The Green Mountain State has long been a mecca for thoughtfully brewed beer. But in recent years, the small-batch spirit scene has been quietly growing. “Craft spirits are the next big thing to come out of Vermont,” says Tyler Saron, bartender at the Club at Spruce Peak. In 2004, there were three in-state distilleries; by 2018, there were 28.
While the industry is still in its infancy, much of the booze bottled here has been created with the same degree of attention to detail, devotion to authenticity, and ethos of sustainability that Vermont approaches everything from farm-fresh cuisine to fine carpentry.
Here, Saron walks us through the history of Vermont’s complicated relationship with alcohol and introduces us to two innovative local distilleries producing high-quality, artisanal liquor.
Green Mountain Moonshine
Although this year marks the 100th anniversary of Prohibition, Vermont’s ban on alcohol actually started much earlier. “We were the second state to enact prohibition, in 1853, almost 70 years before the rest of the nation,” Saron says. “It only ended officially in 1968; up until then each individual county decided if they wanted to be dry or not.”
Still, being adjacent to Canada, where alcohol remained legal, Vermonters had frequent opportunities to access liquor. During the roaring 20s, speakeasies dubbed “line houses” began popping up in homes and hotels that straddled the Canadian border, or “line.”
“You would enter the front door on the Vermont side of the border,” Saron says.
“The bar was located at the back of the house, on the Canadian side, where you could drink legally.” Train conductors passing from Canada to the U.S. would stop into line houses to fill orders for booze. Smuggler’s Notch was a popular route for rum runners transporting alcohol from Canada to New England, as the numerous caverns along the mountain pass were ideal for storing liquor at approximately room-temperature. “People say that if you look hard enough, you might be able to find an ancient bottle of booze in a cave or tucked behind some rocks in the Notch,” Saron says.
The Taste Makers
Despite a late start, local distillers are uncompromising when it comes to quality and ingenuity, paving the way for Vermont to become a cocktail destination.
Saron names Caledonia Spirits (maker of Barr Hill Vodka, Barr Hill Gin, and Tom Cat Gin) “the gold standard for Vermont spirits.” In 2011, beekeeper Todd Hardie began distilling his honey to make mead, or honey wine, as a way to draw attention to the plight of bees suffering from habitat loss, pesticide poisoning, and climate change. He joined forces with distiller Ryan Christiansen to create unique spirits named after the Barr Hill Nature Preserve in nearby Hardwick.
Barr Hill Vodka is made of 100 percent cold-fermented raw local honey—it takes four pounds of honey to make each 750- ml bottle, equivalent to the life’s work of 893 honeybees. In order to preserve the botanical essence of wildflowers foraged by the bees, Barr Hill Vodka is distilled only twice (vodka is typically distilled at least three times). Barr Hill Gin is also finished with delicate raw honey.
Caledonia Spirits’ singular Tom Cat Gin, aged in new oak barrels and touched with honey, is unlike any gin you’ve tasted before. “It has a smoky, caramel, vanilla character, similar to whiskey,” Saron says. “Even people who say they hate gin love Tom Cat.” Oak barrel aging lends it a chestnut color and robust flavor, mixed with coniferous notes of juniper. Swap it in for bourbon or rye in classic whiskeybased cocktails, like a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, or Boulevardier.
Whistle Pig Whiskey is another exceptional distillery. Ten years ago, with help from the late master distiller Dave Pickerell, the WhistlePig team discovered a stock of excellent 10-year-old whiskey in Canada, which they brought to their farm in Shoreham. “Pickerell is the god father of craft distilling,” Saron says. “He was with Maker’s Mark for many years, and under his guidance, WhistlePig started barreling and aging the whiskey in new ways.”
For example, their 12-year-old World Cask Finish Rye is aged in port, madeira, and sauternes barrels from Europe. “They crowd-sourced the best blend of whiskey by sending out samples to bartenders all over the nation, and asking them to weigh in on their favorite” Saron says, explaining that the flavor of liquor is determined by how
the barrel charred or toasted, the age of the wood, and what was stored in it prior.
Also notable: Whistle FarmStock Rye, which is made primarily from grain grown right on the farm in Shoreham, distilled and proofed with their own well water in a 150-year-old renovated dairy barn, and aged in barrels made from Vermont oak.
Just in case you need another reason to get your cocktail on: “When you drink Vermont spirits, you are helping the community,” Saron says. “Local distilleries are committed to returning the money back to the Vermont economy by creating jobs and helping our state produce spirits that will meet the standards of the finest New York City cocktail bars.”
Case in point: Caledonia Spirits’ “Bees Knees Week.” (Bees Knees is a Prohibition-era cocktail made with gin, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and honey.) During the last week of September, Caledonia Spirits plants 10 acres of bee habitat for every Bees Knees cocktail shared on social media; this year, they’ll create 47,300 acres. Now that’s something we can drink to.