Artisan Distilled Spirits add Kick to State’s Bounty
STORY AND PHOTOS BY LYNN GRIEGER
We were driving through Quechee in early September when I turned to my husband. “Did I just see a sign advertising Vermont vodka?”
I’m familiar with Vermont craft beer and local wineries, but I’d never heard of vodka or any other type of distilled spirits produced in Vermont. It turns out that the artisan distilled spirits industry is alive, well and growing both nationwide and in Vermont.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the national trade association representing America’s leading distillers, describes distilled spirits as beverage alcohol products which are first fermented and then distilled to a higher alcohol content than beer or wine. Vodka, whiskey, gin, brandy and liqueur flavored with local ingredients such as honey and maple syrup are currently produced in Vermont. Bill Goggins, director of education, licensing and enforcement at the Vermont Department of Liquor Control (DLC), says that craft distilleries are “growing by leaps and bounds in Vermont, with 15 registered distillers and two more pending.”
What differentiates Vermont’s artisan distillers from giants like Smirnoff or Absolut? Pennfield Jensen, vice president of operations for the American Distilling Institute, a group that represents artisan distillers, is enthusiastic about the farm-to-table aspect of craft spirits. He notes that artisan spirits are dependent on the region where they’re distilled because they use local products to make small batches of distilled spirits that reflect the agriculture of the area. According to Jensen, the first artisan distillery started in 1982 in Alameda, California, and the American Distilling Institute was formed in 2003 with 69 members. Today it has 420 members nationwide and expects to grow to nearly 1,000 by 2015.
TRADITIONAL VERMONT FOODS USED IN A NEW FORMAT
One of the most recognized Vermont food products is maple syrup, and it’s no surprise that maple syrup or sap is an ingredient in several distilled spirits produced in the state. The distillery that piqued my interest, the Vermont Spirits Distilling Company in Quechee, produces two vodkas using Vermont’s fermentable sugars: Vermont Gold, distilled from maple sap, and Vermont White, distilled from whey leftover from cheesemaking. Each of the 15 Vermont craft distillers puts its own unique spin on its products, using local ingredients and a dash of entrepreneurial enthusiasm to hand-craft a wide range of beverages.
Mimi Buttenheim, general manager of Vermont Spirits, took me on a tour of their factory in the Quechee Gorge Village and explained their triple-distillation process. Harry Gorman became the Vermont Spirits distiller in 2004 after working with another distiller and learning the basics of the craft. In 2011 Vermont Spirits moved from its original location in Barnet to Quechee to capitalize on higher visibility from heavily trafficked Route 4. At the same time Gorman re-assembled and made improvements to the production equipment and modified the distillation protocol.
The front part of the building is a tasting room and store, similar to wine or beer tasting rooms with a wooden bar and tables displaying a variety of local food products. The back part of the factory houses all of the equipment for fermenting, distilling, bottling, labeling and shipping the three different beverages distilled here.
Gorman says the production facility looks a bit like the game Mouse Trap, with pipes running between the three stills and up toward the high ceiling, ladders leading to second- and third-story catwalks, and a gleaming copper still holding court in the corner. Gorman designed the complicated machinery, which was built in Barre from leftover pieces of food industry equipment. This is a hands-on business, with a six-bottle gravity fed-bottling machine under one window and an employee carefully attaching labels to bottles of Vermont White by hand at the next table.
Head south from Quechee and just outside Brattleboro on Route 30 you’ll find the Saxtons River Distillery in a one-story corrugated steel building that used to house Tom and Sally’s Chocolates. Christian Stromberg built on his family’s Lithuanian tradition of crafting fine liqueur, and instead of honey uses maple syrup as the flavoring for his Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur. Stromberg started in a 320-squarefoot barn on his property in Saxtons River and only recently moved production to Brattleboro, where he and one employee handle the entire operation. The entrance leads into the tasting room with a wooden bar set up in front of the windows and large oak whiskey barrels used to display soapstone shot glasses and small jugs of maple syrup. Walk through another door from the tasting room into the production facility between rows of more oak whiskey barrels filled with Sapling stacked to the ceiling.
A 500-gallon stainless steel tank used to mix corn liquor with pure Vermont water and grade A Windham County dark maple syrup dominates the production room, with 55-gallon drums of maple syrup stacked in one corner and cardboard boxes filled with Sapling packed and ready to be shipped in the middle of the room. Sapling Liqueur is aged for six months in American oak barrels obtained from Maker’s Mark bourbon company, adding complexity to the flavor. Last year Stromberg bottled over 2,000 gallons of Sapling and is planning for expansion into new types of distilled spirits.
THE DISTILLING PROCESS
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, distilled spirits have been a part of every civilization’s culture for many centuries. The Chinese distilled a beverage from rice beer by 800 BC, and distilled spirits were reported in Britain before the Roman conquest. Russians use potatoes, the Scotch use barley—and here in Vermont craft distillers use local agriculture products such as maple syrup and apples.
The first step in crafting spirits is fermenting a base ingredient that contains sugar, such as maple sap, whey, corn or wheat, with yeast to produce alcohol. This alcohol-rich liquid, or “wash,” is heated in the base, or “pot,” of the still to a temperature that is greater than the boiling point of alcohol (173.3° Fahrenheit), yet less than the boiling point of water (212°). The heat causes different compounds in the liquid to evaporate, separating out the water and unwanted compounds, called “heads,” from the alcohol. The vaporized alcohol condenses inside a column or pipe back into a liquid with a much higher alcohol content. Spirits can be distilled one or more times, depending on the result the distiller is looking for.
“Proof ” is the measure of the amount of alcohol present in an alcoholic beverage. Divide the proof in half and you get the actual percentage of alcohol in the bottle. For example, 80 proof means 40% of the liquid in the bottle is alcohol. The final product that comes off the still can be up to 192 proof, and then the distiller adds water to bring the proof and flavor to the desired level. The entire process takes approximately two weeks.
THE TASTING EXPERIENCE
Both Stromberg and Buttenheim believe that teaching visitors how they make their beverages and showing them the distillery helps cement the fact that Vermont-distilled beverages are part of the local agricultural landscape and showcase Vermont-grown products. They enjoy giving people the opportunity to taste the nuances in their spirits and provide an overall educational and fun experience. We’re used to wandering through a farmers market, nibbling small tastes of cheese and bread or sampling a bit of homemade jam or preserves. Why not sip a Vermont artisan vodka or whiskey along with other local foods?
The DLC’s Goggins explained that wineries were the first to convince the Vermont legislature that being able to taste the product is essential to their business.
Distilleries built on the progress made by wineries and breweries, and state legislation now allows tastings to occur in the production facility, in local beverage stores and at farmers markets and craft fairs. Bundle a tasting with the opportunity to talk with the folks who make the beverages, view the production facility and learn how the product is made and the entire experience makes us much more likely to purchase the product.
Savor a ¼-ounce taste of Vermont Gold and your nose will detect the maple before your taste buds. The evaporator in the back of the factory is the type most often seen in a sugarhouse, and in fact Gorman modified the front pan from a large maple sugar evaporator into a still that’s used to concentrate the alcohol from the fermentation to 40% alcohol by volume, known as “low wine.” Buttenheim describes the taste as a mixture of caramel and butterscotch flavors with a long finish, and tells us that Gorman calls it “vodka with flavor, not flavored vodka.” Vermont White is distilled from whey and is excellent mixed into martinis.
Farther south in Brattleboro, I swirled amber-colored Sapling Liqueur in a clear glass, savoring the maple aroma. Sapling is a flavored liqueur that stands on its own without mixers, although the distillery offers several suggestions such as mixing Sapling with hot coffee, or with ginger beer and a slice of lime over ice for a “Vermont and Stormy.” Eric Anderson, Stromberg’s assistant who is manning the operation during my visit, recommends mixing Sapling into hot cider or enjoying it straight, calling it a “very drinkable liqueur,” and I have to agree. I normally mix distilled spirits with cranberry juice to disguise the alcohol, but Sapling has a golden, maple flavor that invites slow sipping all on its own.
WHERE TO FIND VERMONT DISTILLED BEVERAGES
Vermont distilled beverages are available for purchase at the distilleries where they’re produced or at any State of Vermont Liquor Store. Vermont is a member of the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, which means the State is responsible for purchasing, pricing, distribution and sale of distilled spirits. Vermont-distilled beverages are also available in other states as a vital part of our agriculture economy. The DLC maintains a calendar of tastings at LiquorControl.Vermont.gov/retail/tastings.html.
Look for specialty martinis and other beverages made with local artisan Vermont-distilled spirits in bars and restaurants throughout the state. Vermont currently promotes a Wine Trail and a Beer Trail; I like to think that a Craft Distillery Trail may not be far off.