FREEPORT — Hundreds and hundreds of vodka brands are sold in the United States.
But one of the very best, say some connoisseurs, is distilled and bottled in an unassuming barn on Route 1 in Freeport.
The company is called Maine Distilleries LLC, and its signature product is Cold River Vodka, a thrice-distilled top-shelf spirit made from Maine potatoes.
In the five years since the company was founded, Maine Distilleries has expanded to 26 states and won numerous awards, achievements insiders attribute to a quality product, strong customer relationships and booming demand for spirits from small distillers.
Inside the company’s distillery Tuesday, head distiller and partner Chris Dowe poured a quarter inch of chilled Cold River Vodka into a clear plastic cup.
He brought the cup to his nose, inhaling deeply.
“Out of all the major brands, this is the smoothest on the market,” he said.
“People always say they want smooth vodka, and Cold River is the definition of that,” said Paul Pacult, a professional spirits taster and editor of F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal. “When I come across a product the quality level of Cold River, it is news to me.”
Cold River is one of 20 brands that earned Pacult’s highest five-star rating, quite an accomplishment considering there are 850 vodka brands in the United States, he said.
Maine Distilleries was launched in November 2005 by four partners: Fryeburg potato farmer Donnie Thibodeau and his brother Lee Thibodeau, former U.S. ski coach Bob Harkins and Dowe, a former brewer and brewery consultant.
Dowe said the foursome gathered weekly in 2003 and 2004, researching and writing a business plan.
It was an opportune time to start a small distillery.
A few years earlier, Americans began embracing spirits made by so-called “craft distillers,” the industry term for distilleries that produce less than 40,000 cases of liquor every year, said Frank Coleman, vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
“There has been a geometric expansion in the number of craft distillers in the last few years,” he said. “Like the discovery of gold, you have a land-rush mentality.”
Coleman estimates that in 2000, only a few dozen craft distillers operated in the United States. Today, there are at least 200.
He said the craft distillers rode the shirttails of growing liquor sales, driven by marketing efforts of major distillers, and by “modernization” of state liquor laws. Today, most states permit Sunday sales and many let distillers give free samples.
Cultural changes also pushed demand for small-batch liquors. In the late 1990s, archeologists uncovered a whiskey distillery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. Since then, Coleman said America has been “discovering its distilling heritage.”
In response to growth, the Distilled Spirits Council created a Craft Distiller Affiliate Membership program in 2010.
The program has some 30 members, including St. Johnsbury, Vt.-based Vermont Spirits, which makes Vermont Gold Vodka.
Steve Johnson, president of Vermont Spirits, compares the segment’s growth to the micro-brewery boom 20 years earlier. Like beer drinkers in search of new tastes, liquor drinkers thirsted for an alternative to traditional brands.
Only a handful of distilleries operate in Maine, among them Northern Maine Distilling Company, a Houlton-based vodka maker, and Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery in Union, which distills rum, brandy and gin.
Keith Bodine, Sweetgrass co-owner, said he expects growth will continue.
“I don’t think we are near seeing the limit of how big the craft side of this industry can get,” he said.
Maine Distilleries has seven full-time and three part-time staff, and yearly revenue of roughly $1.3 million, Dowe said. Sales increased every year except 2006 and jumped 10 percent in 2010.
The company still operates at a loss, but Dowe expects to turn a profit in 2011.
“We are so close,” he said.
Once that happens, Dowe said he and his partners may sell the company, a strategy included in the original business plan.
Maine Distilleries sells liquor in 26 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and England. Last year, the company shipped some 4,000 cases of vodka, blueberry vodka and gin, a new product.
Sales are strongest in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maryland.
The spirits are made from Yukon gold, russet and white potatoes harvested at Donnie Thibodeau’s Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg.
A machine grinds the potatoes into one-eighth-inch chunks, which are steamed, cooked in filtered water and pumped into one of three fermentation vessels, where yeast is added.
Next, the “potato wine” undergoes a three-part distillation process, before it is cut to 80 proof with water from the Saco River aquifer.
Most people think vodka is odorless and tasteless, but Dowe said Maine potatoes impart an earthy flavor, and cooking endows hints of caramel.
Cold River won gold medals at the World Spirits Competition and from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, and Wine Enthusiast named it the No. 1 vodka in the world in 2008.
Pacult describes Cold River as “elegant,” less viscous than Eastern European and Russian vodkas, but heavier than Scandinavian brands.
“It all comes down to distillation. They have great attention to detail and care about what they are doing,” he said.
Harkins, Maine Distilleries’ director of sales and marketing, said the company controls production from the ground (the potatoes) to the glass, a level of oversight that distinguishes Cold River from competitors Belvedere, Grey Goose, Chopin and Tanqueray.
He added that the company thrives largely without advertising, relying instead on a “feet on the ground” marketing strategy.
Maine Distilleries has three salespeople who sell to retailers, restaurant owners, hotel food and beverage directors and bartenders.
“If we can get a bartender or a wait staffer working for us and selling the brand — that is what it is all about,” said Harkins.
Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at: