Down Home Distilling
Local spirit makers add Vermont ingredients to their concoctionsby
Written onApril 04 , 2013
Here’s the first thing you should know about making specialty liquors: cupcake vodka is not made by fermenting cupcakes. Likewise for the cotton candy, cookie dough, whipped cream, and caramel vodkas all lining store shelves today. These trendy varieties are made by adding flavoring after the vodka is distilled; it’s why we can have cocktails that resemble a dessert buffet. For many consumers today, this is the most familiar way to make a vodka stand out from the rest. But it isn’t the only way.
Andrew Chapin, marketing manager at Vermont Spirits, uses the cupcake example to explain the difference between those ubiquitous sweet-flavored vodkas and his company’s Vermont White, a milk-based vodka. Instead of adding milk at the end as a flavoring, Vermont White uses milk sugars as the fermentable base for distilling the spirit itself. As a result, Vermont White has some of the characteristics we associate with milk, but it doesn’t taste like milk. The dairy shapes the final vodka by giving it a creamy quality combined with an otherwise neutral flavor. Andrew sums up the effect as “a very, very smooth vodka with absolutely no burn.”
Local ingredients are shaping the character of Vermont spirits in all sorts of ways. Whey, maple sap, or hard cider provide the starting point for fermentation. Honey can be added in the final stages of distilling. Honey or maple might be used at the end of the process to create a sweet liqueur. Soon local juniper berries will infuse gin, and local rye will go into the mash for whiskey. It’s all part of a Vermont spirits industry that is having a big influence, despite still being a very small part of statewide liquor sales.
Vermont only has 15 licensed distillers, and not everyone holding a license has products on the shelves yet. Nonetheless, Marcia Lawrence, director of sales and marketing at the Vermont Department of Liquor Control, sees Vermont distillers as having an impact that goes well beyond what their small numbers might suggest. She points to the national praise our distillers have received. “These producers are making national award-winning products…the outlook is very positive for growing at a pretty rapid pace.”
The positive national reception is clear when you browse the websites found on distilledvermont.org, a project of the 11 members of the Vermont Distilled Spirits Association. Barr Hill Gin won double gold at the 2012 New York International Spirits Competition. Smugglers’ Notch Vodka took double gold in the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And Vermont Gold took gold in the same competition in 2010.
Closer to home, Vermonters have taken notice. Meghan Sheradin, executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, which connects chefs and local producers, says, “It’s exciting to see the variety of Vermont specialty cocktails on so many menus around the state.”
Distillers’ websites are also providing suggestions for mixing specialty cocktails at home, and these spirits aren’t just for beverages: they can appear in everything from marinades to marshmallows. It’s a new dimension in local cuisine.
Although “no burn” can be used to describe Vermont White, that’s not how you would describe the eau-de-vie made by Sebastian Lousada and Sabra Ewing at Flag Hill Farm in Vershire. Their apple brandy is unapologetically strong. It’s made from some of the more than 80 varieties of apples grown at Flag Hill Farm, which include not only heirloom varieties and modern strains, but also a judicious sprinkling of wild apples for spice. This brandy is another example of Vermont spirits showing the character of their local ingredients without necessarily tasting like them. Just as dairy-based vodka doesn’t taste like the “whipped cream” variety, this apple-based brandy does not taste like an appletini. Like the vodka, though, it still carries the essence of apples. The aromas that you take in with the brandy unmistakably reflect a cider house or a farm stand in autumn.
Caledonia Spirits, based in Hardwick, offers a good example of how the same local ingredient can produce different effects. Beekeeper-turned-spirits-maker Todd Hardie uses raw honey to make distinctive drinks. He infuses his Barr Hill Gin with honey and botanicals during the final stages of distillation, not to produce a sweet gin, but rather to add a floral quality and soften the edges of the flavor. His elderberry cordial, on the other hand, uses raw honey to make a sweet liqueur that works equally well as a cocktail addition or an ice cream sauce.
Both Caledonia Spirits and Flag Hill began with an agricultural enterprise. Sabra and Sebastian started with an orchard, moved to hard cider, and eventually began distilling that cider into brandy, alongside a pear brandy made with pear juice from Dwight Miller’s orchards in Dummerston. Todd Hardie began with bees, reaching 1,900 hives at his peak, and slowly moved from raw honey to medicinals and finally to the spirits he sells now. Most of his hives have been sold to other beekeepers, but Caledonia Spirits purchases their honey in what Todd calls a team effort (he counts the bees as part of that team).
Other entrepreneurs began with an interest in making spirits, then brought in local ingredients to give those spirits a unique twist. That’s how Vermont Spirits, based in Quechee, evolved. Their flagship product, Vermont Gold vodka, uses sugar from maple sap, which they purchase from Butternut Mountain Farm in Elmore. The whey that goes into Vermont White is a byproduct of dairy processing (although the company declined to provide details on current whey purchases, as they are finishing some major changes to their operations); they’re in the company of Vermont businesses whose creative uses for this dairy by-product include animal feed, fertilizer, nutritional supplements, wood finish, baby formula, and pork.
WhistlePig Rye Whiskey is entering the local sourcing business through another route: developing a rye farming operation and a reputation for fine whiskey simultaneously. Raj Bhakta founded WhistlePig with “the great patriotic sentiment to make the best whiskey in the world. Full stop.” He believes this “best whiskey in the world” will be a single estate whiskey, with ingredients grown, and product distilled—at his property in Shoreham.
However, Raj is not waiting on the availability of those local ingredients before developing a market for his product. With distiller Dave Pickerell, he acquired a supply of promising whiskey from Canada and, in 2010, released a rye that received 96 points in a Wine Spectator review (the highest score ever for a whiskey, according to WhistlePig’s website). The company has caught the attention of national media, including the magazines GQ, Forbes, and Maxim. Brand development for WhistlePig has succeeded quickly.
Success in realizing the ultimate goal of offering single-estate whiskey will take longer. For one thing, WhistlePig Rye ages for at least 10 years. Raj is poised to harvest rye from his land for the first local WhistlePig this summer, but that makes 2023 the earliest full-release date for the local whiskey. The process became further complicated this past winter as neighbors raised objections with the state over permitting for a distillery. As of this writing, those complications remained unresolved.
The distillers interviewed for this article uniformly predict a growth in the use of locally sourced ingredients.
Andrew Chapin, from Vermont Spirits, sees increasing interest in local sourcing from his customers. He gets a lot of questions about where ingredients come from. “There’s a general localvore attitude growing around the country…people are genuinely interested,” he says, adding that the company is at work now on developing a gin with juniper berries grown in the Northeast Kingdom.
“I think the overriding trend is toward local ingredients,” says Raj Bhakta, who adds that for him these ingredients are part of “a complete and thoughtful commitment to excellence.”
The current wave of Vermont-based distillation began in 1998, with Duncan Holaday, who founded Vermont Spirits before moving on to rums with his company Dunc’s Mill. However, Vermont distillers also reflect much older roots.
“I have family that’s been making Scotch in Edinborough since the 1800s,” Todd Hardie says to explain his interest in making spirits. “I come from many generations of farmers making value-added products.” One day he hopes to visit Scotland and learn more about that country’s longstanding ties between spirit making and local agriculture.
Sabra and Sebastian of Flag Hill are making a classic style of apple brandy that was found in Vermont before Prohibition, but not since. “It’s cool to re-introduce something that was such a mainstay of traditional brandy,” Sabra says.
“Distillation is sort of like making maple syrup,” Sebastian adds, drawing a connection to one of Vermont’s oldest agricultural pursuits. Both processes start with one liquid—maple sap for syrup, hard cider for brandy—then require a lot of heat and time for evaporating it. The difference is that sugarmakers are after what stays in the pan while distillers want what’s in the vapor. When these vapors cool back into liquids they become the brandies, whiskeys, vodkas, gins and other spirits we recognize.
Whether today’s distillers exemplify the continuation of an old tradition or the beginning of a new one, they’re well suited to become part of Vermont’s local food scene.