Leslie Merinoff-Kwasnieski, co-founder and head of strategy of Matchbook Distilling, spends a lot of time thinking about how her work can support biodiversity and regenerative agriculture—an unusual preoccupation for someone who makes spirits for a living. But Merinoff-Kwasnieski has, as a part of her mission and bottom line, decided to intertwine her business with that of the farmers on Long Island’s North Fork, where Matchbook opened two years ago. On any given day, she and her team can be found amid a mountain of freshly harvested cheese pumpkins or scooping out the flesh of hundreds of muskmelons, dreaming up unorthodox spirits that defy any codified category.
Earlier this summer, she roasted 1,600 pounds of fresh pineapples for three days in a massive, underground earth oven to create Ritual Sister, a smoky, fruity spirit that’s fermented for three weeks before distillation. Last summer, she processed thousands of pounds of watermelon from a farm down the road for an all-American eau de vie. This winter, another farm had a few thousand pounds of beets rendered inedible by a winter freeze, so she transformed them into a whole-beet ferment, triple pot-distilled with jasmine and citron peel. Other projects have included juicing 2,000 pounds of white carrots, distilling the liquid with tarragon and resting it over crushed blackberries, or mashing locally grown Oaxacan green corn for a bourbon distilled with aji amarillo peppers.
“I need to share with these farmers the commitment to their soil. That’s really what’s been driving me to create these innovative, wacky, multi-ingredient spirits,” says Merinoff-Kwasnieski. By entering into relationships with nearby growers, such as Treiber Farms, Rogers Farms and RGNY, she’s discovered that you can’t always predict what’s going to work ahead of time, so she’s always on her toes, ready to process a local haul of cherry blossoms for a single botanical distillate or a pre-frost harvest of petit verdot for their Harvest Moon brandy. “Fostering a good dialogue, listening, and thinking about the information you’re told and responding to it genuinely is so powerful,” she says. Over the past couple of years, Merinoff-Kwasnieski has been advocating for state legislation that will allow farmers to sell the spirits made from their yields direct-to-consumer.
Beyond working with farmers, day to day, Matchbook Distilling is tapped by private clients, including bars and restaurants, to create bespoke spirits that are affordable and scalable. “We’re trying to create an option for a lower barrier of entry into the world of craft spirits,” says Merinoff-Kwasnieski. No project is too esoteric: For Claire Sprouse at Hunky Dory in Brooklyn, Matchbook created an Eau de Milk Punch made from a goat farm’s discarded whey. For Uncle Boons and Thai Diner, they produced a cardamom amaro and a Thai-spiced rum, made with pandan leaves and Thai tea. For one client, they conceptualized a spirit inspired by dead flowers.
Despite the economic and social shutdown, Merinoff-Kwasnieski and Matchbook have remained busy over the past few months, and every month, they release an extremely limited quantity of the fruits of their labor. Recently, they dropped three bottlings: Sole Mio, a take on shochu made from three strains of koji, local butternut squash and organic regenerative wheat; Ambrosia, a neutral corn spirit distilled with lemons, rose petals and almonds; and Elsewhere, a blood orange aperitivo made with pink peppercorns and cardamom. “When they’re gone, they’re gone,” says Merinoff-Kwasnieski. And it’s just as well, because soon, a load of sunchokes will be delivered, and another experiment will begin brewing in the ever-chugging stills of her laboratory.
Here, Merinoff-Kwasnieski tackles our questionnaire, sharing what she wants to be when she grows up, her greatest accomplishment to date and her favorite bar in the world.
Current occupation: Co-founder/head of strategy, research and development, Matchbook Distilling Co.; partner, The Lin Beach House
Current mission statement: Working for a more lush, delicious and biodiverse natural world.
What do you want to be when you grow up? Co-founder [and] part-time cellarhand, Matchbook Distilling Co.
Describe your daily routine in one sentence: Sort of feels like college, but I know my drinking limits and I’m married to a total legend.
Your greatest accomplishment to date? My team. They’re so passionate, focused and strong, both mentally and physically. And they really look out for each other—and for me.
Biggest failure? Not failing fast enough. I was afraid to do it when I was younger. It felt like the end of the world. Now I do it fast and often. It’s little and manageable that way. I’ve failed and iterated and failed so fast, that by the time I get it right, maybe you haven’t even noticed all the little failures that happened along the way. My thinking is, as long as I keep my people in focus—my husband, my team, our collaborators—as long as I do right by them, I’m OK.
The No. 1 thing you want to eradicate from drink culture? Sameness. We’re eating waffles with sardines, ants on tacos, olive oil ice cream cake. Why are we still enthralled with drinking the same spirits again, and again?
Best thing you ever drank: I had an avocado cocktail at La Lavandería in CDMX that completely blew my mind. Might have been the most delicious drink I’ve ever had. I also had a whey and citrus soda at Gro Spiseri in Copenhagen that sent me down a total rabbit hole.
The one wine/beer/cocktail that best reflects you/your interests/tastes: I recently made a spirit from muskmelons co-fermented with rescued citrus (lemon, grapefruit, orange fruits we pressed), beach roses, sauvignon blanc, whey, fresh juniper branches and fresh hop leaves—all distilled together. It’s a crazy delicious win for biodiversity. That’s what I’m excited about.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? Structure… You’re going to love it.
Your favorite bar, and why: Have & Meyer. It’s the people who work there and all those beautiful, biodynamic, hard-to-find Italian wines by the glass. And such good pasta. And it’s cozy. All the bottles everywhere. Once, a Polaroid of Elisabetta Foradori, with her beaming smile, fell off the wall from pretty high up and drifted onto me—that was magic.
Best meal you’ve ever had: Our family meals [at the distillery] are my favorite. We’re all together, friends and significant others too. There’s lots of candles and fresh food and wine. I just bliss out. Kadeau Bornholm might be tied. When I need to escape, that’s where I most often go in my head.
The last text message you sent: “Send me the ticket + I’ll take care of it now.” Responding to “apparently it’s illegal to drive with a trailer in the left lane.” I [was] up in Wurtsboro waiting with the rest of the team for Scotty and Stephen (also on our team) to return from a seven-hour bin shuffle in the middle of our first apple harvest, at an orchard recently bought by our friend Henry, of Henry’s Wine & Spirit. It’s the little things.
Photo by David Benthal.