The Hearts, Heads and Tails of Maine Spirits

In 2010, I wrote this piece for Maine Food & Lifestyle. But they delayed publication so long that after a year or two (yes, you read that right), I gave up on it going to print or being paid for it, apologized to my sources and moved on.  It was one of two writing casualties for me as that publication slowly stopped publishing, but as I mentioned before, it happens to all freelancers. 

The industry in Maine has exploded since 2010. I wanted the work of the many distillers who took time to speak with me and share their recipes for this piece to finally see some light. Thankfully all three of the distilleries I highlighted are thriving and I included links so you can see what they are focused on today.  

The Hearts, Heads and Tails of Maine Spirits (original intended date of publication, Fall 2010)

Like many small agriculture-based businesses in Maine, the state’s microdistilleries share a common thread of sourcing products close to home and engaging family work power. While at least one venture -- Penobscot Bay Distillery, which was intended to be part of Winterport Winery – folded before its still was licensed, others have received widespread industry recognition despite limited distribution. If the success of Sweetgrass Distillery, Spirits of Maine and Northern Maine Distilling are indicative of the future, the booming Maine micro-brew and burgeoning wine markets both have competition to keep an eye on.

Taste of Maine
Keith Bodine has the touch and his wife Connie has the taste. As a team, they have developed 18 products from light rum, brandy, port and award-winning gin to the vermouth and bitters that enhance them. Their Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery in Union is open every day from mid- May to late December and offers tastings and education, as well as beautiful views of the surrounding Medomak River Valley.

If you're a gin drinker, you'll leave happy with a bottle of Back River gin. And if you're not a gin drinker, you will be after tasting it. Constance describes it as Maine in a glass, evoking the spirit of her hometown of Boothbay: the citrusy, ginger tang of the sea, juniper and pine aromas mellow into a warm (local) blueberry finish. Spirits distribution is limited to in-state and production levels are small. If you taste something and you like it, unfortunately can’t enjoy a full glass on site, so Connie encourages customers to buy new favorites before they become only a taste-memory.

Old hand, new tastes
People whisper about the giant, beautiful German-made alembic still that yields potent elixirs at Spirits of Maine distillery in Gouldsboro. How did it get there? An artist brought it, of course. Bob Bartlett, who moved to Maine in 1975 and whose glass work has been displayed in the Smithsonian, has already gained notoriety as one of the best fruit winemakers in the country. But the well- traveled Bartlett has always been fascinated by European eaux de vie, distilled fruit brandies, and in 2003 decided to try making some of his own.

Success found Bartlett again when only a few years later, his Spirits of Maine products were featured in the regarded text "The Art Of Distilling Whiskey And Other Spirits" by Bill Owens and Alan Dikty. Bartlett’s apple brandy received accolades from International Review of Spirits and his ghostly pear eaux de vie -- in its elegant bottle -- is a lush sipper that garnered gold 92 points from the Beverage Testing Institute, noting its “pear and cream” aromas. Bartlett has limited production of both to less than 500 cases total, compared with the 7,000 cases of fruit wine he produces each year, and distribution outside of the estate is limited. But the shiny, copper still remains busy: light and dark rums are now aging in oak barrels, peach and raspberry eau-de- vies will be available this coming summer and he’s “playing” with some other liqueurs too. The spirits world is excitedly waiting to see what comes next.

Gathering a following
When Scott Galbiati and his wife Jessica started Houlton's Northern Maine Distilling Company, they wanted to build around the Maine potato vodka "experience." After three years of planning and navigating red tape, in March 2009 the couple received their license to begin using the distillery's equipment, but soon shifted away from a potato-distilled product to grain. The spirit, which they named Twenty 2, is distilled in 50 gallon batches using kettles they build themselves and were built locally, blended with water from the region and then chill- filtered four times through charcoal, resulting in a very clean taste. The entire process is done by hand, from bottling to inscribing the batch numbers on each label.
The state’s newest distillery distributes its vodka statewide, and can also be found in major wholesalers and several restaurants in Aroostook County, Portland and Bangor. This year Northern Maine Distilling expanded its reach to New Jersey and Wyoming, the later by special order, and is eyeing a handful of mid-Atlantic states and New Hampshire next.

“It’s been a long journey and a lot of learning to get to this point, but Jess and I are incredibly proud of the final product,” Scott said. Twenty 2 won recognition from the World Spirits Competition during its first year of production and has also attracted more than 3,500 fans on Facebook – where every Friday afternoon a unique drink recipe is unveiled. Among the favorites, the Dude's Caucasian, was inspired by Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridge's character in “The Big Lebowski” and features Allen’s Coffee Brandy and Houlton Farm’s Dairy Heavy Cream to complete the local flavor triumvirate. Good Friday, or any day, after 3 p.m., of course.

The Dude’s Caucasian, made with Twenty 2 vodka 
Rocks glass with ice:
2 oz Twenty 2 vodka
1 oz. Allen’s Coffee Brandy
2 ½ oz Houlton Farm’s Daily Heavy Cream
Stir and serve.

The Spiced Apple Fritter Martini, made with Twenty 2 vodka

The Galbiatis served more than 500 samples of this cocktail at October’s Harvest on the Harbor Grand
Tasting in Portland.
1 ½ oz. Twenty 2 Vodka
2 oz. Maine apple cider
½ oz. Triple Sec
½ oz. Butterscotch Schnapps
1 tsp. Domaine De Canton (ginger liqueur)
Shake hard to mix and chill.
Strain into a glass with a cinnamon-and- powered-sugar- rim.

Jeff Smith Sidecar, made with Spirits of Maine brandy
2 oz of Spirits of Maine apple brandy
1 ½ oz. of sweet and sour mix – made with limes, lemon and agave nectar
¾ oz. of Cointreau (or another orange liqouer)
Lime/sugar rim