New England Distilling: Booze made the old-fashioned way
According to New England Distilling owner Ned Wight, “Distilling is one of those crafts that offers a unique meeting ground between history and technology, art and science.”
Booze made the old-fashioned way at New England Distilling
There are few implements more visually stunning than the copper pot still, and each batch of spirits it produces adds to its lovely patina. The method of using the still is ancient, yet it is still the preferred tool for creating elegant, modern spirits.
New England Distilling owner Ned Wight has deep roots in the liquor business; his family owned distilleries as far back as 1860 and produced under a number of different labels until the 1950s. Although he had always heard stories about the distilleries while growing up, it wasn’t until after college that he began going down that road himself, beginning with an avid passion for brewing beer at home.
“This was a slippery slope,” Wight continues “it wasn’t a money-saving venture by any stretch. I gave away cases of beer just so I could make room for new ones in my fermenter.” His decision to actually make a career out of this landed him at Allagash Brewing, which ultimately paved the way for Wight to finally take the plunge into distilling, “It’s something I’ve thought about since high school, it just took a few years, or maybe decades, to get here.” His careful planning is already paying off, as his hooch can be found in bars as far way as Manhattan.
New England Distilling currently produces three different types of spirits: Ingenium Gin, Eight Bells Rum, and Gunpowder Rye Whiskey. Understanding the process of distillation aids in the appreciation of the finished product, so when I visit his operation I ask Wight to shed some light on the procedure.
Step 1: Creating the base
Local grain makes up the base for their gin and whiskey, whereas the rum is molasses-based. For the gin and whiskey, Wight first makes a beer for the base (not the same beer you would drink at home – all the grain is still mixed in, which makes it a sour, yeasty, and un-hopped porridge). After the beer is fermented, the grain is separated from the liquid and the strained beer is poured into the gas-fired copper pot still for the first of two distillations.
Step 2: Two runs through the still
The first run through the still is called the stripping run in which all of the alcohol and flavor is separated from most of the water, yeast, and remaining solids. The stripping run yields low wines, which are about 40% alcohol and have a pretty intense aroma and flavor. Low wines have four components – the foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails, which Wight says they discern primarily by their aromas and separate them during the second fermentation.
Step 3: The distiller’s mark
Here’s where the skill of the distiller really comes into play, and after all of the different components of the liquor are separated they must be blended back together in the right proportions to achieve the proper flavors. When making gin specifically, the “hearts” go back through the still for a third time, and this is where they add the botanicals that make Ingenium distinctive. The rum and whiskey on the other hand are moved into barrels after two times through the still, where they will rest until they sweeten up, soften around the edges, and take on their color.
The process of distilling is always more interesting when you can actually consume the liquor that you are witnessing being created, so naturally I take full advantage of the opportunity. It’s true that everyone’s palate is his or her own, but actually hearing Wight describe the flavors they were trying to achieve with each bottling can help to get your mind going in the right direction.
Back at the distillery each of their three products has been imagined and created exclusively. The Ingenium was designed to be a “sipping gin,” taking more inspiration from the spirits of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy, and less pointers from the classic London dry style. The flavor profile is comprised of ten different botanicals, and though they work in perfect harmony it is possible to discern a few upon sampling, such as lemongrass. The Eight Bells is an homage to Maine’s rich history of rum-running colonials in the 1800s, and after being aged in bourbon barrels it mellows out and develops rich, almost tropical flavors. Lastly, the Gunpowder Rye is a Maryland-style whiskey, inspired by Wight’s family history. Maryland rye has hints of bread and spice and is different from the more bourbon-like Kentucky rye because it is made from rye and barley, but not corn.
On a bottle, New England Distillery’s logo is as carefully crafted as their liquor. The design work was done by Ken Murphy of Murphy Empire, and, according to Wight, it was meant to imply “a sense of comfort and history – wood, steel, old books, things like that. When we were working on the logo we kept thinking of this old iron press stamping it out and what that would look like. I couldn’t be happier with where we landed.”
As I sit here with a full glass of Eight Bells Rum, I really couldn’t agree more.
26 Evergreen Drive Unit B | Portland | 207.878.9759 | newenglanddistilling.com