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One Local Distillery is Making a Name for Themselves in Ithaca

The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail is vast with wines, spirits and beers made locally. Each has its own special twist, something that makes it unique. Mushroom Spirits Distilleries‘ take on vodka is one-of-a-kind infusing the liquor with mushrooms.

While it is out of the ordinary, the mushroom spirits are winning over the Ithaca community and the nation as well. At the beginning of the month, the distilleries’ ‘Hen of the Woods’ vodka won two awards at the 2022 Denver International Spirits Competition becoming a double gold winner. It placed 1st in the ‘Best of Class’ category and 2nd in the ‘Best of Show’ category.

Co-owner Wendy Rizzo said she was surprised that their vodka won in the competition. She co-owns the distillery with her husband, Joe.

She said it was the first competition they entered as a brand. After they won, Rizzo said they received a call from the competition sharing the good news.

“[The competition] said that it was really astounding for a flavored vodka to place so high,” Rizzo said. “The judges just went crazy over it. So that felt pretty good.”

Their award-winning ‘Hen of the Woods Vodka’ on display in their tasting room.

Before they began making vodka the Rizzos started growing their own mushrooms. After moving to the area from New York City in 2008 they started Blue Oyster Cultivation, a gourmet artisan mushroom farm, in 2009.

Rizzo said they decided to open the farm because of her husband. He used to teach plant science to middle schoolers in Brooklyn and he started growing mushrooms as a project with his students. His family owned a farm in New Jersey and Rizzo said the two of them opening their own farm was a full-circle moment.

After owning the farm for years Joe began to mess around with ethanol and other chemicals in what Wendy calls “one of his science experiments.”

Through this, he found a way to make vodka out of the mushrooms. In turn, they opened the distillery in October of 2020.

How the Vodka is Made

They partner with another distillery to make the vodka. Rizzo said they don’t distill the base vodka at their distillery. “[The base vodka] is called GNS, which is green neutral spirit,” she said. “And that comes in something like 190 proof. So we buy many gallons of that and then we filter it here.”

They filter the base vodka down to a lower proof so it’s safe for consumption. After that, they infuse the vodka with mushrooms, all grown at the farm, Blue Oyster Cultivation.

“We just take the dried mushrooms and we basically infuse it in the vodka for just a few days, two or three days,” Rizzo said. “Then we filter it again and bottle it up.”

They sell six different kinds of mushroom vodka, each made from a different type of mushroom. Their current lineup includes Shitake, Destroying Angel, Donko, Spore, Hen of the Woods and Pletorous. Rizzo said that Hen of the Woods is the fan-favorite.

Mushroom Spirits Distillery merchandise on sale at their tasting room.

Making Their Mark

The distillery is continuing to make a name for itself here in the Ithaca area, especially as the weather warms up. The Ithaca Farmers Market opened earlier this month and they have a stand where they sell their products. They also sell at a farmers market in New York City

In their tasting room, they also find a lot of success. Rizzo credits a few reasons for their growing popularity. The first reason she says is because they make specialty cocktails with their vodka.

“I think we put a little bit more thought into the cocktails than maybe some of the others,” Rizzo said. “We think about what flavors would do well with mushrooms and kind of try to highlight the mushroom spirits.”

She said they often take classic cocktails and add their own spin to them. “We try to kind of replace,” she said. “We do classic drinks mostly and try to replace that liquor with ours. So we do Manhattan’s and instead of whiskey, we use our Hen of the Woods vodka.”

The cocktails board is displayed in their tasting room. They offer a mushroom-infused twist to classic cocktails.

The other reasons, Rizzo said, are the location of their tasting room and the uniqueness of what their product has to offer.

She said they lucked out by getting a spot on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. “It took us a long time to find this particular spot,” she said. “We really lucked out finding a place right on the Wine Trail. It had been empty for a long time so we got a good deal on it.”

Rizzo said that all of the businesses along the trail are supportive of one another, sending customers between them, but Rizzo said they have the advantage of sticking out. “A lot of people tell us that, you know, there’s so many wineries, so they want to do something different,” she said.

Overall she said that a lot of people come into the tasting room not knowing what to expect from a mushroom spirit, but often leave pleasantly surprised.

“A lot of people tell us, you know, I don’t know what I expected when I came in here,” Rizzo said. “It wasn’t this. This isn’t what I expected, but this is really good. So it’s exciting. It’s very exciting.”

Rizzo said that they’re working toward the goal of expanding their business. She said they would like to open a second tasting room on Seneca Lake and then grow from there.

“Eventually [we would like to] expand outside of New York, nationwide if we can,” she said. “But that’s going to be a huge undertaking, you have to sell a lot of bottles before we can get there.”

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