Potato Farmers Look to Vodka Crop

At Foster family’s Sagaponack distillery, tastes would be limited to .75 ounce
If the Southampton Town Board approves a tasting room at the Sagaponack Farm Distillery, vodka connoisseurs will have a view into the distillery while getting a taste of the Foster farming family’s latest venture. John Musnicki

The public could soon be invited to the Foster family’s new vodka distillery to sample and buy vodka, as the Sagaponack Farm Distillery’s application for a tasting room is poised for approval by the Southampton Town Planning Board.

The distillery is on the former Kaminsky farm on Sagg Road, north of Montauk Highway and outside Saga­po­n­ack Village. The tasting room would be located on the first floor of an existing farm building, with office and storage space on the second floor. Dean and Marilee Foster, siblings whose family has a long tradition of potato farming on the South Fork, have expanded the family operation to include distilling vodka from their own crops.

The Fosters purchased the Kaminsky property, just over 13 acres near the railroad tracks, a few years back and began experimenting and testing recipes a year after passage of the New York Craft Act, legislation signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2014 that eased regulations on small-batch producers.

They added on to a 1920s building to create a full distillery last year, according to Kieran Pape Murphree, an attorney with Burke & Sullivan who represented the distillery before the planning board.

Mr. Foster told the board during a public hearing last Thursday that this plan is “part of the organic growth of the whole farming industry.” His intention is to build “a world-class distillery from really world-class” crops.

The tasting room would offer clients a sampling of the product, but also a view into the distillery where it is made. The entrance will be improved and the building would have two bathrooms for the public. Cheryl Kraft, the Southampton Town fire marshal, would determine occupancy restrictions, according to Ms. Murphree.

The tasting room would not turn into a bar, Mr. Foster promised. “That is not our objective.” The distillery will sell bottles to the general public, but they are not to be opened on premises, he said.

The regulations for the Fosters’ tasting room are far more stringent than those for winery tasting rooms because of the strength of the alcohol, Mr. Foster said. “Three-quarters of an ounce is all that the patronage could taste per day,” he said. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets regulates farm distilleries, breweries, and wineries, and such facilities are considered protected farm operations.

One neighbor, Cindy Glanzrock, said she has some safety concerns. Having lived on the corner of Sagg Road and Narrow Lane for 18 years, she said speeding cars and increased traffic on a busy back road are already an issue. Motorists heading north over the bridge do so blindly. “They don’t drive over that bridge, they fly,” she said. “It’s a very very scary corner.”

The Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee did not have a chance to weigh in before the hearing because the Planning Department had not forwarded the application to the chairwoman, Pamela Harwood, until a few days after the committee’s February meeting. The group did not meet again until four days after the hearing, on Monday. Ms. Harwood asked that the application be held open for another month. Dennis Finnerty, the planning board’s chairman, declined to do so, though he said he hoped in the future that the Planning Department could get applications to the citizens committee in time for it to review them and weigh in prior to a public hearing.

At the citizens meeting on Monday night, Ms. Harwood said there seemed to be community support for the proposal. The problem, as she saw it, was that Wolffer Estate Vineyard, particularly its tasting room at the wine stand on Montauk Highway, has “gone astray” from its original mission between traffic, live music performances, and special events.

Several members of the committee said the scale of the operation needs to be maintained, and said some thought should be given as to how to buffer the residential neighbors from any additional activity at the distillery. “It’s a good thing if it’s not disruptive,” said Peter Wilson, a committee member.

The committee put off a vote, deciding instead to weigh in over email in the coming days. The public hearing before the planning board was closed last Thursday, but the board will accept written comments on the application through early next week.