By Renee Ciulla
Across the nation, locavores can now celebrate what is inside their glasses in addition to what is on their plates. The ever-rising local food movement has expanded its reach into the spirits community. Whether in the form of local grain, fruit and herbs, on-site potato farms or creatively using “dropped” local apples, distilleries are realizing that consumer demand for supporting a vibrant local economy goes beyond the bustling farmers markets to their pre- and post-dinner drinks.
Located on a knoll surrounded by a carpet of meticulous grape rows, Flag Hill Winery & Distillery in Lee, New Hampshire is the largest vineyard in the state. It was founded by Frank Reinhold in 1990, and in 2004 became the first distillery in New Hampshire to produce high quality distilled spirits such as General John Stark Vodka and Josiah Bartlett Barrel Aged Apple Brandy. As a toast to supporting the local economy, most of the spirits are made from alcohol produced with apples that are drops or seconds. These are harder for apple growers to sell and use as a fresh, unprocessed product but are perfectly acceptable for distilling.
Flag Hill Winery uses apples from Apple Hill Farm in Concord, NH, cranberries from Massachusetts, wild blueberries from Alton, NH, local maple syrup and grape pumice from Flag Hill. The biggest challenge they face using ingredients from local sources is consistent availability.
“For products such as apples, cranberries and maple syrup, the pricing is usually very competitive with buying Chinese apples or Canadian maple syrup; however, we find opportunities to save money with local shipping or picking it up ourselves,” says Heather Houle, Flag Hill Marketing Director. “This past year when Washington State was hit by severe weather, their apple production dropped which made purchasing New Hampshire apples more affordable,” she adds.
Only three ingredients in all their distilled products are sourced from farther afield (strawberries, raspberries and corn for the moonshine), leading them to proudly define 90% of their ingredients as local. Since Flag Hill is a winery, they are also able to make use of the pumice (leftover grape skins and seeds). The pumice still contains natural sugars that can be fermented and re-hydrated to make mash that is distilled into grappa, a non-barrel aged brandy
When Flag Hill began distilling a couple years ago there were only about 25 members of the American Distilling Institute. Today there are 250 members. The distilling industry is riding an expansion boom similar to what the domestic brewing industry experienced 10 years ago. As for the future, Flag Hill will continue to look for local and native ingredients but they aren’t limiting themselves to only local. “We want to make sure we are open to all possibilities and certainly there are opportunities to grow certain items in climates with more sun than we have here in New England,” says Houle.
Sons of Liberty
Michael Reppucci found himself asking, “Why can't America make a great single malt whiskey?” To answer this burning inquiry, he quit his job and leveraged his savings to prove he could make it happen. Along with master distiller, David Pickerell, they are using their knowledge and innovation to experiment with recipes and flavor profiles at their South Kingston, Rhode Island-based business, Sons of Liberty (SOL).
Reppucci and Pickerell realized early on that high quality and fresh, local ingredients go hand-in-hand. And the cost of local products is often lower for SOL because of how much they save on shipping charges.
“For the summer we did a Mint Cucumber Vodka using mint from Four Town Farm, near Providence, Rhode Island, and hydroponically grown cucumbers from McCormick & Wojnar Farm in Foster, Rhode Island,” says Reppucci. “We also started the first seasonal line of whiskies with a Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey using local pumpkins. The Burger Shack in Kingston, Rhode Island and Millonzi's Bar & Grille in West Warwick, Rhode Island opened up their kitchens to us to roast the pumpkins in their ovens,” he adds.
To further strengthen their commitment to community, Reppucci explains, “We don't spend any marketing dollars on advertising; we're far more into holding events or being part of them, so we can integrate with the public and introduce them to our business.” They currently sell their products in Rhode Island (300+ accounts) and plan to expand into Massachusetts and the Boston area.
At SOL they are optimistic about the future of locally procured liqueurs. “People love local and we think the more you can do with the local businesses around you, the better off you are,” says Reppucci. “Not only in terms of being able to say you use local, but that you're helping support local businesses and the overall economy and well-being of the state in which you do business,” he continues.
What do a former U.S. Ski Team coach, a matter-of-fact Maine potato farmer, a neurosurgeon, and a master brewer all have in common? All of them—Bob Harkins, Donnie Thibodeau, Lee Thibodeau and Chris Dowe—are partners at Maine Distilleries in Freeport, Maine.
Donnie Thibodeau, owner of Green Thumb Farms, conceived of potato vodka as a way of not only overcoming the steady decline of Maine’s potato industry, but of preserving the state’s rich heritage. Not surprisingly, their most popular product, Cold River Vodka, is a 100% Maine potato vodka which, according to their website, helped “turn an economical crop into a top-shelf-spirit while adding value to Maine's potatoes and reputation for high-quality goods in the process.”
The potatoes are grown from seed to spud at the family-owned Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg, Maine. Eco-friendly procedures are implemented at both the farm and distillery including Integrated Pest Management which is used as an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to preventing and controlling insect pests. The vodka’s water is also sourced from the Cold River Aquifer, which meanders through the former potato fields of forested Fryeburg, and filters through miles of underground granite.
Cold River sources local ingredients for their Blueberry Vodka using Wyman's Wild Maine Blueberries which are smaller and more intensely flavored than cultivated blueberries. They are soaked or steeped in alcohol for several days and then the alcohol, which has absorbed the flavor essence of the berries, is filtered off the fruit.
After getting to know the history and passions at Maine Distilleries, it’s clear that from the potato farmer to the distiller, there is a strong enthusiasm for Maine and its roots (literally) that is infused into every bottle of clear, distinctive vodka and gin.
Koval is the first craft distillery within Chicago's city limits since Prohibition. They source all their grains, fruits, herbs, and flowers from the surrounding Midwest region, and make all of their spirits entirely from scratch including the mashing, distilling and bottling. As members of Slow Food USA, supporters of sustainable farming and producers of exceptional spirits, Koval Distillery is living up to its name. “Koval” is Yiddish slang for someone who does something unexpected or out of the ordinary.
Owners Robert and Sonat Birnecker started their careers in academia, but decided to follow the distilling traditions of Robert's Austrian grandfather by launching Koval in 2008. From the beginning, they vowed to create a sustainable family business utilizing high quality and organic products. True to their word, Koval features 100% organic grain spirits distilled in small batches.
Koval owners Robert and Sonat Birnecker.
Koval’s extensive local ingredient list includes honey from Wisconsin, rye, wheat, millet, spelt and oats from Kansas, malted barley from Wisconsin and locally grown sunchokes and ginger. Their Midwest location not only makes accessing grain convenient but also makes it feasible to create intriguing-sounding local whiskeys that carry names such as Raksi Millet, Rye Chicago, Levant Spelt and American Oat. And creating relationships with farmers and mills is an essential part of the business at Koval.
Equally crucial are the strong connections with their customers. For example, their labor-intensive ginger liquor involves peeling all the ginger by hand. And each batch of the liqueur requires an impressive 60 pounds of organic ginger. Volunteers attend ginger-peeling days which allow Koval to process the root efficiently and create a community of dedicated, involved and excited customers.
Bainbridge Organic Distillery
Bainbridge Organic Distillery, owned by Keith Barnes, is truly an extraordinary place located on the beautiful Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. The majority of their local ingredients (defined by them as within the state of Washington) are grain. Most are grown on organic farmland west of Walla Walla, where two brothers provide Bainbridge with soft white wheat, corn and triticale. Barnes believes that Washington's soft white wheat is world renowned for its quality and the best available anywhere. Organic triticale is from a family farm in Snohomish, WA, and organic rye is grown by Nash Huber near Port Angeles, WA.
Father and son team Keith and Patrick Barnes.
As with any business, there is no “typical” day, but, in general, they start at 4:30 am. They grind 1200 pounds of grain, cook a "mash," and distill a 500 gallon batch of fermented mash or "first run" clear spirit. They also run a tasting room and retail operation from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm Saturday through Sunday from November through April. In the summer they observe those hours seven days a week.
Barnes feels that costs for local ingredients are similar to those from other regions in the U.S., but the organic ingredients are roughly double the price of conventionally grown ingredients. They cannot currently make enough to supply the demand and have recently invested in larger equipment that will allow them to triple production. Currently, their products are only available in Washington State but with better production they expect to open up other markets in the next few months. All of the ingredients are USDA and WSDA Certified Organic.
Bainbridge can claim a remarkable dedication to local with 99.99% of overall ingredients sourced within the state. And, although they are not currently growing any ingredients themselves, Keith mentioned that they have 58 acres of conventional land converting to organic in the next two years. Once the transition is complete, they plan to grow their own wheat, barley and triticale.
Renee Ciulla is a vegetable grower, teacher and writer based on the New Hampshire Seacoast. Besides growing and eating local food, she loves being in the mountains and finding mountain goats.