Vermont's Craft Distilling Movement Comes of Age | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Food + Drink » Food + Drink Features

Vermont's Craft Distilling Movement Comes of Age


Published July 23, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 16, 2021 at 8:33 p.m.

Ryan Christiansen stands on a stainless-steel platform beside a tall, silver column and explains how it's used for raising spirits — not from the dead but from living, fermented grain mash. Christiansen, head distiller at Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick, has personally modified and fine-tuned this column still, which he uses exclusively for the second pass at distilling vodka. Though two distillations aren't a lot by vodka standards, he says, he chose that method deliberately to allow certain flavor profiles to come through.

This slender still, with its polished chrome finish and round, glass-covered valves, bears a striking resemblance to a wind instrument. In fact, a fellow employee dubbed it "the clarinet."

“The clarinet” at Caledonia Spirits
  • “The clarinet” at Caledonia Spirits

The name seems fitting. Here at this small, artisanal distillery on the banks of the Lamoille River, the flavors of the half dozen liquors Caledonia produces are often described in musical terms: the "nuanced tones" of juniper in the Barr Hill Gin; the "background notes" of honey in the vodka. Likewise, the aging processes for the company's bourbon and gin have their own individual "rhythms."

Christiansen is happy to answer a liquor novice's questions about the alchemy, and he doesn't seem especially guarded about revealing trade secrets. On a recent afternoon, he speaks enthusiastically about a new product the distillers are working on called "young rye" — a rye whiskey harvested from the barrel early in the aging process.

"That's going to be an interesting product," Christiansen says, and muses that the rye may be an acquired taste for some drinkers, akin to the first experience with bitter, hop-heavy India pale ale. "People will say, 'This doesn't taste like a 12-year-old whiskey or a 6-year-old bourbon.' But you're going to taste less of the wood and more of the grain, so we want to make sure those grains are from a good source."

Such jazz-like reinterpretations of old standards have become a signature feature of Vermont's craft spirits industry, which is still young — like many of the people working in it — and experimental. But in the past few years, some of those newcomers have won critical acclaim and garnered prestigious industry awards for their small-batch spirits.

Ryan Christiansen
  • Ryan Christiansen

Laid-back and pony-tailed, 29-year-old Christiansen seems representative of both the age and attitude of many of Vermont's craft distillers. Before joining Caledonia Spirits in November 2011, he owned Local Potion, a homebrew and winemaking supply store in Plainfield. Christiansen compares the rise of Vermont's craft spirits to the situation of local microbrews a decade ago.

"The customers haven't even had a chance to figure out and describe what they like," he says. "It's only going to change. It's like a little baby that's still developing."

Indeed, Vermont's craft spirits industry seems in the midst of a baby boom. According to the Vermont Department of Liquor Control, in 2004 the state had just three licensed distilleries; five years later, it had seven. Today, the DLC lists 18 licensed manufacturers of spirituous beverages, with more applications in the pipeline.

Those numbers reflect the burgeoning national obsession with small-batch, handcrafted spirits. In 2007, the entire United States had just 76 craft distilleries. By 2012, there were 315. By next year, that number is expected to exceed 500, according to figures from the newly formed American Craft Spirits Association.

Not only are more Vermonters getting into the booze-making business, but those who've been in it for several years are experiencing exponential growth. Capitalizing on the Vermont name, as well as the state's robust farm-to-plate ethos — or, as distillers call it, the "grain-to-glass" movement — many are putting out unique products that rival top-shelf liquors offered in high-end restaurants and bars.

Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill Gin - NATALIE WILLIAMS
  • Natalie Williams
  • Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill Gin

"It's really an eclectic variety," says Nick Roy, bar manager at Hotel Vermont in Burlington. Juniper, the hotel's restaurant and bar, now stocks 43 Vermont liquors alongside such standard drinks as Jack Daniel's and Maker's Mark. As Roy explains, many hotel guests are creatures of habit and are particular about what they like.

"We're able to suggest something different based on what they're used to drinking," he says. So rather than mixing up a Tanqueray and tonic, his staff might propose a Green Mountain Gin, "which has a great juniper burn to it, and it's not going to break the bank." For higher-end rye drinkers, Roy might offer up a glass of WhistlePig Straight Rye as a Vermont alternative. "It's a way of making our bar farm to table, like our [food] menu," he says.

"There's so much support in Vermont," says Caledonia Spirits' Christiansen. "We go to farmers markets and people line up, partially because they like the product and partially because they like the idea and the vision of the company. It's inspiring."

And lucrative. Barr Hill Gin, which won double gold at the 2012 New York International Spirits Competition and was named Gin of the Year at the 2013 Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Competition, retails in Vermont liquor stores for $37.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle (about 25 ounces).

In 2013, Caledonia Spirits produced close to 40,000 bottles of liquor, including two varieties of gin, a vodka, a corn whiskey and an elderberry cordial. This year, the company is on track to produce 100,000 bottles. Demand is growing so quickly that the Hardwick facility will expand by another 3,000 square feet in the coming months. Caledonia Spirits are now sold in more than a dozen states and exported to Canada, China and Japan. Lately, Christiansen reports, the "clarinet" has been running at or near capacity to keep pace with demand.

Barrels at Caledonia Spirits - NATALIE WILLIAMS
  • Natalie Williams
  • Barrels at Caledonia Spirits

Caledonia Spirits' growth mirrors what's happening at other Vermont distilleries. According to the DLC, in 2010 gross sales of all Vermont-made spirits at state-run liquor outlets, farmers markets and distilleries' tasting rooms totaled $643,493. By the end of 2013, those sales had surpassed $2.7 million.

"This is just an explosion," says Mike Hogan, Vermont's commissioner of liquor control, employing a metaphor rarely used by those in the flammable-liquids industry. "Craft distilleries are going like crazy. We're getting more and more applications each month."

But as local artisanal spirits come of age, some suggest privately that the Vermont brand runs the risk of becoming diluted. The term "craft" is itself still loosely defined and open to interpretation and debate — nowhere more so than among craft distillers themselves, both locally and nationally. Currently, state law doesn't spell out what constitutes a "Vermont-made" spirit, nor does it distinguish among manufacturers that distill, ferment, blend or age. Unlike other products that carry the "Vermont" label, spirits aren't subject to legal standards specifying which ingredients, and in which percentages, must be grown or sourced within state borders.

Says DLC commissioner Hogan, "I have a feeling it's going to come up" in the Vermont legislature, "because Vermont-made products are growing so fast."

Mad River Distillers: Drink It If You Can

  • Natalie Williams
  • Sheldon Foley

Sheldon Foley opens the hatch on a small, shiny still, releasing a cloud of yeasty steam that smells just like freshly baked rye bread. That makes sense, given that he has just finished distilling a batch of dark rye mash — which had fermented for about a week — into roughly 25 gallons of crystal-clear, 150-proof rye whiskey.

"You wouldn't drink it that strong," Foley emphasizes. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be available for a midafternoon interview. I would probably be on the floor somewhere."

Soon, Foley will "proof it down" to a drinkable strength by adding water from a nearby spring, then aging the mixture in oak barrels.

Mad River Distillers, a small artisanal spirits producer on a wooded hilltop in Warren, got this still up and running in May 2013. It produces small batches of rye, bourbon, rum, corn whiskey and apple brandy from local, organic and non-GMO ingredients, including corn from Aurora Farms in Charlotte and apples from Champlain Orchards in Shoreham. Ingredients that cannot be sourced in Vermont come from regional, organic or sustainable sources. For example, the cane sugar the company uses to make rum comes from a fair-trade farm in Malawi.

Indeed, Mad River Distillers seems to be all about building sustainable and symbiotic relationships. MRD's First Run Rum, a 96-proof "sipper" with a warm, buttery finish, is aged in used maple-syrup barrels swapped with a sugar maker in Derby. The sugarer, in turn, reuses the distillery's rum barrels to produce a rum-infused maple syrup. The spent mash from this and other fermentations isn't thrown away or composted; it's sent up the road to a dairy farm to feed the cows.

Mad River Distillers - NATALIE WILLIAMS
  • Natalie Williams
  • Mad River Distillers

Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and wearing wire-frame glasses and a Red Sox cap, the 30-year-old Foley looks like he'd be more at home at a college tailgate party than making liquor with his childhood friend from Warren, Alex Hilton. For his part, Hilton, a carpenter by trade, fell into his job as general manager after MRD founders Brett Little and John Egan hired him to renovate two decrepit horse barns into the distillery's headquarters. Teeth marks from the barn's former occupants are still visible on the stall doors where barrels of whiskey now age.

It's not surprising that four guys in their early thirties are now earning a living making booze. A new generation of young people has discovered the pleasures of hard liquor, fueled in part by the influence of such TV shows as AMC's "Mad Men" and HBO's "True Detective."

"You see a lot of younger people, male and female, ordering very whiskey-centric cocktails at bars — Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, bourbon on the rocks," Foley says.

But this small craft distillery combines old ways with new. Though the crew is psyched about the recent purchase of a bottle-capping machine, which has saved them lots of calluses, the distillery uses no conveyor belts or bottling machines; all the liquor batches are labeled and numbered by hand. The still itself, manufactured in a small town in Germany's Black Forest, looks steam-punk chic but is completely computer controlled.

"None of us had ever distilled before. We were all self-taught," Hilton explains. "But we've definitely done our homework and done a lot of research and seminars and classes."

Not that their product didn't undergo plenty of trial and error, Foley adds: "I'd be lying if I said we didn't dump a lot of stuff down the drain."

These days, however, most of their product ends up in bottles, and it's winning critical acclaim. In its first year alone, MRD took home two gold medals for its First Run Rum — one at the Spirits of the Americas competition in south Florida, and another in Las Vegas. "That goes a long way," Foley says of the awards.

So does getting help from the DLC, Hilton emphasizes. The department has been instrumental in getting MRD's spirits approved for sale in state-run liquor stores around Vermont. In June, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law a bill that allows bartenders to serve customers a "sampler flight" of up to four ounces of different spirits — a boon to Vermont distillers trying to get customers to taste their products.

How much liquor will MRD bottle this year?

"It's kind of early to say," Hilton says cautiously. "In 2014, if we can come close to maybe producing 1,000 cases, that'd be huge ... I think we can produce that much. But I'm not sure if we can sell it."

Elm Brook Farm: Dogged Pursuits

  • Natalie Williams

Elm Brook Farm in East Fairfield isn't a distillery that tourists discover by accident. It sits in the midst of a 550-acre family farm owned by David and Lisa Howe. To get there, visitors must drive to the end of a long, winding private dirt road, through woods and past rolling fields and vineyards. There's no formal tour, tasting room or gift shop, but on a recent weekday afternoon, David Howe is eager to show off his operation.

Driving to his home, I pass a maple pump house. There, underground lines draw sap from more than 13,000 tapped maples. Elm Brook Farm has another 4,000 to 5,000 sugar maples waiting in the wings.

At the main residence, Howe emerges from the woods on an ATV, trailed by four exuberant Braques français, aka French pointers. "They're great hunting dogs," he says, greeting his visitor with a sweaty handshake and a five o'clock shadow. Howe apologizes, explaining that he's been busy working on the maple trees, which took a serious beating during last winter's ice storm.

Those trees, from which Howe produces about a quarter million gallons of sap annually, are crucial to his operation. He produces two signature spirits. Literary Dog is a small-batch artisanal vodka that's distilled 23 times. With each distilling, Howe says, another "flavor compound" is stripped away, until all that remains is a creamy, sweet finish, what he calls "our maple signature."

Elm Brook's other product, Rail Dog, is a 100 percent distilled maple spirit. Unlike a maple liqueur, which is essentially vodka with maple-syrup flavoring, Howe explains, "This is pure, 100 percent maple [sap] that's been fermented, distilled and then barrel aged."

The result is a spirit that tastes more like cognac or single-malt whiskey, with a maple finish. Because Rail Dog is so different from traditional spirits, Howe claims, it took the U.S. Treasury Department months to figure out how to classify it; it didn't meet the legal definitions of whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, wine or liqueur.

"This is nothing written in a book," says Howe, who grew up on a Minnesota farm and discovered Vermont as a ski racer while attending Cornell University. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, then a master's in business, before spending years working in international finance in Europe. About 20 years ago, Howe and his wife bought this long-neglected farm in Franklin County.

Howe spent about five years tinkering with his spirits formula in his hayloft-turned-chemistry lab. His efforts eventually paid off. Today, about 90 percent of Elm Brook Farm's spirits — the company produces fewer than 2,000 bottles a year — are sold to repeat customers. Rail Dog goes for $94 for a 750-milliliter bottle; Literary Dog, for $56 a bottle. "This one guy from Chicago flies his private plane in just to pick up his vodka," Howe reveals.

Elm Brook Farms’ Rail Dog and Literary Dog - NATALIE WILLIAMS
  • Natalie Williams
  • Elm Brook Farms’ Rail Dog and Literary Dog

At 56, Howe is older than many in this local industry dominated by millennials. And, he admits, there are easier and cheaper ways to break into the market than his own laborious path. On his computer, Howe pulls up an example of the many emails he receives weekly. It's from an out-of-state wholesaler who invites him to "create your own custom blend of gin" by purchasing the wholesaler's neutral spirits, to which Howe would add his own local water, botanicals or other natural flavors. The wholesaler suggests that Howe bottle and market the result as a "Vermont-made" spirit.

But Howe refuses to "join the dark side," as he puts it, explaining that to do so would "bore me to tears.

"Once you get hooked on out-of-state alcohol, you're not going to make your own," he adds. "The artisan spirits movement is all about using local ingredients to make a local product. That's where I'm coming from."

While Howe won't publicly shame Vermont manufacturers who don't distill their own spirits using local ingredients, he does think the state shouldn't give them tax breaks as "Vermont" producers. Last year, the legislature lowered the tax rate on all in-state liquor manufacturers who sell at farmers markets, at special events or from their own premises. This year, lawmakers raised the earnings threshold for in-state producers — from $500,000 to $750,000 in gross sales — before their tax rate jumps from 5 percent to 25 percent.

"It's not that I'm holier than anyone else," Howe emphasizes. "But eventually, the customers are going to figure this out, and they're going to paint all of Vermont with the same bad brush."

Smugglers' Notch Distillery: Double Scoops to Double Gold

  • Natalie Williams
  • Ron Elliott

Thirty-eight-year-old Jeremy Elliott isn't ashamed to admit that before 2005, he never considered making liquor — or even drank much of it himself. "Typically, I'm a beer guy," he says.

But in November 2004, Elliott, then a chemist at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, got word that his employer was closing its Georgia, Vt., plant and moving its operations out of state. Elliott, who wanted to raise a family in Vermont, says he looked around for another business where he could apply his skills. Finding none, he launched one himself: Smugglers' Notch Distillery.

For Elliott's father, Ron, the timing was fortuitous. A year earlier, he'd retired from an upper-management position at the Friendly's restaurant and ice cream chain. One day, Ron recalls, Jeremy approached him with what sounded like a ridiculously bold idea: to make the world's best vodka.

"It was a pretty lofty goal," Ron Elliott admits, "but why not set your goals high?"

With Jeremy's chemistry background and Ron's business acumen, the pair created a business and marketing plan and started courting investors for the $1 million-plus they'd need to build a new distillery.

  • Natalie Williams
  • Ron Elliott

But, quickly realizing that those same investors expected to gain a controlling interest in the new company, the Elliotts opted to pursue a more economical route. They leased rather than bought a building just off Route 15 in Jeffersonville and outsourced some of their distilling to a facility in Idaho, near where they source their grains. The distiller uses the Elliotts' own specified mash formula.

Smugglers' Notch Distillery opened its doors in October 2010. The first batches of vodka hit the shelves early the following year. Over the next six months, Smugglers' Notch Vodka garnered considerable critical acclaim. That spring, Wine Enthusiast gave it a 95 out of 100 rating and named it one of the top 12 vodkas in the world.

In September 2011, Smugglers' Notch Vodka took home a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition — the first Vermont vodka to win that award. Also that year, the Beverage Testing Institute gave the spirit a gold star and rated it "exceptional."

Smugglers' Notch Distillery followed its vodka with the release of a rum in March 2012, a gin in June 2012, a bourbon in May 2013, a rye in December 2013 and a hopped gin in May 2014.

Today, the company relies heavily on tourists coming over the pass from Stowe or staying at the nearby resort of the same name. Most of the distillery's products are sold from a tasting room on Jeffersonville's Main Street, though Ron Elliott declines to say how many bottles the company produces or sells annually.

And, though some of the distilling is now done on the premises using local ingredients — as is all the blending and barrel aging — the elder Elliott says the company has no plans to bring its vodka-distilling process home to Vermont. Nor, he says, does that practice disqualify its spirits from being "Vermont-made" products.

"The distillation process is the easiest process. You take mash and you distill it to produce liquid," he says. "What do you do with it then? What do you blend it with? How do you treat it? What does it touch? How is it aged? That's all the craft piece of it."

What Is "Craft" Distilling, Exactly?

Nowhere is the debate over "craft" more spirited than among artisanal spirits makers themselves. At its inaugural convention held in Colorado in March, the newly formed American Craft Spirits Association defined craft distillers as those whose annual production "does not exceed 750,000 proof-gallons removed from bond." Under that federal definition, which applies a mathematical formula to determine how much a manufacturer pays in excise taxes, all of Vermont's distillers will likely qualify as craft distillers for years to come.

Yet to some, the term "craft" is less about size than about a philosophy of the art — which includes a business' degree of transparency about what goes into its products.

"It's a very important question, and it's a very delicate question, too," admits Jeremy Elliott, whose own company has been accused of not producing an "authentic" Vermont product. He refutes that claim, contending that Smugglers' Notch Distillery has always been honest and forthright with consumers about what's in its products and how they're made.

"Our story has never changed," Elliott adds. "We source our grain from Idaho, where our vodka is distilled. We're not rich people. We gotta do what we gotta do."

If other Vermont craft distillers have a problem with the Elliotts' business model, they won't say so, at least not publicly. In fact, last year, Jeremy Elliott was named president of the Distilled Spirits Council of Vermont, whose membership includes 14 of the state's 18 licensed distilleries.

As some observers point out, there's room enough in the Vermont market for a lot of different approaches. Many distillers note, for example, that one of Vermont's most critically acclaimed spirits, WhistlePig Rye, comes from a Canadian distiller. A WhistlePig spokesperson clarifies that in April, the company received Act 250 approval to distill at its farm in Shoreham. With help from master distiller Dave Pickerell, the company aims to begin distilling its own rye in July 2015.

Buying unflavored spirits from out of state, then blending or aging them here, is "a good way for small startups to make some product before they bite the bullet and buy all the equipment," says Mad River Distillers' Hilton. "I think it is craft. It's certainly not something we want to do, but I think it's pretty widely done."

Does it really matter to consumers where distilling happens?

"It might," says liquor commissioner Hogan. "But unless someone is a real connoisseur of the spirits and they really follow particular products, and they know a lot of the nuances of how distilling and rectifying works, I don't think the average person even knows."

For other producers, such as Todd Hardie, the 61-year-old founder and owner of Caledonia Spirits — whose great-great-great-grandfather came to Vermont from Scotland in 1817, and whose family has been producing scotch in Edinburgh since 1830 — the real goal is to keep dollars local and add value to the Vermont economy.

Hardie calls his spirits operation just another way of showing support for local family farms.

"We believe in relationships," he says. "We take care of our families and we take care of the land, and the crops are good. And the products are wonderful."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Spirits Rising"

Related Stories

Speaking of...