Four Maine Whiskeys to Warm You This Winter
With over 20 distilleries producing barrel-aged whiskeys, Vacationland is experiencing a spirit renaissance.
David Woods slides open the rick-house door, revealing fresh oak barrels stacked to the rafters. The Wiggly Bridge Distillery logo depicting a rising suspension bridge is branded on the wooden lid of each barrel. Woods motions to the racked spirits, explaining the science of barrel aging bourbon. His feet shuffle over the gravel floor, kicking up dust clouds. He talks fast as he points to barrels of bourbon that have been aging for eight years, since the distillery first opened. I ask how many barrels are stored in the rickhouse. “Over a thousand,” he says. He pauses, then corrects, “One thousand, two hundred, and eighty-seven to be exact.”
The scene looks like it’s in Bourbon County, but of course this isn’t Kentucky. We’re in York, Maine, a fact that becomes glaringly obvious when Woods opens the rickhouse door.
Maine was a dry state from 1851 to the end of national Prohibition in 1933 (thanks for nothing, Neal Dow!), but over the past decade, it has seen a resurgence in the distilling of spirits like whiskey. Roughly 20 distilleries now dot the landscape from York to Bangor, all duplicating the scene at Wiggly Bridge Distillery.
With cold air settling over the region and my craw yearning for the warmth only offered by a neat pour of whiskey, I set out in search of the best barrel-aged whiskeys being distilled in the Pine Tree State. What I discovered were a range of beautiful whiskeys crafted from carefully sourced ingredients and with a deep commitment to this demanding, ancient spirit.
Small Barrel Bourbon
Wiggly Bridge Distillery, York
Crafted with signature sweet corn from the Midwest that’s bred specifically for Wiggly Bridge and aged for four years in new American oak barrels, Small Barrel hits the flavor profile whiskey lovers demand in a bourbon. The first neat sip coats the tongue with notes of caramel, butter, sweet tobacco, and cracked pepper. What Woods and the rest of the team at the family-owned Wiggly Bridge clearly understand about crafting bourbon is the spirit’s need for patience as it ages and matures in their aforementioned rickhouse. Bourbon that has been rushed from still to bottle can produce off-flavors of turpentine and cloying copper. Small Barrel Bourbon is clean and true, letting the notes from the ingredients and the wood barrel shine. You can visit their distillery in a repurposed barn built in 1886 to experience how this bourbon is distilled. If you’re looking to splurge, go with Bottled in Bond, their six-year bourbon. The additional two years in the barrel offers a heavenly experience.
Old Port Single Malt Whiskey
Liquid Riot Bottling Company, Portland
In 1855 a crowd of riled Portland residents stormed City Hall to protest the stockpile of Prohibition alcohol stored under the building. As the protest reached a fever pitch, Portland mayor and “Father of Prohibition” Neal Dow, who was keeping the alcohol for legal distribution to pharmacies, ordered the Maine militia to fire their weapons at the charging crowd. When the musket smoke settled, one protester was dead, and several others were injured. With a name inspired by what has been dubbed the Portland Rum Riot, it’s only fitting that Liquid Riot Bottling Company in Portland makes some of the state’s finest spirits. Old Port Single Malt Whiskey is a smooth, dry single malt made from American cherrywood–smoked barley. The smoked grain offers subtle earthy notes along with cured tobacco flavors that don’t overpower the palate. The focus on a single malt in the distilling process results in a mellow, clean whiskey from nose to finish. Old Port Single Malt is aged for two years and ten months in used bourbon barrels, infusing the whiskey with hints of vanilla and toffee. Liquid Riot’s sprawling bar and spacious waterfront patio on Commercial Street offer a great backdrop to a pour of Old Port Single Malt. And if you listen closely enough, you might hear the ghost echoes of musket fire in the distance.
Fifty Stone Whiskey
Maine Craft Distilling, Portland
For fans of scotch, Maine Craft Distilling offers this take on a Highland-style single-malt whiskey. Aged in handcrafted oak barrels, Fifty Stone pours a deep honey shade, releasing notes of smoked peat and currants in the nose. Sipped neat from a snifter, the flavor moves from robust peat to sweet barley to a vanilla finish imparted by the oak barrels. If the smoked peat is too overpowering, a few ice cubes will mellow the bold flavor. Maine Craft Distilling follows a pre–Industrial Revolution distilling method, floor-malting the locally sourced barley used in Fifty Stone. The painstaking process of germinating barley on the concrete floor of the Portland distillery produces deep, rich flavors. The floor-malted barley is then smoked with local peat and seaweed. The distillery tasting room on Washington Avenue offers a rustic-meets-urban ambience for imbibing a glass of Fifty Stone.
Gunpowder Rye Whiskey
New England Distilling, Portland
Whiskey runs deep in Ned Wight’s bones. The owner and head distiller of New England Distilling comes from a long line of whiskey makers dating back to the 1850s in Maryland. Gunpowder Rye, a Maryland-style rye whiskey, is an homage to Wight’s distilling ancestors. From the moment it’s poured into a glass, the liquor radiates the spicy perfume notes indicative of rye whiskeys. The aroma emanating from this whiskey brims with fresh cinnamon and anise notes along with caramel undertones. As it works over the tongue, sharp flavors of black pepper and warm spices are released on the palate, finishing with lush strokes of butterscotch candy. If you’re a fan of rye whiskeys, New England Distilling’s spice-forward take on this style will slake your cravings. Gunpowder Rye Whiskey is a dream neat or on ice, but don’t be afraid to reach for this spirit when mixing an old-fashioned. The spicy rye notes make for a lively take on the traditional cocktail. Visit the distillery on Evergreen Drive in Portland for a sample amid the copper still and racked oak barrels.
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