The forerunner of the temperance movement is now home to some of the most exciting names in craft distilling. With source ingredients from the humble potato to the wild blueberry, these forward-thinking companies are bringing locally grown products off the farm and into your flask.
“One tablespoon in hot water, as directed,” reads the worn label on the back of a glass bottle of Sherwood Distilling Company’s Pure Rye Whiskey. This bottle is from Prohibition America, when hard alcohol was a common prescription. Doctors recognized that spirits could be a cure for nearly anything that ails you—or at the very least, that a nice dose of aqua vitae (an archaic name for alcohol, which fittingly translates from the Latin as “water of life”) could quiet most symptoms. It is strange to see this artifact from turn-of-the-century Baltimore nestled among the beautifully designed bottles of craft gin and rum for sale at New England Distilling, a company that has only been in operation for four years. But like many Maine tales, the story of distilling in New England is an old one that takes place on sea and shore, shaped by trading routes and changing winds, a story with roots that stretch deep into the formidable rocky soil. It’s a story that is still unfolding today, as a crop of new distillers stake their claims on the craft spirits market.
New England Distilling is located on the outer limits of Portland, down an industrial side road off a busy stretch of Forest Avenue. Inside the unremarkable building the air is fragrant and warm. Old photographs of similarly stark factories hang framed on dark gray walls. In the next room, fumes rise from vats and stills, disappearing into the air like mist from a lake. A massive copper still rests on a pile of bricks, which shields the fire beneath from view. Every object in this place, from the racks of wooden barrels to the small assortment of test tubes and beakers that rest on a stainless steel table, seems to point either to ancestral knowledge or modern luxury. The word artisanal comes to mind.
“Premium Rye Whiskey, Gin, and Rum are produced by hand on 150 years and six generations of family tradition,” reads the company’s packaging. It’s easy to verify the “produced by hand” portion of this claim. Distiller Tim Fisher is currently at work on a batch of bourbon. It’s the middle of January but he’s dressed in a t-shirt. “We use direct fire on the stills,” he explains, after handing me a warm shot glass full of unaged whiskey. I’m sweating in my winter sweater, but I take a sip of the clear liquor. It goes down smooth, leaving a sharp, clear burn behind, untempered by the caramel notes and woodsy sweetness that typically define bourbon. “Our distillation process is designed to more closely match what would have been done in the colonial period,” adds Ned Wight, owner and founder of the company. “A lot of what we do involves simple processes—direct fire on the stills, simple distillation. We do this to hold onto big flavors. Older technique produces older flavors, which are interesting and complex.”
New England Distilling currently has three products for sale: Ingenium, a gin with intense herbal and floral flavors and a silky mouthfeel; Eight Bells Rum, a barrel- matured gold rum made from Brazilian molasses; and Gunpowder Rye Whiskey, a spicy Maryland-style whiskey that was inspired by Wight’s ancestors at Sherwood Distilling Company. In fact, the entire operation takes cues from Wight’s familial history. “Starting in the 1860s, my family used to make whiskey in Maryland, but in the 1950s the American palate pretty much hit rock bottom,” he explains. “In that era, Maryland rye was not on the scene. Big flavors were on their way out. Many of the craft distillers were forced to close; all these old Pennsylvania and Maryland liquors fell out of style.” For the next three decades, interest in hard spirits waned, and sales of American-made alcohol suffered. Big brands took over, and craft distillers were virtually nonexistent. However, this began to change in the 1990s, when consumers found a new appreciation for California wines and the many types of grape that spring from the West Coast’s fertile soil. The tide turned slowly. First came the wine revolution; then the craft brewing scene began to pick up; and now, distillers are finally reaping the rewards of our increasingly educated, locality-obsessed drinking culture.
“For the same reasons that craft brewing has done so well in Maine, distilling can do well,” says Wight, who worked down the road at Allagash Brewing Company as a brewer for years before switching to distilling. He credits the beer industry for helping to usher in a new era of spirits, and Maine customers for welcoming and supporting each new sector of the local economy. “Maine consumers are curious and willing,” he says. “They’re game to explore new things. It seems like everyone in Maine is juggling five different things. Some are things that you have to do, but the rest are things that you want to do. People are willing to support their neighbors, to taste their passion projects.”
A few miles south, in the heart of Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, we find another man who has turned his creative endeavors into a sustainable business. Luke Davidson is the founder and chief distiller at Maine Craft Distilling, a small business that produces seven spirits that range from the traditional dry gin to the unexpected blueberry moonshine. While New England Distillery’s tasting room reminded me of an old-fashioned smoking room, with its sleek dark walls and carefully arranged selection of antique bottles, the scene at Maine Craft Distilling is decidedly more bohemian. A mustard-yellow and brick-red mural covers the entire back wall, and the bar area is cluttered with stacks of books and irregularly hung art (including a portrait of Portland’s own Neal Dow, the so-called Napoleon of Temperance and a driving force behind Prohibition, who looks down sternly at drinkers seated below).
Despite the superficial differences, Davidson’s philosophy echoes Wight’s words, particularly when he says, “A rising tide lifts all ships.” I’ve often heard Mainers use this aphorism as shorthand to state their support for the local economy, and Maine’s alcohol producers seem to have taken this to heart. In the past, Wight and Davidson have collaborated with Eric Michaud of Liquid Riot Bottling Company (formerly known as In’finiti Fermentation and Distillation) to create special edition batches of rum to commemorate the 1855 Rum Riot—the very event that inspired Michaud’s new company name. “Historically there have been a lot of riots over alcohol, not just in Maine, but in locations around America,” explains Michaud. “In Chicago, they rioted over beer. In Maine, it was rum. The common denominator to these riots is the liquid.” Liquid Riot currently is among the smallest craft distillers in the state, but that hasn’t stopped Michaud from creating some truly unique products, like beer schnapps and whiskey made from locally grown organic oats.
Along with a keen awareness of history, the desire to create spirits from Maine-grown crops seems to be a shared trait among the distillers I spoke with. “It’s my goal to be as Maine as you can get. It’s a real passion of mine,” says Davidson, who grew up in Jefferson. His parents were back-to-the- land farmers, which grants extra weight to Maine Craft Distilling’s “farm-to-flask” mission. Davidson’s eventual goal is to be entirely sustainable and eco-friendly, but for now he settles for “adding value to Maine-grown products” and providing farmers with another market for their goods. “We use Maine-grown grain. Our climate is so unique that the taste comes out in our product. Terroir is often a wine term, but we apply it to what we do here.
There is a buttery note that comes out in the whiskey.” Davidson doesn’t just rely on grain and its terroir to add a distinct Maine flavor: “We also smoke our whiskey with peat and seaweed from Washington County. It adds a brininess.”
In addition to their flagship whiskey, Maine Craft Distilling makes a vegetable-based spirit called Chesuncook, which tastes of carrots and herbs, and the widely publicized Blueshine, a sweet barley-based liquor that gets its rich purple hue from wild Maine blueberries and is flavored with Maine maple syrup. Although these products seem very modern—and very much in line with the hipster aesthetics of “mixologist” culture—Davidson is well versed in New England drunk history. “Maine was a major producer of rum from the 1830s to the 1850s,” says Davidson. The triangle trade route of colonial America gave Portland access to more molasses than its citizenscould ever consume, no matter how many vats of Indian pudding they whipped up. Instead, Portland’s 11 working distilleries turned that sweet syrup into rum. “The city was awash with drunkards,” Davidson laughs, with a nod up at Neal.
Much has changed since that heyday of American spirits, and now Davidson and his contemporaries are working to shake things up even more by starting a guild. The current distilleries in Maine are mostly small-batch or craft distillers, including Bartlett Maine Estate Winery, Tree Spirits, Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery, Twenty 2 Vodka, Wiggly Bridge Distillery, and Cold River Vodka. Davidson has been in contact with his fellow distillers, and hopes to have the guild organized and working by summer 2015. “It may take ten years, but I think change is coming for craft distillers,” adds Eric Michaud. He argues that starting a guild would help put distillers on par with brewers, making it easier for companies like his to turn a profit. “Maine is one of the hardest states to be a craft distiller,” he says. “By banding together, we hope to get a little more power and recognition.”
Like Luke Davison and Eric Michaud, Chris Dowe of Maine Distilleries believes that the future of craft distilling hinges on cooperation between producers. “One of the things that changed the beverage industry is that back in the wine days, the federal government started treating small wineries differently from the big ones,” Dowe recalls. “They did the same thing with beer, lowering the excise tax for the little guys. Now, we’re trying to see that happen for the craft distilling industry.” Dowe and his fellow distillers have already presented the idea to Congress, and are now trying to push a bill through Washington that would lower the federal excise tax. They also want to change the way the state of Maine deals with markup and taxes for small-scale operations like Dowe’s.
But as I gaze up at Dowe’s 34-foot copper still, “small” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Thick glass windows punctuate each level of the old-fashioned vodka still, making this impressive piece of German equipment look rather like a Rube Goldberg machine. This, I’m told, is where the magic happens. This one piece of equipment pumps out every Cold River product, including potato gin, vodka, and blueberry-flavored vodka. After visiting the headquarters of other distilleries, I’m impressed with the size of Dowe’s operation. (“Cold River was the maverick that started it all,” says Davidson. “You’ve got to see the setup at Cold River,” adds Wight after explaining the mechanics of his own equipment.)
Dowe is equally quick to compliment his competitors, but he is rightfully proud of Cold River Vodka’s ten-year history. Dowe has a background in home brewing, and left a long career with Peter Austin and Partners, a company that constructs breweries around the globe, to launch Cold River in 2004. The idea for a potato vodka company came from a conversation with Donnie Thibodeau, owner of Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg. Dowe recognized that the potatoes that don’t quite make it to market (the ones that are too big or too small or marked with cosmetic imperfections) could be turned into alcohol, thus adding even more value to a popular Maine product. Dowe and Thibodeau entered into a partnership, with Green Thumb Farms providing the spuds, and Cold River converting them into vodka.
There was only one problem: Dowe had no idea how to make vodka from potatoes. He cracked open some history books and went to consult with scholars from the University of Maine system. What followed was a period of trial and error, during which Dowe attempted to perfect the Polish tradition of turning potato starch into ethanol.
“Everyone in the industry knows that it’s the soil that makes the potato,” he remarks when I ask him if he can taste the soil within his own product. “I don’t drink it,” he admits, “But my wife is from a big potato family and she loves it. Our soil doesn’t have a lot of sand, and as a result, we get meatier, better tasting potatoes.” It’s difficult to push past the alcohol fumes and the sharp bite of ethanol, but sipping Cold River Vodka, it is possible to taste the buttery quality imparted by Maine potatoes. It’s far easier to find the blueberry notes in the flavored vodka, or to isolate the juniper and coriander in the gin, but there is something deeply satisfying about letting the clear liquid flow across my tongue and imagining the dark, rich soil from which it came.
Unlike rum, which has long been a New England drink, vodka production in Maine is relatively new. But Dowe believes that Maine could lead the country when it comes to craft distilling. The time, he says, is ripe. The revolution in craft spirits has already begun. It’s up to Dowe, Davidson, Michaud, and Wight (not to mention the other members of their growing guild) to ensure that the trend continues. These Maine distilleries are making great products and gaining loyal customers left and right—now they just need to work together to help the tide rise even higher.