by Tamara Scully
Vodka, gin and whiskey might not seem to be connected to the farm, but their ingredients begin there. In the case of Vermont’s award-winning beverages from Caledonia Spirits, distilling spirits is the quintessential agricultural act and the raw, pure ingredients are the basis for their success.
The company took home the award for the 2013 Gin of the Year and received a gold medal for their Barr Hill Gin at the sixth annual International Wine and Spirits Competition in Hong Kong. But the reason for their success remains a lot closer to home, in the farm fields of Vermont and nearby Quebec. Barr Hill Gin was also awarded a double gold medal at the 2012 New York International Spirits Competition.
“Distilling is, by its nature, an agricultural act that helps to preserve and add value to a crop, so that the final product can earn a greater return from the farmer at market,” Alex Weiss, sales director at Caledonia Spirits, said. “Whether it be grains, vegetables, fruits, or meats, one way that we’ve figured out how to preserve these foods is through fermentation. Fermentation and distilling allow us to use Vermont grains and raw honey to create our delicious spirits and in the process guarantee a good price for the farmers and beekeepers.”
The freshest, most natural ingredients make the best beverages. At Caledonia Spirits, it all started with honey, and honey remains an extremely important ingredient in their products. The products are simple recipes, emphasizing the raw ingredients, enhancing them through the distilling process, and creating unique products which can subtly change through the seasons.
“Our raw honey is produced by a beekeeping family that we’ve had a 30-plus year relationship with,” Weiss said. “It’s always raw and free from chemicals.”
This raw honey is a primary ingredient in Caledonia’s line of vodka, gin and elderberry cordial. The company makes two varieties of gin — Barr Hill Gin and Tom Cat Gin, a new release, as well as Caledonia Elderberry Cordial and Barr Hill Vodka. Barr Hill Vodka is made from a mere three ingredients: water, yeast and raw honey.
“There are no grains or potatoes, only 100 percent pure, raw and unfiltered honey,” Weiss said. “Our vodka is twice distilled and never charcoal filtered, and thus retains a texture and flavor of honey and the flowers visited by the bees. As the seasons change, so do the flowers and thus the honey does, too. We can capture that uniqueness from season to season in our spirits.”
“Our Barr Hill vodka is so good because we take great care to keep the honey raw and not heat it,” Caledonia Spirits Founder and master beekeeper Todd Hardie said.
But it isn’t solely honey which creates such unique spirits. Local products are the highlight of Caledonia Spirits. Organic grains grown by Vermont farmer Jack Lazor are featured in the vodka, cordial and upcoming whiskey, and organic elderberries grown by a family farm in Quebec are the key ingredient to the Caledonia Elderberry Cordial.
Barr Hill Gin is made from corn, then finished with juniper berries and raw honey. It isn’t a very dry gin, but their own creation of a combination of types of gin. A 300 gallon botanical extraction still blends the 190 proof alcohol with the extracted juniper oil. Post-distillation, the honey infusion is added. Some of this product is barrel-aged in new white American oak barrels, for 90 days. The aged gin is the Tom Cat Gin.
“It captures the complexity and sweetness of the ingredients in a delicate spirit, perfect for drinking or mixing in a cocktail,” Weiss said.
The Caledonia Elderberry Cordial, which contains elderberries, raw honey, apple juice reduction and corn alcohol, “takes many months to make, and the resulting spirit is used in cocktails, in a Kir or Kir Royale, or over your favorite ice cream.”
The company supports neighboring farmers, such as Jasper Hill Farm, whose cows graze on some of Caledonia Spirits’s land. Jasper Hill Farm makes its own cheeses, aged in the cellars at Jasper Hill, and Caledonia promotes them in pairings with their beverages.
“It really goes well with our beverages,” Hardie said of the cheese. This refreshing spirit of working together for a common good is an important ingredient in Caledonia’s refreshing spirits.
The gin and vodka stills are built from a mixture of recycled, USA-made parts and stainless steel. This approach to handcrafting and custom-designing the equipment is a feature of Caledonia Spirits, serving to impart a taste and quality that can’t be mass-produced.
“The shape and the style of the still affects the flavor of the spirits produced,” Weiss explained. “We prefer to do our work in-house, building and repairing the stills, and customizing them to our own needs and requirements.” A Germany-made copper column was purchased specifically for their whiskey-distilling needs.
The products at Caledonia Spirits are consistently high-quality, but each batch may be slightly different because of the natural, regionally-grown, family farm products which they feature. While mass-marketing might depend upon total consistency from batch to batch, Caledonia Spirits is all about authenticity and developing the flavors of the raw ingredients.
As the company develops new products, and reaches more markets, “we will grow organically, and always take care of our team and farmers that we work with,” Hardie said. “That is the challenge. As distilleries go, we are very small and will remain that way.”
Caledonia Spirits are available at stores up and down the East Coast, and in Illinois, as well as at numerous online retailers. They hold tasting events around the nation, and are at the Burlington Farmers’ Market in Vermont, where consumers can purchase their beverages directly. They might market internationally, but they source as locally as possible, and with a dedication to growing the availability of local grains and products to use in their spirits as the company grows.
Their small size, attention to detail and dedication to farm fresh, natural ingredients has given Caledonia Spirits a winning edge in craft beverages. Although internationally renowned, Caledonia Spirits remains firmly planted in the soils of Vermont, and won’t be uprooted.
Farm fresh alcohol: Caledonia Spirits
by Tamara Scully