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When I first moved to Maine from Montana, people told me, “Get ready to drink. Maine is for drinkers.”
Maine is a place where the bars stay open when the rest of the city is snowed in. There are local craft breweries and a constellation of restaurants known for artisanal cocktails. Maine is famous for artists and writers who most likely ended their days with a drink. The same goes for the lobstermen. But the history goes far beyond those things.
Luke Davidson, of Maine Craft Distilling at 101 Fox St. in Portland, is continuing the state’s long but inconsistent history with distilling, picking it up with an intentional and community-oriented approach.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED AS A DISTILLER?
I have a small farm and I grew up on a small farm. I was drawn to the notion of adding value to local products, and I was interested in finding a way to be a part of the agricultural community beyond the front end of it. I see a lot of Maine products that aren’t at the end of their value line, and I saw a unique way to boost the growers by adding value to their products and to allow me to be a part of that system. And, of course, making something that I am interested in. One of our main missions is to use Maine products and foster growth in the agricultural community. I had been a carpenter for about 25 years prior, and the great recession was winding down and there had been enough of those economic dips to make me think I should start over. I met a guy named Fred Farber and we put our heads together and came up with this idea. We realized in the process that we couldn’t just make whiskey because it takes such a long time, so we decided to make a few other things. So we really thought about it and came up with this storyline.
HOW DOES YOUR UPBRINGING ON A FARM INFLUENCE THE WAY YOU WORK NOW?
That’s interesting. I definitely approach it in a more practical way, but it limits my abilities in other ways. Fortunately, I have my partner Fred and a few other collaborators who have whole different skill sets, and together we make a good unit. In terms of the practical piece: growing up in a really, really remote setting during a really remote time, I learned from everybody that if you can’t find it, you make it. Basically everything here we’ve made ourselves. There’s a “can-do” sort of Yankee mentality that we’ve applied to this place. And just, it’s sort of a work ethic that comes with us that definitely applies. We all apply it to everything we do here. We work long hours and make fun things.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF MAKING SOMETHING THAT INVOLVES WAITING FOR SO LONG?
Financial, for one. The whole patience piece, but really the financial piece is not easy to sit on. We spend a lot of money and time on something and you sit for 14 months and wait. You are just sitting on that capital. But we also have a lot of other things to do, like interact with the public and other things in the interim.
TELL ME ABOUT LEARNING THE PROCESS OF MAKING SPIRITS
The story, or the lore of the company and the founder’s myth, is that Fred and I didn’t know anything about making alcohol except for how to open the bottle. We knew what we liked and we also wanted to make this work. One thing that’s really unique about this burgeoning, fledgling industry is that it’s really open in terms of knowledge and connecting with other distillers. Everyone knows it’s not an easy haul. The term we use a lot is “coop-etitian.” There’s no competition in it because there’s no way I can impact an Oregon operation. We feel like the more full and broad the market is, the better off it is for everybody. Most everybody is helpful, and I’ve learned a lot from meeting people and going there and talking to them and then applying the Yankee “can-do” mindset.
TELL ME ABOUT HOW THIS BUSINESS TIES INTO MAINE’S HISTORY
Actually, in some ways yes and in other ways no. Maine used to be the largest rum producer in the world. There were 11 distilleries or so between where B&M Baked Beans is and City Hall. This region was a big rum distillery zone. It was from the early 1800s to 1854. The amount of rum production in Maine was so big that it was awash in drunken people, so Maine started the first prohibition in the country by the mayor Neal Dow. He was the mayor, a temperance guy. It stayed in effect all the way to the 1930s and it was his laws that were used to put in effect the nationwide prohibition. Maine was a big lumber source and also big in shipping. They needed something to come from the islands during the triangle trade, so they would bring molasses up. They brought up molasses because they would be taxed if it was rum. And there was an industry here to make rum.
In the early days, molasses was a waste product from making sugar, and they had too much of it. They would even dump it in the ocean, there was so much of it. And then they began to make rum. It became the nation’s drink for a long time because you didn’t want to waste your grains on alcohol since there were more important uses for grain like feeding your family or running your horses, which was your vehicle. They used to pay men in rum, up to a pint a day, so there was less income for the family and the breadwinner was drunk. Every shop in town also had a barrel of rum that customers could dip into. If you didn’t have one, no one would come. So it was a big problem in Maine. That being said, Maine had a very large history of that, but from 1854 on it went away, and now it has come full circle.
TELL ME SOME OF THE STORIES OF YOUR SPIRITS
We have seven products, and we are working on some new ones. Like maybe something with apples for the fall. We are really working with local products. For example, we are working with a local carpenter to try to make wooden barrels from Maine oak. Each product is all from Maine-grown grains. The rum is made from molasses sourced in Canada from the islands. The Canadian Maritimes were also an old molasses shipping route, and the company we work with is an old holdover from that time. The Blueshine is the most “Maine” product, as it has Maine-grown barley, Maine blueberries and Maine maple syrup. We call it liquid pancakes. So then we have Alchemy, which is named after the alchemists, the original distillers and men of science. We have taken the humble barley and made the noble gin. Chesuncook Gin is named after a Maine lake and a Native American word that means “where the waters converge,” and it’s also the name of the soil that grows pretty much all of the grains we use. Queequeg is the name of the whaler in “Moby Dick,” so it’s a nod to the whaling era. It’s a spiced rum, and the recipe comes from a sailor’s log from that era. And Black Cap Vodka is named after the Maine state bird. 50 Stone Whiskey’s name comes from the stone, a unit of measurement that is 14 pounds. It takes 50 stone of barley to make one barrel of whiskey. Roughly a thousand pounds of liquid becomes about 55 gallons of spirit.
ALCOHOL CAN BE SUCH A DIVISIVE THING. TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOU NAVIGATE THAT
I look at alcohol as a food piece. And a cultural piece. The actual act of distilling is quite boring, but it affords you a lot of other components that are really engaging and fun. We actually price point ourselves out of the realm of shots and party-style drinking. In truth, we are really after a cultural piece. We are applying the notion of terroir to our drinks, adding as much regional flavor as we can. And in so doing, trying to create a culture of this and always hoping people don’t over-indulge. This might be an odd thing to confess, but we do have some people that come in and buy more than they probably should, and it’s a conflict emotionally, internally. But that isn’t my piece, and I’m looking through it from an agricultural and regional side. Our whiskey is very, very unique and it owes that entirely to this region. Actually, one of my personal ideas is that I have made a commitment not to drink until the weekends. It’s just a personal thing. I like to keep myself in check while doing this kind of work. And it’s also a request of my wife and kids. And that does help me keep a really keen view. In truth, in human history and in literature, there is a big cultural piece around alcohol and I really, really enjoy being a part of that communal ritual.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
We have a saying in our family to be honest and kind. It’s just the right thing to do. Life is hard enough. I have two children and seeing them growing into the world and understanding that life is really hard for everyone. I often go back to my roots, and I think where I came from – there was a lot of camaraderie and interesting Yankee culture that had those things at the heart of it. As you go out in the world and grow up, you see that everyone is in a struggle and the more you can be with people in a nice capacity, the better it can be for everyone. And that became so clear when I had kids.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING NOW OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY
My biggest lesson is to be more measured in the decisions I make. I make decisions quickly, and that might not be the best thing in life. Probably the biggest lesson inside of that lesson is figuring out how to separate the quick decisions and the ones that need more thought. That would be the most poignant lesson in my life right now – to really analyze interpersonal relationships and make decisions around them with a little less immediacy.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE?
My wife, hands down. My wife is clearly the biggest gift in my life from the day I met her to now.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST STRUGGLE?
I don’t have any. I guess just making this business work. It’s not a struggle so much as a labor of love. It’s just a lot of work. And there’s a bit of struggle in it, but it’s really exciting and fun. The money piece is a minor struggle with any start-up. It’s a good struggle.
WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
Well, in life, I would say it’s sitting down at the dinner table with my family. We check in on the day, see how everyone is doing, settle any big debates between myself and the kids. And that’s a lot of fun. It’s my favorite part of the day. That’s what it is about right? People are where it’s at.
Maine Craft Distilling is located in Portland’s Bayside Neighborhood. For more information: www.mainecraftdistilling.com.