Is This Tequila Cream Liqueur from Maine the Next RumChata?
Vespertino Tequila Crema can be found on shelves across the country and in the Milk and Honey cocktail at Portland’s Stroudwater Distillery.
Like many people, the first cream liqueur I ever drank was Baileys Irish Cream. Ubiquitous on brunch cocktail menus, the blend of dairy, cocoa, and whiskey is the best-selling cream liqueur in the U.S. The beauty of the alcohol style, which is exactly what its name says—a combination of dairy cream and liqueur— is that it’s pure indulgence. There’s no conceit, no pretense of sophistication when it comes to cream liqueurs. You’re drinking it because it tastes good.
Around when Jeff Johnson founded Stroudwater Distillery, he became intrigued by the success of RumChata, a horchata-like blend with rum that a former Jim Beam executive launched in 2009 and has since become the country’s second-best selling cream liqueur.
Johnson opened Stroudwater Distillery at Portland’s Thompson’s Point in 2016 with four offerings: bourbon, rye, vodka, and gin. But he wanted to develop a brand that was different and unique enough to attract a national audience, unlike Stroudwater’s spirits, which are marketed locally. “You can go to Boston or any other bigger city in the U.S., and they’re going to have their own craft distillery,” Johnson says. In RumChata he saw a template to expand beyond Maine’s borders.
His idea was to combine two trends—RumChata and the growing popularity of tequila—in a cream liqueur reminiscent of churros and fried ice cream. Johnson made the first batch in his kitchen using ingredients from Portland’s La Bodega Latina Grocery Store, including raw brown sugar and sweet Mexican cinnamon, and a dairy cream base from Creamy Creations, a company that develops and produces cream liqueurs. He then sent his mixture to Creamy Creations, so the company could create the producible formula that would become Vespertino Tequila Cream.
Johnson launched the brand, initially just in Maine, in 2017 under his company Northstar Products, which owns Stroudwater Distillery’s spirits. Vespertino is made by O-AT-KA Milk Products in western New York, a Creamy Creations partner that produces many of the world’s cream liqueurs, then shipped to Stroudwater Distillery to be packaged and distributed.
Since 2017, Johnson has been slowly growing the distribution footprint of Vespertino. Recently, the growth has been exponential, with sales increasing by 400 percent from 2019 to 2021. “We’ve already sold more cases of Vespertino in the first quarter this year than we had all of last year and 2019,” Johnson says. He expects to sell close to 20,000 cases of Vespertino in 2021. That’s more than triple what all of Stroudwater’s spirit sales will likely total. “It’s been a long road to get to this,” Johnson says, “but it seems like the snowball is rolling faster and faster.”
Milk + Honey
If Jeff Johnson isn’t having Vespertino on the rocks, his favorite way to drink it is in the Milk and Honey cocktail served at Stroudwater Distillery’s tasting room in Portland. A shot of the distillery’s bourbon adds depth and boozy warmth to a drink that feels both refreshing and decadent.
- 2 oz Vespertino Tequila Crema
- 1 oz bourbon
- Honey stick
- Orange peel
Shake Vespertino Tequila Crema and bourbon together with ice and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with a honey stick and an orange peel.
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- Four Maine Whiskeys to Warm You This Winter
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