Originally, Joe and Wendy Rizzo, co-owners of Mushroom Spirits Distillery, an offshoot of Ithaca, New York mushroom farm Blue Oyster Cultivation, had planned to make vodka—but not mushroom vodka.
“Then it hit me,” Joe recalls. “We’re a mushroom farm. We should be doing mushroom alcohol. If someone is going to do it, it should be us. We’re the mushroom people.”
Now, each variety is given loving attention, resulting in a lineup of six mushroom-infused vodka bottlings: Hen of the Woods, Enoki, Shiitake, Destroying Angel, Pleurotis and Spore. Each is indeed different, showcasing the subtle, earthy nuances and umami of each different mushroom.
While they’re not the only farm to turn agriculture into booze, what’s notable is how they’ve done it in a way that keeps the mushroom crop front and center.
The Rizzos’ journey began in New York City, where Joe taught botany and life science at a Brooklyn middle school. Mushrooms turned out to be the right fast-growing crop to keep students’ attention as a science experiment. Around 2009, the husband-and-wife team took a big leap, leaving the city for the Finger Lakes region, where they set up a mushroom farm, the cheekily named Blue Oyster Cultivation.
While the distillery launched in October 2020, it wasn’t really a pandemic project; it had been a work-in-progress for six or seven years prior—a consultant hired, the paperwork and permits filed. “We had no choice, had to keep pushing forward,” Joe remembers. “There was no turning back.”
With a farm distillery license in hand, they set up shop about 20 miles north of Ithaca, right along the Cayuga Wine Trail, with a distillery, tasting room and bar serving drinks such as Mushroom Manhattans and Mushroom Moscow Mules.
Although Joe had experimented with distilling mushrooms—vodka, after all, can be made from any raw material—he didn’t like the final result: “It gets lost, it’s such a subtle flavor.” Instead, he sources the raw ethanol, made with New York state corn, from Albany’s Oligan Distilling, and runs it through a column still at the Mushroom Spirits facility before infusing it with the mushrooms produced at the Rizzo farm.
“There are some farm-to-spirit places, those are great, some make beautiful spirits, but we’re looking to focus more on the mushroom aspect of it,” he notes. By starting with the blank canvas of a neutral spirit, “whatever flavor you’re getting is from the mushrooms.”
Yet, with that came some particular challenges. “[Mushrooms are] a very uncommon ingredient in alcohol,” Joe acknowledges. For each mushroom bottling, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the branch of the federal government that regulates spirits, also directed the Rizzos to petition the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval.
“They wanted to be sure each individual mushroom we were using wasn’t poisonous or so-called ‘magic mushrooms,’” Joe explains.
The first year of the distillery was a rocky one, Wendy recalls, although it was balanced out by “one of our best sales years” for the mushroom farm, strengthened by consumers purchasing fresh produce to cook at home during the pandemic.
In 2021, sales at the tasting room and farmers’ markets accounted for about 90 percent of sales, along with distribution to local restaurants and bars. In 2022, that’s likely to shift, with a greater emphasis on distribution to retailers and on-premise venues and more focus on sales in New York City. Considering how many bartenders are embracing savory and umami flavors in cocktails—including many experimenting with mushroom infusions on their own—this is likely a promising development.
Further, the New York Times declared mushrooms as 2022’s Ingredient of the Year. So, while the Rizzos are also planning to release a lineup of non-infused spirits, including a bourbon, a rye and a barrel-rested gin, they also know this is not the time to stop with the ‘shroom spirits. So Joe is currently working on a bourbon infused with a complex blend of multiple varieties.
“When it combines with the bourbon flavor, it’s just going to make a really interesting, unique taste,” Joe says. “It will be a subtle flavor, like with the vodka. But they have their own character, that’s for sure. The ethanol is just a vehicle for the mushroom flavors, I think.”