Elm Brook Farm

David Howe, master distiller and owner of Elm Brook Farm

David Howe, master distiller and owner of Elm Brook Farm

Vodka With a Twist
Are Distilled Spirits Gluten Free?
Elm Brook Farm Craft Distilled Maple Spirits Are!

Story by Liz Conforti
Photography by Gene Conforti


Local is good, but our local product should be superior,” proclaims David Howe, owner of Elm Brook Farm in East Fairfield and master distiller of the maple-sugar-based artisan spirits Literary Dog Premium Sipping Vodka and Rail Dog Barrel Aged Maple Spirit.Made entirely in the Green Mountain State, starting with homegrown maple sugar fermented and distilled locally, these products are everything Vermont—and gluten free.

Elm Brook Farm’s first venture into spirit making started with grapes, but grapes yielded what David considered a merely “satisfactory” product. He was sure they could do better.

Thus began four years of research and development related to the chemical nutrients of maple and distillation. Turns out, maple sugar makes wonderful spirits! This news is no surprise to any Vermonter with whom I am acquainted.

Elm Brook Farm occupies some 550 acres, much of it maple forest covering a large amount of the farm’s mountainside. A considerable amount of the maple sugar required for spirit production comes from that same maple forest on the farm, with occasional supplemental maple from his sugaring neighbors, tapped at the peak of sweetness.

Inside the distillery, the wonderment and magic of how it is all made unfolds before the naked eye. The distillation unit is made specifically for maple, built and soldered by David. The liquid requires 23 iterations before the master distiller considers it vodka. Literary Dog is the only vodka that goes through 23 distillations, David says, and it is then blended with artisanal well water during the boiling process to achieve 80 proof. The vodka rests two months before being called Literary Dog Premium Sipping Vodka.

One sip, neat, and you will agree that his commitment has paid off: This product is divinely light and smooth on the palate. The sip ends with the sweetest lightest note of maple. But watch out! Smooth and 80 proof, Literary Dog Vodka deserves gentle sipping and appreciation. The distiller recommends it be sipped clean and not tainted by fruit juice or soda.

Dedicated and determined, David Howe’s love and pride in his products is infectious. Just when I thought it gets no better in gluten-free spirit heaven, David brought out his unique product, Rail Dog Barrel Aged Maple Spirit. Rail Dog boasts a whole new individual distilled spirit category name: “barrel-aged maple spirit.” The distiller defines it as a spirit that shares some flavor compounds with cognac and organic wood whiskey.

What does this mean for you? A full bouquet, soft and warm stirring undertones of maple and a special oak from a North American forest—truly one of the smoothest, if not the smoothest drink, ever to cross the palate.

 People like me, with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) often complain of reactions to some distilled spirits. After drooling for a friend’s vanilla vodka and ginger ale this past summer, I decided it was time to get to the bottom of understanding whether distilled spirits are, in fact, gluten free. I contacted a number of European and American distilled spirit manufacturers directly.

I emailed the same question to each: “Do you have any products which are gluten free?” Apparently, there is no unified industry answer. Some US manufacturers follow the standard of the European Union (EU). The EU food law asserts that distilled spirits made from gluten-containing grain, such as wheat, rye or barley, leave the gluten behind during the distillation process.

I decided to learn what the US has to say about this matter. A new FDA rule legally defines the use of the term “gluten free” on labeling of food. It states that any food product (not pharmaceuticals and not beverages with alcohol) that have a gluten-containing source ingredient and leaves a residue of 20 ppm (parts per million) or greater cannot be labeled “gluten free.” Compliance with this new regulation is set for August 2014 and manufacturers of food products will have until then to bring package labels into compliance. The Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) of the US Department of the Treasury regulates the labeling of distilled spirits, wines (with 7% alcohol) and malted beverages (made with both malted barley and hops). The new FDA definition of “gluten free” does not apply to your favorite distilled spirit! However, the TTB has in place a ruling allowing spirits to be labeled with gluten content claims. It was issued “because products made from ingredients that contain gluten may, despite processing to remove gluten, still contain gluten that cannot be detected using available testing methods.”

The matter is confusing. Europe says there’s no residue; the US says there may be a residue. I know there are many of us who react to distilled spirits made from gluten containing source grains. What does this information mean for those who can’t consume gluten? Email manufacturers a gluten free inquiry to customer service for just about any distilled spirit on the market. Don’t drink the alcohol in question until you know the source grain. If the source grain has gluten, there may or may not be gluten residue from the source grain in the distilled product. If the spirit has a US label certifying it as gluten free, then there is no gluten.

Obtaining federal gluten-free certification through TTB programs requires considerable resources. While walking through the Elm Brook Farm distillery, so clean and perfect, it occurred to me that this gluten-free product may require patience on the part of consumers. Just as organics consumers began in the 1990s (and continue today) to support local farmers who use organic practices but do not have certification, Elm Brook Farm distilled spirits beckon this same attention from gluten-free spirits enthusiasts. The process for TTB gluten free certification is lengthy and laborious. Spirits manufacturers who maintain gluten-free practices and do not use any gluten-containing ingredients should be deserving of notice from gluten-free consumers.

Elm Brook Farm spirits do not use any grain. These superior spirits are made from naturally gluten-free maple sugar and the facility does not use or house any gluten-containing source grains.

Look for David Howe offering tastings during the cold months every other Saturday at the Burlington Farmers’ Market. Literary Dog and Rail Dog are available at some Vermont Liquor Outlets, the Country Store at Smuggler’s Notch, at Elm Brook Farm and at ElmBrookFarm.com.

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