Monday, March 10, 2014
The custom made still at New England Distilling.
Over the course of the next two months The Root will dip into the subject of Maine’s craft distilled spirits industry by profiling three distillers 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.
If you want to write about distilling in New England, you have to write about rum. Starting in the mid-1600s slaves from Central and Western Africa were shipped to the Caribbean, where their labor bought sugar cane and molasses that was sent to New England. Distilleries began cropping up in New England, producing rum, which was sent to Africa and sold for more slaves. This “triangular trade” continued for over 100 years.
“Through the bottle you can see how pirates and the colonial slave trade and the domination of the Europeans over the native Americans actually happened, and how these episodes later became part of a national mythology,” wrote Wayne Curtis in his book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
Here is an introduction to New England Distilling.
It was just north of Baltimore, Maryland, sometime during the 1850’s when Ned Wight’s great-great-great-grandfather John Jacob Wight took over a failing whiskey distillery and began producing Sherwood Rye Whiskey. One hundred and fifty years later, Ned Wight is continuing the family tradition in a warehouse on the outskirts of Portland, Maine.
Wight’s personal style of spirits and use of old technology (custom designed hand-made copper pot still and direct fire), providing an earthy and round flavor is a nod to the past.
“I had always been aware of the family history but I’d say I didn’t start to think seriously about it until I discovered brewing,” said Wight. “When I was in college I was given a home brewing kit by my roommates with the stipulation that I have a finished batch of beer by graduation (this was spring of graduating year) 2 months later I had produced 5 batches. I loved it immediately, I loved the science, I loved the art, I loved the pleasure it brought people, all of it. From there I immersed myself in brewing and that is where the family history started to link up; I started to think seriously about distilling as an extension of brewing.”
New England Distilling opened its doors in April 2012 with the release of Ingenium Dry Gin, because it required no maturation period, so Wight could make it and start selling it fairly quickly to establish some cash flow for the distillery. Eight Bells Rum was released that September, because while it requires maturation, it doesn’t require as much time to mature as the whiskey. Yes, that’s right, New England Distilling has joined the nationwide movement of artisan whiskey distillers with its yet to be named rye whiskey (release could be as early as this fall).
The popularity of American rye whiskey dates back to the end of the 18th century with such proponents as George Washington, who like other colonists used the grain (primarily rye and corn) he grew to make whiskey. “It was what my family made in Maryland and I wanted to make it as well, partly because of the connection to family history (which I love), partly because it’s different than scotch or bourbon, and lastly, because it is really a wonderful style of whiskey,” said Wight on his decision to produce rye whiskey.
The Distilling Process
“I brew more like a brewer than I do a distiller,” said Wight. Meaning, he’s more apt to throw everything into the still instead of straining the wash (liquid from the initial fermentation) from the yeasts and remaining sugars.
“What I really love about brewing and distilling, and all this stuff, is it’s a really cool balance of art and science, and you can go way to either end of the spectrum and still make a wonderful product,” said Wight. “There are people that are all technical brewers and distillers, and they make wonderful products, and then there are other folks who are all art all by sense, taste, feel and also (produce) wonderful products. It's cool in that regard, you can approach it from a lot of different directions.“
The most intuitive part of the distilling process when making spirits is making the cuts of the alcohol as it comes off the still. These three phases are known as heads, hearts, and tails. This is where Wight uses his nose to determine when passing from heads into hearts, where everything is really high proof, to tails where there are oils beginning to come through.
“That’s standard for everything, really,” said Wight. “You could go to Beam, Budweiser, Daniels and all of those places they’ve got people who throughout the company they’ve identified as super tasters and smellers. They are each sensitive to a particular flavor, and they’ll be pulled up on tasting panels on a regular basis to do blindfolded tastings. We still don’t have lab equipment that’s better at making those determinations made by the nose.“
Ned holding up a jar of Maine grown grains.
Spirits from New England Distilling
Ingenium Dry Gin is a Holland London style gin with a base of barley sourced from Northern Maine potato growers, and a little bit of rye to give it a little bit of a different grain character.
Eight Bells Rum is a molasses based rum aged in used American oak barrels. Unable to find a high-grade blackstrap molasses, Wight sources his molasses from the Caribbean.
The yet to be named Rye Whiskey is primarily rye, with smaller portions of other grains for flavor. The rye is currently sourced from the Midwest. “We missed last year’s harvest for the rye, so we’re working with the folks at Maine Grains to source some from the region,” said Wight. “This year, we’ll catch the harvest and be able to switch over to primarily New England grown grains.”
We were able to taste the whiskey at approximately five months and Volk felt it had taken on some oak and vanillin and showed promise (note this is a very preliminary assessment).
Andrew Volk (AV)– Have you had your palate tested?
Ned – No, I’ve done different sensory evaluation things and stuff like that. Generally, the way I taste I’ll sit down with a flavor wheel and work my way around it. Everything in distillation you’re separating things out at high boiling points, which is boring, but the cool part of that is all the botanicals boil at a slightly different boiling point. So, the gin marches out kind of in single file. You’re tasting it and wow, citrus, whoa, juniper, we have lemongrass.
AV – I’ve only been to a handful of gin places, but how long do you keep the herbs in the thumpers. A lot of them are just steeping after the process.
Ned - What I found is Beefeater (Gin) will do the macerations, soak in the pot. (Bombay) Sapphire does the vapor extraction. When I played around, I played with both direct maceration and vapor. What I found with vapor is it gives you a lighter spice flavor. We’ve got a lot of botanicals in there. The notes that are in there are lighter notes themselves, and the way I sort of think about it is, if I’m making a tea. If I steep the bag in boiling water I’m going to have a pretty strong tea, vs. if way to other extreme and make a sun tea.
Andrew Volk and Ned Wight
Whisky - Maturation
“The exercise is maturation, not age,” said Wight. “In terms of chemical things going on, 95% of the maturation happens in the first 12 months.”
The new American oak barrels are stacked on racks rescued by Wight from the last standing rick house of the Sherwood Distillery. Now, his barrels rest on the same racks as those his great grandfather laid down.
Tours of the distillery are available (there’s a sweet gift shop!). Contact information is here.
A special Fourth of July Drink Recipe!
New England Distilleries, White and Blue by Andrew Volk
1.5oz New England Distilling Ingenium Gin. 1oz fresh squeezed lemon juice. 0.75oz Royal Rose (Biddeford, Maine) Strawberry Fennel Syrup. Combine in shaker tin. Add ice and shake vigorously for 20 seconds. Strain over fresh ice into a collins glass, top with soda. Garnish with several blueberries.
Craft of Whiskey Distilling by Bill Owens
The Art of Distilling Whiskey and Other Spirits by Bill Owens and Alan Ditky
And a Bottle of Rum by Wayne Curtis
Short History of the Art of Distillation by R.J. Forbes (copies available at Rabelais Books in Biddeford, Maine)
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.