Luke Davidson grew up in Jefferson, in Lincoln County, the son of “back to the land hippies” who moved to the rural community from New York. That upbringing, he said, instilled in him a love for agriculture that stayed with him even as he pursued a career as a carpenter outside Maine. Davidson returned 17 years ago, intent on finding a way to remain connected to growing things while producing “value-added Maine goods.” Eventually, he settled on distilling spirits and his Maine Craft Distilling this month marked its first anniversary. The Portland company has five employees.
Q. Why distilling?
A. The direct answer is I looked at growing grain and malting it. There are no malting houses east of the Mississippi. But the margins were tight and there was a lot of investment for a little income. I saw that the people buying my grain would be brewers and distillers and distilling seemed like a real growth place. I was drawn to distilling whiskey and thought that Maine has a similar type of climate and look and feel to Scotland, so that looked like a good way to go.
Q. How did you learn how to distill?
A. I had no formal training at all. I had some understanding of the process and got a fuel producer’s permit prior to this and learned how to make ethanol. And I did know how to open a bottle and drink.
The distillery industry has been really helpful and open, and once we got our equipment together, if I needed help, I could make a call. I also read a bunch of old books – there’s great literature on distilling and distilling farm products, and there’s also a lot of trying and learning. We started out with some basic equipment and made some decent spirits and then made better spirits and that’s how we’ve learned.
Q. So how do you make spirits?
A. You basically make beer or wine and then heat that in a contained kettle called a still, and the alcohol vapor rises up the column and is condensed around a coil and out comes liquid. If you make a whiskey or a rum, you only do that twice, and as you get into more refined spirits, you keep distilling. There’s a saying that whiskey is beer grown up.
Q. What were your first efforts at distilling?
A. We started with a barley vodka and a Dutch-style gin that was a little less refined than drier gin, but we’ve since refined it. We also made barrel-aged rum, and whiskey, which we’ve made since the beginning, but it has to age. We were eager to bring it to market and sold some this winter and we’re also barrel-aging some that’s almost ready.
Q. How do you tell when it’s ready?
A. We sample a lot. You have to tap the barrel and it makes a loud sound, so if there’s a loud sound here, that means there’s someone who’s sampling.
Q. How did you come up with Chesuncook, your gin made from carrots?
A. We call ourselves farm to flask, so we’re trying to focus as much of the region as we can in the bottle. Our products have a unique flair and quality that’s different, due to the regional quality of the product. We were looking at things you could ferment, and one of them is carrots. When I was young, a lot of people we knew made carrot wine. But no one really does it in the U.S. anymore. Prohibition really shut down a lot of distilling businesses in our country. Some companies that survived did other things (during Prohibition), and were able to fill in really fast (after it was repealed), but some of the smaller distilleries had shut down. In Europe, they distill everything. So a lot of the restaurants liked it (Chesuncook) and it really is unique. The Wall Street Journal wrote about it when they wrote about Vinland (a Portland restaurant focused on local organic food). They liked it as did (the magazine) Every Day With Rachael Ray, but it really is in a category all its own. We call it botanical spirits. It is a shocker, the unique quality of it, and it’s become really interesting and flavorful.
Q. What are some other unique spirits you make?
A. We have two other great ones – one we’re calling “Sea Smoke,” an aged whiskey, and we’re taking sugar kelp and Maine-grown peat and heating it to smoke some of the grains. Then we distill the barley and make a nice, richly profiled whiskey. The other up-our-sleeve one is taking traditional-styled gin and putting it in a barrel and making it age. It’s sort of a hybrid of whiskey and gin.
Q. Are you where you figured you would be after a year?
A. Well, it’s an industry that has a lot of rules and regulations, starting with the local fire department and up through the states and the feds – and they don’t put it all in one book. So you wade into that river. It’s like walking around in a pitch-black room full of knee-high coffee tables, so you don’t really know what you’re doing wrong. In the early days of this we had to drive our product to Augusta because we were a manufacturer and the state of Maine was the only distributor, so we would sell them our product but they didn’t pay for up to 90 days and we had to buy it back if we wanted to sell it in our distillery. So we had bizarre cash-flow issues that were difficult. But since then, we’ve been able to discuss it with the state and things are changing. We’re making our numbers and we’re excited about our sales and the response to our product.
Q. How does it feel to be distilling in a city where Prohibition started?
A. There’s all kinds of neat ties there. Prohibition came about in Maine because Maine was the largest rum producer at the time. Maine was awash in rum. I can see why some people wanted to have prohibition around that. Another tie is that we wanted to use Maine-grown white oak in our barrels, so we met up with a local cooper, Ed Lutjens, and that’s the first cooperage we can find for the distilling industry in Maine since the 1860s.