VPR Cafe: Vermont Micro-Distilleries Are Turning Sap Into Spirits

Apr 10, 2015

Vermont is known for its maple: maple syrup, maple candy, maple sugar. And in recent years, there has been a growing number of Vermonters using maple sap and syrup to make spirits.

Sally Pollak a food writer for the Burlington Free Press, explains there are two ways Vermont distillers are using maple syrup to make syrup: distilling and rectifying. Distilling maple syrup is essentially turning it into spirits, while rectifying is adding the syrup to already-distilled liquors to flavor or sweeten them.

“It’s great for those of us who don’t like pancakes,” says Pollak. “It’s my dirty little secret. Finally there is something good to do with maple syrup.”

Elm Brook Farm, in East Fairfield, is distilling maple syrup into a variety of different liquors. Pollak paid it a visit, and says it’s a beautiful farm with a brook running through it. “Its been fixed up, cleaned up by a man named David Howe, who says his favorite thing to do is putter. He has 532 acres on which to putter,” she says.

The farm has natural waterfalls, a sugar bush that dates back to the American Revolution and now a sugaring operation with a full distillery. “It has copper equipment in it and beautiful hand tools that were used to help build it. The interior was made from trees that Howe harvested on his own farm,” describes Pollak.

A former financier in Europe and Tokyo, Howe told Pollak that he got into the sugaring business because he can’t stand the smell of manure. “His initial plan was to make wine, but he felt he produced a mediocre product, so he decided to tap trees. He began with buckets and now there’s lines and tubing … it’s quite a product he’s made. People really rave about it,” Pollak says.

Pollak was able to taste several of the liquors, which are named after his four dogs who wander the woods of the farm with Howe. “He makes a brown liquor, [called Rail Dog], which ages for about three years. It’s cognac-like, but I sort of thought it tasted a little like bourbon. It’s hard to classify because it really is its own category and it's smooth, fiery, it really is delicious – a treat,” says Pollak. Howe suggests drinking Rail Dog as an after-dinner drink, holding it in your hands for 20 minutes and sipping it slowly.

Along with the growing number of distilleries, the revenue tied to Vermont liquor has grown exponentially in the past several years, from $533,000 in 2010 to $1.76 million in 2013.

There are a variety of other distilleries and liquor producers in the state using maple, including Vermont Spirits in Queechee and Dunc’s Mill in St. Johnsbury. Pollak says that there are now 19 distilleries in Vermont, but that Dunc’s Mill, built in 1998, is credited as being the first distillery of its kind in recent years. Along with the growing number of distilleries, the revenue tied to Vermont liquor has grown exponentially in the past several years, from $533,000 in 2010 to $1.76 million in 2013. “So a huge growth, and this of course is a control state … so the state of Vermont both licenses and purchases the product and seems to like to buy Vermont-made spirits,” says Pollak.

Pollak ties the sudden growth in micro-distilleries to the increasing popularity of the local foods movement and craft beer movement. “And a state that’s supporting it,” she says. “There are lots of other kinds of liquor being made here … a lot of variety and a lot of imagination.”

The VPR Cafe is produced in collaboration with the Burlington Free Press. It is made possible on VPR by Otter Creek Kitchenware in Middlebury's Marbleworks District, offering over 70 lines of kitchenware with personalized customer service.