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Entrepreneurial spirits

Boutique distilleries revive a tradition neglected since Prohibition

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / March 28, 2009
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SHEFFIELD - It's barely 10 a.m. and Chris Weld is sipping gin he concocted inside a white barn overlooking acres of naked apple trees. The scent of sweet yeast wafts through the air. The cold dirt is covered with yellow kernels of his neighbor's corn that fell out of bags being poured into the grinding machine for the next batch of bourbon.

These are the modest beginnings of Berkshire Mountain Distillers, the first legal microdistillery in the Berkshires since Prohibition. But this rustic staging ground, with a hulking 825-gallon still, is percolating with bold ambition: to help turn the distilling of premium, handcrafted spirits into a movement across Massachusetts. And signs of a moonshine revival are brimming beyond the Berkshires: In Gloucester, Ryan & Wood is aging barrels of rye whiskey and rum in an industrial park, hoping to release the first bottles this summer. Nashoba Valley Spirits in Bolton is also planning an August launch of its whiskey. On Nantucket, Triple Eight Distillery, with its popular vodka, is now selling a single malt whiskey, Notch, released last year for $888 per bottle (it scored a 94 out of 100 in Jim Murray's The Whiskey Bible).

The local liquor renaissance mirrors a cross-country trend: The number of microdistilleries in the United States more than doubled to 165 in the last five years, according to Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute. In Massachusetts, changes in state law in 2002 helped streamline the process for farmers to get distillery licenses and start making spirits. These small distilleries - with total national sales of less than $100 million - hold a tiny slice of the US alcoholic beverage market that last year had $40 billion in sales. But with roughly 30 new microdistilleries opening every year, some believe boutique distilleries are heading for the kind of boom small breweries and wineries have enjoyed over the last decade.

"It's part of the artisan movement from bread to wine to beer to spirits. People want handcrafted," Owens said. "We're part of a renaissance in American culture."

Massachusetts was once the country's leading exporter of rum - famous for its Medford brand made on the shores of the Mystic River - and ranked eighth in the production of whiskey and other spirits, according to a Globe article printed in 1895. But the temperance movement that swept the country forced distillers out of business, or at least, behind closed doors.

Now, producers of these local libations believe they can tap into what they see as increased consumer demand for homegrown foods and distinct flavors. Chris Weld (nephew of former governor William Weld) quit his job as a physician's assistant in the emergency room at a local hospital to start Berkshire Mountain Distillers. Using savings and some bank loans, Weld renovated an old barn on his property, bought a used still and other machinery, hired a consultant from Jamaica to turn him into a rum expert, and studied under bourbon gurus in Kentucky.

"I was ready for a change," said Weld, 43. "I grew up on a small orchard and pressed apple cider. I studied biochem and just really wanted to give it a try."

He began unveiling his first artisanal spirits last year, including Ragged Mountain Rum, a molasses-based sipping rum crafted in small batches and aged in bourbon barrels from Kentucky before being blended with the sweet spring water from his property. For the Greylock Gin, named after Mount Greylock in the Berkshires, Weld packs a blend of botanicals into a gin head suspended over a pot still to infuse the distillate with flavors like licorice, juniper, and orange peel. The Ice Glen Vodka is already starting to show up at hot spots like 28 Degrees in Boston, which features the liquor in its Ima Gimlet, served with fresh lime, mint, and a sugared rim.

"This is one of our more popular drinks," said Carl Christian, owner of 28 Degrees. "We sell a good amount of product from Berkshire Mountain Distillers. Our bartenders love the product and we prefer to support local whenever possible."

Weld is looking to capitalize on this sentiment with the tagline for his spirits, "Think Globally, Drink Locally." He promotes the local spring water used in the products and for the bourbon (which should be ready by July for about $38 a bottle). And Weld always makes sure to mention the corn is grown by his neighbor down the hill.

As with beer from microbreweries, the craft and local flair comes at a price: At about $30 a bottle, Berkshires spirits are often more expensive than mass-produced brands such as Absolut vodka, which sells for about $20 a bottle.

It's also unclear how expensive trendy microdistilled spirits will fare in a recession economy when many consumers are looking to scale back on discretionary purchases such as fine wine and high-end foods.

In the world of distilling, there is no such thing as overnight success. Many of the spirits, like bourbon and rum, need to be aged for a year or longer, so it's often necessary to craft liquor that is quicker to produce, such as vodka and gin, to help cover the bills. Each libation has unique production methods so it's usually not as straightforward as beer or wine making.

So far, in Nantucket, the focus on homemade spirits has served the business well. Triple Eight Distillery, which makes its cranberry vodka with organic cranberries from the island's Windswept Bog, started with 250 cases in 2001. It is planning to make 10,000 bottles this year, half for sale in Massachusetts and the rest in coastal towns down the East Coast, according to Jay Harman, president of the distillery.

At Ryan & Wood in Gloucester, owner Bob Ryan is hoping his microdistillery helps the city's effort to transform itself from a struggling fishing port into a tourist destination. And his spirits draw on the region's seafaring past. The sipping rum, which will be ready in roughly three months, is known as Folly Cove, named after a spot famous for smuggling during Prohibition.

Ryan, who worked in the family fish-processing business and then went into commercial banking, says his latest stint mixes his thirst for adventure with the desire to help diversify the economy in Gloucester.

"I wanted something that isn't on every street corner," said Ryan, 56, who also is naming the distillery's fermentation tanks after historical schooners and vessels in Gloucester Harbor, including Adventure and the Thomas E. Lannon.

In Sheffield, Weld stirred the bubbling bourbon mash with a long wooden paddle and gazed out at his acres of farmland, considering the future of his venture.

"We are trying to get people to think globally and drink locally. All this without sacrificing the quality of your cocktail - even improving it," Weld said. "The proof is in the spirit."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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