Spring/Summer 2018 Business Travel Guide

Proof Positive

A stroll through Vermont’s spirits community

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Sivan Cotel believes there are more than 25 distilleries in Vermont. And the number continues to grow, in a quiet, but consistent revival of an activity that Vermont hasn’t seen since the Prohibition Era.

Cotel is co-founder with Sas Stewart of Stonecutter Spirits in Middlebury and serves as vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of Vermont, a cooperative nonprofit founded in 2011 to develop, promote, and maintain the industry in Vermont.

The community of distillers — and it is a community — is as varied as the products they produce. We set out to chat with a few members to find out what makes them tick.

caledoniaspiritsscen0818Caledonia Spirits’ Tom Cat Gin pulled from a new American white oak barrel.

caledoniaryaninthe0818Ryan Christiansen, Caledonia Spirits’
president and head distiller, in the distillery.

The idea behind Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick, well known for Barr Hill gin, Tom Cat gin, and vodka, started with beekeeper Todd Hardie’s desire to transition his business, Honey Gardens, into a meadery. He asked Ryan Christiansen, the owner of a homebrew store in Plainfield, to support fermentation in the meadery while he worked on a distillery.

“A winery wasn’t my expertise,” Christiansen says, adding that mead is a wine made from honey, “but I was captivated by distillation and Todd had nobody on staff who understood it, and nor did I.

“At 10 o’clock one morning, I went in and said, ‘I think I might get fired today, but I’m going to ask Todd to invest everything we had into a distillery.’ The wine business is challenging, but we had to create a market for it. I said, ‘Todd, there are two kinds of people who drink mead: people who make mead and people who drink it once a year. And people who drink it have a cellarful, so we’re talking about a tiny market.”

The sale of the winery equipment provided enough money to get them started building stills on-site and buy specialized equipment. Hardie sent Christiansen to Kentucky for advice.

The process started with the same one everybody has, Christiansen says: “all these botanicals, confusion, tests. But Todd was the voice of stability saying, ‘Just make it with honey.’” He describes a “reset point” when nobody was happy with what they were producing, “so somebody said, finally, ‘Let’s make it with honey.’ Juniper is a requirement for gin, but honey guides Caledonia’s path.”

The company’s Tom Cat Gin is barrel-aged, a term that’s against the rules of the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a Treasury Department bureau that regulates and collects taxes on trade and imports of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms in the United States. “It’s gin made for the bourbon enthusiast” Christiansen says. “It took us nine months to get approval for it from the TTB. We couldn’t say ‘aged gin,’ that’s why it says ‘barreled.’

Caledonia Spirits has 40 full- and part-time employees and produced 40,000 4.5-liter cases this year, which it sells in 33 states in addition to specialty fine spirits importers in, for example, Denmark, Hong Kong, Japan, and Montreal.

In 2015, Christiansen bought the company from Hardie, who bought land and began Thornhill Farm. The company distills smoky rye whiskey using Hardie’s winter rye. Near the end of last month, it broke ground for a 27,000-square-foot facility in Montpelier “at 116 Gin Lane in Montpelier, right off of Barre Street,” Christiansen says. The plan is to be able to bring everybody from various warehouses and administrative office locations under one roof.

../2018/madriverdistillers20818Mad River Distillers’ Burlington Cocktail Shop.

When Maura Connolly was thinking about creating a vineyard on her farm in Warren, friends suggested she might want to produce something from more indigenous fruit. Her husband, John Egan, started researching and they decided to try distilling with apples. With the help of their friend Brett Little, they launched Mad River Distillers in 2011. Alex Hilton, a Warren native, renovated the dilapidated horse barn on the 150-year-old farm into a state-of-the-art craft distillery, then signed on as general manager. The first spirit was produced in May 2013.

“The distillery was founded to make apple brandy because there are historic apple trees on the property,” says Mimi Buttenheim, the president, who joined the company in 2015, shortly after it began distribution in Massachusetts. She has a background in food and wine and was employed at the Vermont Spirits tasting room in Quechee.

“Distribution laws are different in every state,” says Buttenheim. “The founders of Mad River have other jobs, so besides Alex [Hilton], our distiller, there was nobody in the company really familiar with these laws.” The company now has 10 employees and sells in all New England states and New York.

Among Mad River’s products are Revolution Rye, a bourbon, a rum, and Hopscotch, which Buttenheim says is Vermont’s first single malt whiskey. There’s a tasting room in Waitsfield at the Mad River Taste Place, and a cocktail shop in Burlington that opened in March 2016, which also sells accoutrements like bitters, syrups, and cocktail ware.

vermontdistillersaug0818Augustus Metcalfe, distiller and production manager at Vermont Distillers.

Ed Metcalfe incorporated his Marlboro company, Vermont Distillers, in 2010 but didn’t really get moving until 2012, he says. A cash prize from a business plan competition in 2008 helped with the financing. Metcalfe was the creator of Vermont’s first winery, the North River Winery, which he started in 1985 and sold in 1997. His sons, Augustus and Dominic, work with him to craft the distillery’s beverages.

He developed his cordial recipes by experimenting with flavors — “different amounts of juice to water to alcohol to sugar, till we got a recipe we liked,” he says. “We just passed a half million dollars in sales last year,” he says.

The company makes Metcalfe’s Vermont Maple Cream Liqueur, Metcalfe’s Raspberry Liqueur, and Catamount Vodka. A tasting room at the Hogback Mountain Gift Shop in Marlboro is “right down the road a couple hundred yards from the distillery,” he says, “where we hope to open one in a month.” A retail store on Church Street in Burlington makes it easier for northern Vermonters to sample it.

As for sales, he says, “We’re seriously into Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts and working to go into Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey.”

whistlepigwp_11_farm-0818WhistlePig Distillery’s still, custom designed by its master distiller Dave Pickerell.

Rye whiskeys from WhistlePig Farm are renowned throughout the world, an accomplishment confirmed by its Boss Hog IV, The Black Prince, having been named Best in Show at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. In 2017, a bottle of the 14-year-old, 124 proof rye would have set you back $500.

The distillery was the idea of Raj Bhakta, who bought the 500-acre Shoreham property in 2007 after losing a congressional race in Pennsylvania. “Frankly, at first he didn’t know what he would do with it,” says Larry Swanson, a partner in the business who takes care of Vermont-based advertising. Bhakta did know he wanted to create something value-added and farm-based, Swanson continues.

whistlepigwp_07_farm-0818WhistlePig Distillery in Shoreham.

Enter Dave Pickerell, a master distiller and former vice president of operations at Maker’s Mark for about 14 years. “Dave was itching to get into the rye whiskey business, because he saw a resurgence in the making,” says Swanson. “He knew a source of 10-year-old, 100 percent whiskey, single grain, already aging at Alberta Distillers Ltd. in Canada, and had been attempting to partner with somebody — anybody — to bring this whiskey to the market as a luxury whiskey rather than what it would have ended up being: a flavoring agent in a Canadian blended whiskey.”

Pickerell hadn’t found anybody interested in that venture until he met Bhakta through a mutual friend working at Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky, which would eventually manufacture WhistlePig’s still. “Dave designed that still custom for us,” says Swanson.

The distillery produces 10-, 12-, and 15-year-old ryes in addition to Boss Hog IV, and just released last year is FarmStock, a blended rye and the first product that contains the company’s own whiskey, made from grain grown on its farm. Pickerell continues as master distiller.

WhistlePig is distributed in over 40 states and plans to be in all 50 states by the end of the year. “Technically,” Swanson says, “we are also international because we have shipped to the UK and Germany and Canada. However we’ve not shipped much to Canada — the tariffs, protective taxes, they have made it expensive up there.”

The company employs 50 people. Asked how many other partners there are, he replies, “If you count lowly employees like myself, we have a good handful of partners, somewhere close to 15 people.”

stonecutter_dsc12220818Sivan Cotel and Sas Stewart, co-founders of Stonecutter Spirits.

The name for Stonecutter Spirits was derived from the Middlebury masons and stone crafters of the 1800s, says Sivan Cotel. “In the very beginning, 2013, my partner and I tried to take a simple approach of creating products we thought would be wonderful and wanted ourselves. We arrived at these two addressable initiatives. One was small-batch aged gin, which has become a good category; the other was whiskey with finishing alternatives.”

An example, the award-winning Heritage Cask Whiskey, is “distilled like a bourbon, aged like an Irish whiskey, finished like a Scotch, aged in former bourbon barrels for at least four years, and finished in Cabernet barrels.”

Stonecutters has a team of 10 in its Middlebury headquarters, and this month, will have 10 to 15 more when it opens its Stonecutters Spirits Highball Social in the former Corbin & Palmer Funeral Home building on South Union Street, “right behind City Market,” says Cotel. The new bar is in partnership with Folino’s Pizza, which also has a presence in that building.

Production runs around 1,000 cases (6,000 bottles) a year, available in Vermont, Massachusetts, and a little in upstate New York. But the hope is to continue to expand. The distillery was featured in the July issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Vermont’s distilled spirits community is generous in working together, says Cotel. “Because we have the Spirits Council, we have a lot of individual distilleries reach out to each other with questions — a supportive community consistent with Vermont as a whole.”

He particularly appreciates working with the Vermont Department of Liquor Control in this highly regulated industry. “As states go, it’s easier to work with Vermont,” he says, “because you can call up and get an answer from real people.”