirits—is a lot. We’re interested in something called the ark of taste, which is an index of agricultural varieties that have been farmed out of existence. The importance of biodiversity cannot be overstated. It’s about soil health and clean air, but also cultivating varieties that will be resistant to the impacts of climate change, allowing us to try to mitigate food shortages. Plus, biodiversity tends to be freaking delicious.
I leave the distillery, head to the gym, and I’m in bed by 8:30. I’ve been developing a journaling process to make sure my efforts and strategy are aligned. I can very easily get swept up in anything with a whimsical feel, so this has helped me reflect and check myself. Journaling … what a powerful tool. My 13-year-old self is like, “I told you so.”
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