Rum Venture Is Chaser to Anthropology Career
Story by Marian Burros • Photography by Natalie Stultz
Just before dusk one evening last summer, at my house in the Northeast Kingdom, Duncan Holaday and his partner, Tom Wales, had the full attention of the 20 cocktail party guests as they cranked out elderflower mojitos on a counter that separates the kitchen from the dining area. Made with Dunc’s Mill Elderflower Rum, the creation of the mojitos drew everyone’s attention, emptying the living room, the porch and 9/10ths of the kitchen as the guests stuffed themselves into a space big enough for six, maybe eight, and waited their turn.
Clamoring may be too strong a word, but no one was paying any attention to the hors d’oeuvres on the nearby table. The mojitos, perfumed with the elderflower-flavored rum, were the center of attention even though they were not the reason for the party. Holaday had called a couple of days before and offered to make them. The result: The last guest left sometime after 10:30.
Holaday came to master distiller status late in his career, following years as an anthropologist, studying how aboriginal people live off the land in Indonesia and Malaysia and later as a professor of communications in the United States and Singapore. None of that work would seem to have anything to do with his rum, but the two are inextricably linked.
In 1999 Holaday and his wife, Woon Ping Chin, whom he met in Malaysia, returned to a 200-acre farm they purchased in Barnet, a farm with one of the most evocative views in a state that is filled with them. At a turning in the meadow the land drops 500 feet and overlooks the confluence of the Connecticut River and two of its tributaries. This is where he chose to learn what living off the land means.
“I’m trying to find out what it’s like to be in the role of a native,” he said, “what is actually involved, the economics and the politics of it.”
The means by which he chose to conduct this experiment would amuse his college advisors, who told him he should be a chemist, not an anthropologist. Distilling certainly requires an aptitude for chemistry. Holaday turned out to be a natural and his artisanal vodka made from the sap of the maple trees on his farm was so successful that a group of venture capitalists were eager to underwrite Vermont Spirits and ramp up the amount that he could produce.
“It caught on and I learned about capitalism in America and how it affects farmers,” said Holaday, without a hint of irony. “I got involved in large corporate efforts making quick money.
“You do need to inject capital into a small business,” he added, “but is the capital there for the purpose of extracting wealth or adding to the local economy?” What he found out was that “doing something on a very large corporate scale in connection with small distilleries in Vermont is a bad fit.”
So bad, in fact, that the venture capitalists now own Vermont Spirits.
But the experience taught him a lot about making spirits on a small scale and he became a consultant, his first client Todd Hardie of Barr Hill Gin in Hardwick. He designed the distillery and the still and developed the prototype for the product. He also convinced Hardie to put the honey he made into his gin instead of spices. Another great success: The gin has earned a nationwide reputation.
Since 2009 Holaday has been working on his own artisanal project, Dunc’s Mill Rum, which uses the distillery he built in 1999 on the foundation of a 19th-century barn on the farm.
Holaday is making three variations of rum, all of them perfect for sipping: the Dunc’s Mill Elderflower Flavor Rum with its floral taste, perfect for an iced summer sipper, right from the freezer; a maple rum, Dunc’s Mill Maple Flavored Rum, with a touch of sweet warmth; and his pride and joy, the Dunc’s Mill Backwoods Reserve Rum, aged six months, that is reminiscent of a smokey Isla single-malt scotch.
The Reserve is made with organic cane that he ferments and fair trade molasses that is fermented separately and then distilled to create a round, full Caribbean flavor. They go together in new Hungarian oak barrels, which have more vanilla notes than the French barrels.
The key to quality, to authenticity, Holaday said, is to make the alcohol from scratch rather than to buy cheap alcohol. “People should learn to ask the question ‘How much of the alcohol in the bottle did you make?’ The number of products made from scratch by distillers in Vermont can be counted on one hand.”
Dunc’s Mill rums came to market in 2011, a perfect moment for Vermont artisanal spirits makers. Two years ago the state allowed the sale of locally made spirits at farmers’ markets.
“It changed the whole game,” Holaday said. “Farmers’ markets have contributed an important piece to the success of my experiment to see if I could live off the land. We can get a cash flow that is regular and immediate. The state is helping people who want to work on the land. It is tilting the balance toward the small farmer, giving the native producer an edge in the local market. It is allowing rural Vermont to rebuild an economy that was in tatters.”
Holaday is delighted to be part of the farmers’ market community: “Despite my hesitancy to become a direct salesman in farmers’ markets, now I am a total convert.”
He has become something of a barker at the fair. At 10 in the morning on market day, whether in St. Johnsbury, Montpelier, Peacham or Lyndonville, he is standing in front of his table luring passing shoppers: “Have you had your rum today?”
It’s the kind of question that makes most people pause, at least for a second. “It’s entirely encouraging to be in the presence of people who are tasting it,” he said. “If they taste it they buy it.”
But farmers’ markets, Vermont liquor outlets and restaurants like Claire’s in Hardwick and Hen of the Wood in Waterbury and Burlington aren’t enough: He needs to ramp up the marketing in Massachusetts and New York to reach the goal of 5,000 to 10,000 cases a year.
Vermont is just at the beginning of an artisanal distillers movement, not unlike the beginning of the organic movement. And Holaday’s chemistry skills have turned him into one of the pioneers.