The distillery’s award-winning gin.
This is the second in The Root’s three part series on craft distillers in Maine who are distinguishing themselves using primarily Maine sourced ingredients in the form of grains and/or fruit in the liquor making process. For these three posts, The Root is collaborating with Andrew Volk, a native New Englander, and nationally award-winning bartender who is opening Portland, Maine’s first craft cocktail bar, the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club this summer.
Here is an introduction to Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery.
While enjoying the pleasure of a fine gin and tonic, science might not immediately come to mind, but dear gin enthusiasts without it we would not have realized fermentation or distillation, two essential components of any spirit.
Though science provides the foundation of spirits, the creative side of a distiller shapes the content. With Europe’s Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 18th century, science was free to have, as R.J. Forbes wrote in his Short History of the Art of Distillation “followed its own path in a youthful, creative and unhampered spirit.”
Keith Bodine, co-owner, winemaker, and distiller for Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery in Union, Maine, is a man with a healthy science background and a passion to create something. Thankfully, one of those things is gin.
“I really like gin,” said Bodine. “Distilling always appealed to me. I took a couple distilling classes at (UC) Davis. It’s not a major part of their curriculum, but I was always intrigued by it.”
After getting his Master’s Degree in Wine Making at UC Davis, a curriculum, his wife Constance described as “super rigorous science based”, Bodine felt he had what it would take to be able to be creative with wine-making and distilling.
“The science kind of fades into the background after a while,” Bodine said. “It’s part of what you do. I like science and technology, but the other appeal is the artsy side of it.” Bodine describes the style of everything he makes as “bold and expressive of the flavors in the fruit/grain/botanicals.”
Prior to opening Sweetgrass to the public in 2007, Bodine had traveled the world helping build other people’s wineries and distilleries for nearly two decades. Today, Keith and Constance’s family run operation is well on its way to producing 3,000 cases of wine and spirits a year.
In 1990, when drafting their business plan, Keith and Constance decided to partner with local fruit growers rather than compete with them. Sweetgrass uses 35,000 pounds of Maine fruit and grain a year, including apples from Hope and cranberries from Columbia Falls. “There are amazing growers here, and quite tuned into us,” said Constance.
When Keith and Constance opened their doors, they knew they wanted to make gin, and their instinct and passion served them well. A year into the Maine distilling scene, Sweetgrass’ Back River Gin was named to Wine Enthusiast magazine’s Top 50 Spirits of 2008 list.
Back River Gin is made in the London tradition with a Maine twist, blueberries. When creating the gin, they were going for something reminiscent of Maine. “You roll down the windows coming across the bridge in Portsmouth/Kittery, and the first thing you smell is the piney scent, and as you head up the coast the clam flats and the blueberry barrens and it’s very much all in this gin,” said Constance.
For the past two years, Keith and Constance’s passion project has been creating an Irish style of barley single malt whisky, something they have great pride in. The barley is sourced from potato growers in Maine’s Aroostook County. In April, the public is invited to attend “Whisky Wednesdays” when people can see the spirit run out of the still. “One of the fun things about having people come, is we taste an American, we taste a Scotch, we taste an Irish, and then we taste a Maine,” said Constance.
Sweetgrass added 2,000 square feet of floor space last winter in large part to accommodate aging space for their forthcoming whisky, which Keith said will need at least eight years in the barrel.
Three Crow Rum came about because Keith and Constance’s neighbors were asking for it, and according to Constance is sells out every year.
The rum is aged for a year-and-a-half in used bourbon barrels, or on occasion a used wine barrel. The fermentation time for the molasses is longer than the standard three to four days in the Caribbean, to take advantage of Maine’s cooler temperatures, and draw out the caramel and butterscotch flavors.
Tasting the whisky from the barrel.
AV– I’m sure they’re both very different and fun in their own way, but what’s the difference in the art with making wine compared to distilling?
Keith – In general, distilled spirits are expected to be more consistent, so that’s a little bit different. Wine is kind of expected to change from vintage to vintage. In terms of the actual production, distilling is in a way easier you don’t have biological factors trying to ruin the product all the time. You’re not fighting yeast and bacteria.
Andrew – What do you like about the pot still?
Keith – The pot is about flavor. It’s less efficient, because you are getting a little more water, but you are getting flavor. It’s perfect for what we do.
Keith added doors to the still design to accommodate his working with fruits and grains. Now he can pump whole fruit mash in the still and clean things out easier.
Given the influence science has on Keith, one might be surprised to learn he gets bored making a drink that involves more than two steps (opening a bottle and pouring). Constance shared a story about Keith making a Bloody Mary with their gin, and complaining about having to put the ice in. “That third thing put him over the top,” she said.
Well Keith, this drink recipe sans ice is dedicated to you courtesy of Andrew Volk.
No Time No Temperature by Andrew Volk
1.5 oz Three Crow Rum
1.5 oz Antica Formula sweet vermouth
0.25 oz Grand Marnier
2 dash Angostura
8 drops saline solution (3:1 water to salt)
Combine ingredients in a rocks glass. Stir without ice. Enjoy.
Room temperature cocktails are great when you’re somewhere without ice (picnics, hotel rooms, etc) but still want a great drink. It’s amazing the difference one ingredient (ice) can make in taste and texture.