Back to the Land: Vermont’s Homegrown Spirits Boom

In an isolated corner of Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom was once a center for American industry. Now a cradle of agriculture and seasonal tourism, the region has harnessed its bounty to create a new kind of market—one of truly local spirits.

northeast kingdom vermont

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom—a three-county cluster named after a kind word from then-Senator George Aiken—is the most isolated corner of a state with a population that only just edges out Oklahoma City’s. The region’s largest town doesn’t even come close to approaching 10,000 people. It’s the kind of place where everything seems to be at least a 30-minute drive from anywhere else.

Like many American communities, the Northeast Kingdom once hosted a large number of industries—granite, lumber and light manufacturing—that provided a variety of relatively good working-class jobs. By the beginning of this century, much of that was long gone (although the timber companies are still around) and leaving mainstays like summer tourism and agriculture. As Ben Hewitt describes in his 2010 book, The Town That Food Saved, a few local entrepreneurs began to build up a new version of the Vermont brand, and now their products can be found across the region (Pete’s Greens), and nation (Jasper Hill Cheese). That locavore spirit has continued to expand to include a range of alcoholic offerings—indicative of Vermont’s agricultural wealth—that are contributing, in their small way, to an industry that is buoying the local economy.

Newport, located right on the Quebec border, is one of the Northeast Kingdom’s largest municipalities (4,520 call it home). Following the 1950s, the long retreat of manufacturing capital hit the town hard, and Main Street still bears the scars, its south side pocked with vacant—if well maintained—storefronts. But on the north end of the street the town looks rejuvenated, even bourgie . Its keystone is the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center, a former department store that opened in 2012 and houses a butcher, a bakery and a bistro—all brought together by Eleanor and Albert Leger of Eden’s Ice Cider.

“In the north you have to be creative. Farming and agriculture is really tough. Business is tough. You have to be bold,” says Todd Hardie, founder of Caledonia Spirits and longtime resident of Vermont. The company’s fast growth is contingent, he says, on the tight knit community of food producers in the Northeast Kingdom, who have come together and provided informal financial and marketing assistance to new companies.

The Legers store and ferment the juice from over a thousand local apple treesin the Tasting Center’s well-lit basement (open for tours in English or French). And aside from their essential apple base, Eden’s cider is a far cry from the mass-market ciders with which most of us have grown familiar. In fact, it’s a different product entirely. Ice cider is an alcoholic apple liqueur invented in Quebec and usually consumed as a digestif; Eden is the first company to make it stateside. It’s one of several delightfully weird products—like a red currant flavored Orleans bitters, akin to Campari but with natural ingredients and a hint of apple—that the couple produces.

All of them are available at the tasting bar, which offers spirits and wines from other Vermont producers. Chief among them is fellow Kingdom company Caledonia Spirits, which makes honey gin and vodka, and Dunc’s Mill, a distillery producing maple and wild flower rum. It’s as if every agricultural product in the state, save for the cows, has been used to flavor local liquors.

According to Leger, the Tasting Center has become a tourist attraction of sorts, luring visitors from Quebec, stateside tourists and expat Vermonters returning for vacations in the homeland. Eleanor cites the former granite industry town of Hardwick, an hour south of Newport, as their principal inspiration. The country between the two is all worn-down mountains, evergreen forests and dairy farms—a good introduction to the Northeast Kingdom’s brand of idyllic.

Hardwick is the subject in Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved, but his 2010 book just missed the town’s latest addition to locally made edibles. In 2012, Caledonia Spirits began selling Barr Hill gin and vodka, both sipping liquors subtly flavored with honey. The distillery’s first batches were made in an old copper still that now sits, dormant, on the premises. The burn marks are still on the floor too, masked by a Spartan rug.

Today Caledonia Spirits has expanded far beyond those humble beginnings. The company’s staple offerings require 100 640-pound barrels of honey annually, as well as a number of other ingredients, all sourced from Vermont or elsewhere in New England or Upstate New York when necessary. The results are shipped to 14 states, including many of the nation’s largest markets in New York, California, Texas and Illinois.

“In the north you have to be creative. Farming and agriculture is really tough. Business is tough. You have to be bold,” says Todd Hardie, founder of Caledonia Spirits and longtime resident of Vermont. The company’s fast growth is contingent, he says, on the tight knit community of food producers in the Northeast Kingdom, who have come together and provided informal financial and marketing assistance to new companies. “It’s an area like our country was 40 years ago—I call it ‘set aside’—a lot of people are involved with agriculture, with farming. But it’s only by helping each other out that we can succeed.”

Caledonia Spirits, Dunc’s Mill and Eden Cider collectively employ only a handful of people, but their continued growth is part of a larger trend. A 2011 report from the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, noted that “unlike most sectors in the region” agribusiness and food processing employment grew between 2001 and 2009. It is “commonplace” for these companies to intersect with the tourism industry too, a side effect of the region’s isolation and Caledonia and Eden’s commitment to locally-sourcing their ingredients. In a country where “craft” and “local” have become adjectives with diminished meaning, the new wave of spirits production in the Northeast Kingdom can say, without artifice, that their products couldn’t have been made anywhere else.

Related Articles

Jake Blumgart is a reporter and editor based in Philadelphia. He has been visiting the Northeast Kingdom for 24 years.

FROM AROUND THE WEB