January 16, 2011

Winning vodka recipe was born in a barn

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FREEPORT — Chris Dowe perfected his vodka recipe in a barn near his house, where he fermented potatoes into a wine that could then be distilled into a spirit.

click image to enlarge

Maine Distilleries LLC makes its award-winning spirits from Maine potatoes in a barn on Route 1 in Freeport.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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HISTORY: Maine Distilleries was the brainchild of Fryeburg potato farmer Donnie Thibodeau, who was searching for new markets for Maine potatoes. Thibodeau and three partners – his brother Lee, former ski coach Bob Harkins and brewery consultant Chis Dowe – launched the company in 2005.  Maine Distilleries’ signature product, Cold River Vodka, is now sold in 26 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and England.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: Seven full-time and three part-time staffers.

EXECUTIVES: The man charged with making Cold River vodka and gin is Dowe, 50, a beer brewer-turned-distiller from New Gloucester. Thibodeau supplies the potatoes and Harkins heads sales and marketing.

WORTH NOTING: Since launched in 2005, Maine Distilleries has distilled 99 batches of spirits. Each batch takes nine days to distill and yields 2,400 750-milliliter bottles of liquor.

FINANCIALS: Maine Distilleries has annual revenue of roughly $1.3 million. The company is on the cusp of turning its first profit.

He had no choice but to tinker at home -- Dowe and his partners were launching a company called Maine Distilleries, and he needed to learn vodka making.

Turns out, Dowe works well from home -- his recipe would become Cold River Vodka, a spirit made from Maine potatoes that has won national accolades and helped the Freeport-based company expand into markets well beyond Maine.

Dowe, 50, grew up in the Connecticut River Valley town of Windsor, where he picked tobacco as a kid. He completed two stints in the Army, serving in the military police at Fort McClellan in Alabama and Fort Devens in Massachusetts, and graduated from Central Connecticut State University with a degree in philosophy.

After working for 10 years in sales, Dowe entered the brewery industry in 1993. He worked with Peter Austin, a British brewer who Dowe said helped create the micro-pub craze, and Alan Pugsley, brewer at Portland's Shipyard Brewing Company.

Dowe later started his own company, Global Brewing Services, consultants to dozens of breweries.

Dowe's wife, Jean, a nurse at Maine Medical Center, told him she heard that Portland neurosurgeon Lee Thibodeau and his brother, Donnie, who owns a potato farm in Fryeburg, were considering launching a vodka distillery.

Dowe met Lee, who asked him, "How would you like to try vodka instead of beer?"

Dowe agreed, and in the spring of 2003 began experimenting, first at home. He also worked with a small distillery in Kentucky, and made batches at the University of Maine in Orono and Michigan State University, which had a distillation program.

Dowe even dragged his partners – the Thibodeau brothers and Bob Harkins, a former ski coach who became Maine Distilleries' director of sales and marketing – to a weeklong distillation school in Lexington, Ky.

"If you asked our wives, they said we were going to drinking school," joked Harkins. "But we made a lot of great contacts, and it was helpful in providing the pieces to the puzzle."

As the company moved closer to launch, Dowe began searching for a copper pot still, which he said makes a superior vodka. He wanted to buy American but was unable to find the right product in the United States. Eventually, he ordered a still from a company in Germany. Other distilling equipment came from suppliers in the United States.

The still took five months to build and a few more months to ship across the Atlantic.

Now partner and head distiller at the company, Dowe oversees every aspect of the three-stage distillation process that creates Cold River vodka and gin.

He lives in New Gloucester with his wife and their two kids, 10-year-old Ben and 9-year-old Molly. 

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at:



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