ITHACA, N.Y.—In winemaking, there’s a certain credence lent to harvesting grapes from a specific area for specific wines, acknowledging that the influences of the area’s geography can have otherwise unduplicable impacts on the quality of the product.
The phenomenon is known as terroir, and it’s a significant part of the formula behind a new business based in Ithaca and founded by Devon Trevathan and Colton Weinstein—though their company, Liba Spirits, deals with liquors and distilling as opposed to wines.
The company’s ethos is generally that Trevathan and Weinstein will travel to different distillery locations around the globe with a plan and product in mind, pay a certain amount to “rent” the facility for usage from its owners, then create a liquor that pays homage to the identity of the region they are in, through taste, ingredients and more.
“The ground, the climate, the region affects the grapes that are grown,” Trevathan said, drawing the parallel to winemaking. “At a certain level, you can blind [taste] a wine, and pick out the place, even the year, the vintage. I can’t do that, but some can. You have these grapes that are the same grapes but they taste different depending on where they come from, and that’s typically attributed to terroir.”
Trevathan and Weinstein started Liba Spirits in the area thanks to Weinstein, who grew up in the region. Weinstein started out as a high schooler, cutting his teeth at Six Mile Creek Vineyards in Ithaca and Bellwether Cider in Trumansburg before going off to college. Trevathan, on the other hand, came from more of a hospitality background to the business, having started off learning the extensive beer menu at a Mellow Mushroom in Florida before moving to Taiwan and then Nashville, Tennessee (the travel becomes a pattern).
That’s where Trevathan and Weinstein initially connected at a distillery, and shared a dedication to the process to the extent that they decided to form their own company, thus Liba Spirits was born—the name being derived from a Yiddish word for “beloved,” a nod to Weinstein’s grandmother. But considering their financial limitations, they knew their goals would have to be achieved unconventionally.
“We had the background and the passion, but we didn’t have the capital that is required to have the physical, classic distillery,” Trevathan said. “So we decided that we are not going to build out a facility, or buy a facility. Instead, we’re just going to take ourselves and bring ourselves to existing distilleries, owned by other people, pay them to use their space and produce our own products.”
That approach blends the pair’s passion for domestic and international travel with the appeal of being able to create new versions of liquors using fresh, local products sourced from wherever they are located for that batch.
“I’m a travel junkie, so I thought ‘Can I actually make a career out of my dream job? That doesn’t seem right, that doesn’t seem possible,'” Trevathan said. “Then that’s what we did.”
Of course, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the business’ infancy. Trevathan and Weinstein first arrived in Austria, where they intended to make a gin product, in February 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic went worldwide. But, though their timelines have been thrown off, they have still been able to complete two different products: a gin using Austrian and Italian ingredients and based out of a distillery in Austria (of which they made 250 12-bottle cases), and a rum that they traveled to New Orleans to produce.
Particularly with the latter, and the rich cultural surroundings in Louisiana, Trevathan said they wanted to make a concerted effort to study New Orleans’ food culture which led them to peppercorn, orange peel and bay leaf—ingredients central to food in New Orleans that Liba wanted to incorporate into their rum recipe.
“Really connecting to a place, through the agriculture, through the water, through the historic distilling practices, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Trevathan said. The process in Austria took three weeks on-site, which Trevathan credited to Weinstein’s acumen and ability to translate skills to new equipment, while the New Orleans work took a bit longer.
Next, Liba has their eyes set closer, on Ithaca (or the closer Finger Lakes area). Trevathan said they aren’t concretely set on anything yet, but want to draw a style of liquor from a different area of the country or world, while using ingredients from the local area to “bring those two together.”
Of course, even outside of the pure logistical hurdles of finding a location, studying the culture and generating a new recipe, there are challenges with dropping into a new, unfamiliar place. Theoretically, that could include drawing hostility from the locations where Liba decides to target for its next production batch—either jealousy from the facility where Trevathan and Weinstein want to work, or territorial feelings from people who live there permanently.
So far, Liba has not run into such an issue, and Trevathan said that’s a credit to the distillery community overall and how welcoming it is, generally, to ideas even as outside-the-box as Liba’s. It is a concern, though, so they want to make sure they do support local businesses and suppliers wherever they are going and try to customize their labels on each bottle to reflect the batch’s place of origin.
“At our scale, so much of it is about doing it for the love of what you’re doing,” Trevathan said. “Most of the time, it’s not as profitable as you think it is, it’s way more expensive than you think it will be, and it takes so much out of you.”
That’s especially true for Liba.
“You gotta love what you do, for you to do it this confusingly,” Trevathan said with a laugh.