Bill Owens likes his alcohol. Six years ago, the Hayward, California-based connoisseur toured the nation in search of small craft distilleries. He found 60. Today there are 165.
The 71-year-old raconteur and founder and president of the American Distilling Institute estimates that about 20 new distilleries open every year, mostly in states that have a strong local-food movement. “That’s where the renaissance is happening,” he says.
It’s no great surprise, then, that Vermont now has four licensed distilleries making such products as maple vodka and liqueurs, pear brandy, and sparkling hard cider. These small businesses just got some help from the governor, who in May signed into law a bill  that allows them to offer tastings and retail sales on site and at wine and beer festivals. Christian Stromberg, the owner of Saxtons River Distillery , testified before the legislature in favor of the bill. He asked, “Would there be distillery tours in Scotland if you couldn’t taste the alcohol?” Point taken.
“That’s a progressive state,” says Owens, informed about the new Vermont law. “Most states aren’t nearly that helpful.” State and local governments, he laments, are still the biggest obstacles for people trying to distill spirits. Regulations often treat alcohol as a hazardous substance that can only be manufactured in a setting that conforms to strict fire codes. “The rule books are written for massive operations,” Owens explains. “It’s like if you wanted to start a bike shop but had to follow the same rules as GM.” He says he knows people who have moved to a state specifically because of its distillery-friendly laws.
Even in a friendly climate, it’s no small feat to get a distillery going. It can take three years or more to create a business plan, build a distilling and bottling plant, and get a license. Along the way, all manner of questions come up: How many gallons will I make? How many fermentation vessels will I need? Am I going to double distill? What kind of barrels am I going to use?
When those are sorted out, the license application process begins. William Goggins, director of the Vermont Department of Liquor Control , says the first step is to get a Distilled Spirits Plant permit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau , an arm of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The bureau collects $13.50 for each gallon of 100-proof spirits and wants to make sure the money isn’t flowing from some shady corporation acting as a front for organized crime. With the permit in hand, would-be distillers apply to Goggins’ agency, which does its own set of background checks and site inspections. After maybe nine months of this, they could be in business. Want to make a little liquor in your basement just for “personal use”? You’ll need to run the same bureaucratic gauntlet to stay on the right side of the law.
None of that deterred Stromberg, 37. His operation in Cambridgeport, where he makes Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur, is the newest in Vermont. Stromberg’s family came to the United States in 1906 from Lithuania, which has a liqueur tradition that dates to the 17th century. His grandfather made a spiced honey liqueur called krupnikas in his private still in Brooklyn during the Prohibition era. You might say distilling is in Stromberg’s blood. (“If it’s in your DNA, you’ve got to get busy,” as Owens puts it.)
That’s what Stromberg did after he and his wife moved to Vermont in 2002. Stromberg, who has a distinctly Eastern European visage — slightly Asiatic eyes and a broad nose — was trained as a manufacturing engineer. In his spare time he built a two-story, 1800-square-foot barn. Then he asked himself what he was going to do with all that space. Liquor, he realized, “is the one thing we can still make at home.”
Stromberg’s challenge was to create something that could compete for shelf space with big names such as Cointreau and Grand Marnier. He decided to make a maple liqueur for a few reasons: It wasn’t a far cry from his grandfather’s krupnikas; he likes things that have taste (as opposed to vodka, which should have none); and nobody had done it yet. Now he has competitors in Vermont (Green Mountain Distillers in Stowe) and New Hampshire (Flag Hill). But as of last December, after just two years of production, Sapling was one of the best-selling liquors in the state. “I was really proud of that,” Stromberg says.
Understandably, Stromberg is tight lipped about how he makes his liqueur. “I have a recipe that I mix up,” he explains, “then I stick it in a barrel and age it until it’s just right.”
“How long do you age it?” I ask him.
He will divulge that he obtains his syrup in 40-gallon drums from Black Bear Sugar Works in Guilford, mixes batches to ensure consistency, and buys his grain alcohol from a supplier instead of distilling it himself. It was enough to get the ingredients and the production going first, he says, without worrying about distilling the alcohol. “Finally I’m at the point where I’m ready to tackle it.”
Stromberg is happy to use Vermont’s maple industry to sell a locally made product, and he’s excited about employing Vermonters to help him do it. A Brattleboro artist designed the label, which features a delicate maple tree. Stromberg also commissioned Frank Hawkins, the sign painter who created the controversial “See Bellows Falls” mural , to make a pastoral advertisement that appears in Vermont Life. In it, a tipped bottle of the liqueur creates a river that flows under a covered bridge and past a white-steepled church.
While Sapling may be a taste of Vermont, the bottles, with their slender shape that echoes the tree on the label, hail from France. “The clarity of this bottle is not something you can get in the U.S.,” Stromberg explains, “just based on the sand we have available.”
Stromberg is on the hunt for a new production facility with better visibility and easier access, since he didn’t design his barn with a distillery in mind. And he’s enthusiastic about the opportunities the new law creates. Before May, liqueurs could only be tasted at a bar or restaurant; now Stromberg can get his product out on the festival circuit. This means he can catch people before they form a prejudice about how maple liqueur should taste. “It’s not a flavor people are familiar with,” he says. “It’s not a shot of maple syrup.”
Some distillers, unlike Stromberg, are happy to boil and toil far from passing tourists. Sebastian Lousada and Sabra Ewing, owners of Flag Hill Farm  in Vershire (which is not connected to New Hampshire's Flag Hill), have accepted that they’re too removed from a main road to have any sort of retail presence. Their consolation is 250 acres of beautiful hilltop pastures and orchards, with clear views to the White Mountains. Since about 2002, they’ve been distilling organic still and sparkling hard cider, and they recently began making pear and apple eau de vie, a kind of local version of Calvados, the French apple brandy.
Lousada, 46, is a lanky fellow with a wavy mop of black and gray hair and round glasses. On a recent sunny morning, he’s wearing a Flag Hill Farm T-shirt, blue jeans and an untucked button-down shirt, an ensemble that could be described as hippie-business-casual. Originally from England, with an American mother, he moved to the U.S. to attend the College of the Atlantic in Maine.
Lousada and Ewing bought this place in the mid-1980s and used it to breed first parrots, then angora goats. Somewhere in between they planted about five acres of apple trees. “Then, 10 years later,” Lousada says, “you suddenly have quite a crop.” They began using all those apples to make regular cider. A book by another Vershire couple  — fiction writer Annie Proulx and her former husband Lew Nichols — gave them a how-to on crafting the hard variety.
Lousada is a little more forthcoming than Stromberg when it comes to production methods. The couple presses the apples, some of which come from wild trees, on site. For the still cider, they ferment the juice for two years in a stainless-steel barrel and distill it — which basically consists of boiling an alcohol-bearing liquid and catching the condensed vapor — twice on a propane-fired still. The sparkling cider is made using the traditional “méthode champenoise,” a French process that creates carbonation from yeast and sugar. The eau de vie — “not for the faint of heart,” Lousada says — starts out as still cider, is aged with oak chips of various aromas, and gets double distilled again. The result is a dry, potent after-dinner drink that’s best enjoyed in a brandy snifter, since the nose is responsible for at least half our sense of taste.
Outside his barn, which contains a distilling room, a bottling area, and various cool, dank grottoes with tanks and barrels, Lousada pours me a sample of the apple eau de vie. I swirl it around and breathe in notes of oak and fruit. After barely an ounce, I’m feeling the alcohol and thinking this would make a nice addition to a roaring fireplace on a winter’s night.
“I don’t drink that much myself,” Lousada admits, “which is probably just as well. You get some characters in this business — their noses are red a mile off.”