Orchard Hill Cider Mill began, as many endeavors do, as a hobby. While traveling with a musical theater production, Karl duHoffmann and Andrew Emig bonded over Karl's interest in apples. On these tours, Karl says, "You travel kind of like a family, so you get to know everyone in the show very well." Little did Karl know at the time that he was bonding with a future business partner.
Specifically, Karl was researching fermentation and distillation, and Andrew decided to go along for the ride. As soon as they were back in New York, they bought some unfermented apple juice from nearby Soons Orchard and began distilling brandy. Everyone who tasted what they'd created was pleasantly surprised, no one more so than one Jeffrey Soons, the proprietor of that apple orchard, who soon invited them to begin distilling on his property.
That is the story of how two actors parlayed their careers into a burgeoning business, crafting spirits from the humble fruit known as the apple. What began as a hobby turned into so much more.
According to Karl, "Apple cider is basically a wine made from apples—when fruit is fermented it becomes wine." Therefore, though customers often lump cider in with beer, the way it's crafted—fermented slowly in carefully selected barrels—is much more akin to the way wine is made.
"People who are new to cider, a lot of their experience is with a popular style that is extraordinarily sweet," Karl says. But he believes that cider is actually more nuanced. At Orchard Hill, most of its cider is made with modern variety apples that are "like culinary apples," so the cider is much like a sparkling wine, ranging from "bone dry to medium dry . . . refreshing [and] food-friendly."
On the docket now are limited-edition ciders made from heritage apples, which offer higher tannins. Where modern-apple ciders are like white wines, Karl says these heritage-apple ciders will be like red wines, with a "beautiful body, more richness and greater complexity, and sometimes a more challenging profile."
There seems to be no end to what the mill can do with this dynamic little fruit. But no matter what, Karl and Andrew won't forget how they built their success. As Karl says, "When you can go into a restaurant by Jean Georges and have a glass of your cider, that's pretty cool."
Though very first thing Karl and his partner distilled was apple brandy, it wasn't their end goal. What they were after was pommeau, a blend of brandy and unfermented apple juice allowed to age together in a barrel.
The end result, per Karl: "The rich and flavorful brandy, the sweet apple juice, and then the magic of the barrel over time yields a quaffable aperitif, not dissimilar to a port or sherry." The alcohol content is a match as well, at 17%–20% alcohol. In fact, it was the pommeau that compelled Jeffrey Soons to make his offer.
"We produced one of the first batches [of pommeau] ever in the US," he says. And today, with more and more cider producers making it, he and his team proudly take credit for a part in its naissance in the States.
For those new to pommeau, Karl recommends it be sipped either before or after dinner, much like any other aperitif. Pre-dinner, Karl likes to pair it with cheese or "a good ham." It also goes well with foie gras and melon.
Post-dinner, it complements chocolate desserts as well as those made with—of course—apples.
Karl says that being actors gave him and his partner a leg up in starting their own business. "You know how to talk to people and present in public. [Mostly,] you're good at finding creative ways and unorthodox channels to get problems solved." But not only does this creative advantage influence their business acumen, but it carries over into the way they entertain their customers.
The mill often welcomes their customers to attend events on its grounds, the most popular of which are the monthly "Speakeasies." Given their background in theater, the performing artists are carefully curated. And even the staff have been known to get in on the action.
"Most of the time, [the staff] is too busy making cider, but at times it does become something next level," he says. His partner Andrew will join the band with his own trumpet, their wives and bar manager will step up to the mike for a song, "and you know, on occasion, I've been known to take out my tap shoes."