Today, in nearly every marketplace in the country, there is a cadre of small distillers handcrafting artisanal gins, vodkas and whiskeys. Their steadily increasing numbers mirror the meteoric growth of craft breweries of the past decade. So what's the appeal? The fact is craft distilled spirits enjoy favorable marketing propositions that most high volume spirit brands can't duplicate.
The first of these is the appeal of drinking a spirit distilled locally from locally obtained ingredients and locally sourced water. As a result, craft distillers can more legitimately claim their spirits possess a discernible sense of place, or terroir. Likewise, craft distillers can also alter their products on a seasonal basis. Not an option for large producers.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect behind these handmade spirits is passion. As is often the case with small business owners, craft distilleries represent a dream come true for someone on the team, if not the entire team. Passion for the craft seems to be the common denominator.
A sterling example of craft distilling at its finest is Caledonia Spirits of Hardwick, Vermont, which is located on the border with Quebec, Canada. The endeavor is the brainchild of founder Todd Hardie, who has spent 50 years with honeybees, principally as a commercial beekeeper. For Hardie, Caledonia Spirits was an opportunity to encourage and support the organic production of plants and honey in Vermont and to contribute to the health, spiritual, economic and social well being of the community.
Caledonia Spirits and head distiller Ryan Christiansen have created a unique range of spirits, a standard bearer of which is Barr Hill Vodka. The 80-proof spirit is made from a base of 100% raw honey. The honey is slowly allowed to ferment and then distilled twice in the Caledonia Spirits' custom-built pot and column still. According to Christiansen, "The minimal distillation allows the delicate aromatics of the honey to shine through in the finished spirit."
A quick sniff, sip and swallow are enough to confirm the vodka is something special. It has pristine clarity, a curvaceous, satiny textured body and an enticing honey and spice bouquet. The aromatics alone are worth the price of admission. Its gentle entry quickly expands bathing the palate with a spicy warm offering of honey, citrus, cinnamon and nutmeg. The lingering finish is warm and dry. Now here's a vodka with character.
Equally captivating is Barr Hill Gin. It begins with neutral grain spirits distilled from corn. Hand-crushed juniper berries are infused during the last distillation in the botanical extraction still. Raw honey is then added after the spirits come off the still. The hue of each small batch of gin will vary somewhat based on the season's honey—fall honey is a shade or two darker than summer honey. Kosher and gluten free, it's bottled at 45% alcohol (90 proof).
Barr Hill is literally an homage to the classic, juniper-forward style of gin. With juniper berries being only one of three ingredients—neutral spirits and raw honey being the others—Barr Hill is decidedly dry and piney. It has a pale golden/straw hue, a velvety, medium-weight body and the focused aromas of pine, fresh flora, honey and citrus zest. The palate is a no-nonsense, yet beautiful marriage of woodsy juniper and pure Vermont honey. The finish is long, spicy and citric.
Those looking for a singular gin experience will want to sample Caledonia Spirits' Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat, which the distillery refers to as a "modern day adaption" of a 18th century spirit called Old Tom Gin. Guaranteed you've never tasted anything like it.
The distillery's Reserve Tom Cat is made in the same manner as the Barr Hill Gin with neutral grain spirits, whole juniper berries and an added touch of raw honey. The gin is then transferred to new, charred American white oak barrels for 4-6 months. During its stay in wood, the gin develops a deep, reddish/amber hue, a lushly textured body and a glorious bouquet of juniper, honey and spicy toasted oak. The smooth, warm entry rapidly expands bathing the palate with the flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, caramel, anise, cloves and juniper. The lingering finish is quite spicy.
While seemingly tailor-made for use in cocktails and mixed drinks, Barr Hill Reserve is a sensational spirit that deserves to be first sampled neat. Your patience will be richly rewarded.
Christiansen and Caledonia Spirits also handcraft an exceptional Elderberry Cordial in which the raw honey and other fruit are used to soften the otherwise bitter flavor of the fresh elderberries. The blend of honey and elderberries yields a desirable balance of flavor and texture, while retaining the deep, rich color of the elderberries. It is bottled at 14.4% alcohol (28.8 proof).
Christiansen and team have recently started distilling bourbon, rye and corn whiskey from locally grown organic grain. Distilled in a new whiskey still, the young spirits are maturing in custom-made oak barrels as we speak. To meet future demand, Caledonia Spirits is currently building its own cooperage and will make barrels out of locally harvested American white oak.
"You could say distilling is in my blood. Our family made whisky in Edinburgh for over 100 years and J.W. Hardie continues to produce fine whisky," says Hardie. "The history of distilling in this country is rooted in agriculture and providing added value to a crop. When crops are used in distilling, they're preserved and less expensive to transport. After a lifetime of raising honey bees here, I've developed a deep relationship with the land and crops that we're using to make Caledonia Spirits—namely elderberries, corn, barley and rye."
Search the seven seas if you must, but you won't find a more enchanting set of spirits than the honey-laced gems from Caledonia.