Jesse Sommer: ‘This Tasting Room is a love note to the city and county of Albany’

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

 “I know that this fixture is going to be vandalized and our job is to rebuild it,” says Jesse Sommer. Next to him is Patrick Noonan, chairman of the Lark Street Business Improvement District.

Wood-paneling and an etched mirror on the walls, pressed tin on the ceiling dangling crystal chandeliers, and a bar polished with decades of use, the Tasting Room has the feel of a Prohibition Era speakeasy.
The venue at the corner of State and Lark streets in Albany is the brainchild of Jesse Sommer who was born and raised in New Scotland and founded New Scotland Spirits, creating whisky from locally sourced grains.

Sommer, who served as an Army paratrooper and officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, now works as a lawyer and is an erstwhile columnist for The Altamont Enterprise.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on June 21 during which Sommer said the bar for the Tasting Room was extracted from the old Larkin, “the signature piece of this location.”

“I never met someone who’s so passionate about supporting our whole region and telling the full story of our region — through libations,” said Maeve McEneny-Johnson, director of community engagement for Discover Albany, at the opening event.

She also said, “What’s really important about tourism that we’ve learned over the past few years is that you can’t get tourists excited if you don’t have locals excited … When a visitor comes to Albany and they go, ‘Well, what can I do’ ‘Did you hear about the cool tasting room on Lark Street?’”

Gabriella Romeo, who represents the Lark Street neighborhood in Albany’s Common Council said, “The thing about Jesse, love him or hate him, we’re really happy he’s here.” Romero said she loved him and called the Tasting Room “an exuberant new business in the corridor.”

Sommer thanked a slew of local officials and supporters and praised Rosemary McHugh, the company’s executive officer, and John Curtin, owner of Albany Distilling Company, which makes the whiskey.

He also lauded New Scot Brian McGregor, the artist who creates the labels for the liquor.

“There is a spiritual connection that I have with you,” Sommer said to McGregor, “where I’m not able to fully encapsulate or capture the visions in my head, but I can just barely describe … And every single time, you come back with a label that looks more like New Scotland than I ever could have conceived; it is incredible. And I know that you’re going to be with me till the bitter end.”

Ashley Mohl, the interim president of Capitalize Albany Corporation, said the Tasting Room is “the exact type of project that we wanted to fund” with the Small Business Building Improvement Grant — referred to as BIG — program.

“We wanted to strengthen new and expanded existing businesses after the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “Being able to leverage the growing opportunities of the craft beverage industry and local spirits within the Capital Region and across New York state was a bonus and made the project even more compelling for the grant program.”

Sommer also credited his father for helping to finance the Tasting Room. “I’m the guy with the silver spoon,” said Sommer.

He also thanked the company’s social-media following — “the increasing, expanding cult that is willing to do our bidding for us; we keep them entertained and they do work on our behalf.”

He credited, too, “the retailers willing to push our products” and urged support for retailers.

“They are the small businesses that make us what we are ….,” said Sommer. “We are a woman- and veteran-owned business whose operation now extends to 31 counties and nearly 300 retail outlets.

“We are the most widely distributed, independently distributed liquor company in the state of New York, and that’s because of the tireless efforts of this team. This Tasting Room is the center of that operation, and it is also more than that.

“This Tasting Room is a love note to the city and county of Albany. Inside, you’re going to find articles clipped from ancient newspapers … that celebrate Albany’s historic past and the incredibly colorful people who defined this community.

“That includes Benjamin Franklin, who in 1754 published and released the Albany Plan of Union that was the blueprint for why we became … Americans. It is also one block away from where allegedly Dan O’Connell’s hit squad dispatched Jack Diamond on Dove Street … But we’re not filling those shoes now.”

Sommer said that, as a child raised in New Scotland, he was fascinated and amazed by the “big city” of Albany where he now lives.

He also said, “Lark Street has its fair share of problems and I’ve made no bones about my preferred solution to it — a massive suppressive martial force essentially to achieve Bagdad-style results.”

Sommer went on, “My business partner, she wants a different approach. She uses more empathy and understanding and an awareness that, in fact, there are other factors that could lead to problems on the street.

“The point is: Where we’ve come together is realizing that our obligation to tackle those problems first starts with an investment into Lark Street. I know that this fixture is going to be vandalized and our job is to rebuild it. And, when it’s vandalized again, to rebuild it. And when someone accidentally drowns in the bucket to hide the body and rebuild it.”

Sommer concluded, “Our job is to keep investing in the streets. Once people see that it is on the come-up, it attracts more businesses.”

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