Micro-distilleries are bringing 'boutique' spirits to New Hampshire
Hopefully Jack and The Captain aren't too cozy on their shelves, because more and more they have to make room for the new kids on the block: locally distilled micro-spirits.
No longer does homegrown spirits conjure images of chomper-challenged grampys hunched over stills in the hills or hoodlums brewing god knows what in back alleys. Today's micro-distillers are instead craftsman scientists creating small batches of labored over and loved spirits. Inside their posh laboratories they are finding new ways to tease vodka out of apples and whiskey from corn, as well as inventing new flavor pairings from local harvests.
Also known as "boutique" distilleries, micro-distilleries are operations that produce alcohol in relatively small quantities. While Europe has enjoyed micro-distilleries for a long time, particularly when it comes to cognac, the United States is just starting to catch the spirit, so to speak.
According to the Beverage Trade Network, the American Distilling Institute has the number of craft distilleries in production going from 24 in 2000, to 52 in 2005, to 165 in 2009, to close to 300 at the end of 2011.
And it's picking up steam in New Hampshire. Two got up and running in the past few years — Flag Hill in Lee and Sea Hagg Distillery in North Hampton. And those in the industry said a third is only a year or two away from opening its doors in Canterbury. New Hampshire even has an annual distiller's dinner; Flag Hill will unveil its new rum there this weekend.
There are many reasons for the boozy boom in New Hampshire, perhaps the biggest is the popularity of the local food movement.
"This whole local movement is giant," said Heather Hughes, Sea Hagg's co-owner. "And people are happy to support a local business and if you can make a quality product, they are going to come back."
To make spirits, the distiller has to create alcohol where it doesn't exist, said Flag Hill's general manager Heather Houle. This is done by fermenting fruit or grains. The distiller separates the newly created alcohol from the fermented product. The alcohol is then turned into something else either with herbs and spices, barrel-aging or further filtering until clear, to cite a few examples.
The team at Sea Hagg has developed a wide variety of unique rums and occasionally fruit brandies and course brandies known as eau-de-vie from sugar cane molasses and local fruits.
Using a traditional copper alembic pot still, the Sea Hagg distillers make the rum and age it in custom-toasted barrels. The rum is bottled by hand at the distillery. They describe their rum as full-bodied and clear, ideal for "sipping slightly chilled or cocktail mixing."
One of their biggest sellers is the blueberry rum. Hughes said they came up with it because they know rum is a good vehicle for fruit. Because New Hampshire is not the Caribbean and not lousy with coconuts, mangos or pineapple, they used what was close by.
"The blueberries are low-bush blueberries from Maine and they are like the little wild, tart blueberries," Hughes said. "What we were looking for was a totally natural-flavored product, not using extracts or anything like that. So it is blue, like blueberries, and it's not very sweet. …We're doing what grows in our area."
That means this summer they will roll out a strawberry flavor, she said.
"The rum compliments it," she said. "It's a little more flavorful than a neutral grain spirit, so it doesn't taste totally like a liqueur or a flavored vodka."
As for Flag Hill, they have been mixing their elixirs since 2004, and in that time they've created a variety of spirits including vodkas, gins, and even moonshine a.k.a white whiskey.
"White whiskey is basically the precursor to bourbon," Houle said. "So what you're going to get with any typical white whiskey is corn-based."
If that product was put into an oak barrel for two years, you'd get bourbon. But if it's just the clear liquor, it's moonshine. Houle said the moonshine they make comes from the liquor that doesn't fit in the barrels when they make bourbon.
Houle said, "We happened to hit a pretty good wave of popularity. You started to see a lot more moonshines on the shelf. The state liquor commission was happy to take it and it's been selling really well."
While most people think of potatoes when they think vodka, the folks at Flag Hill were thinking sustainable.
"For us apples were so easy and smart," Houle said. "No matter what you want to make you have to have an immense amount of it to make very little product. So we looked around and thought, 'Well what do we have a lot of in this state? Apples.'"
Not only were the apples plentiful, but they were cheaper than growing potatoes, which was an early option. And because vodka is unique in that it's not based off of the product you start with, Houle said, apple do the trick.
For those looking to pair a local booze with food, officials at Sea Hagg suggest "intensely flavored food goes best with cocktails." High-flavor foods go well with citrus cocktails because, they said, tartness foils spices. Straight liquor does well with sweet desserts, creamy for less sweet and smokey cocktails go with cheese.
For those interested in tasting the new rum from Flag Hill, the distiller's dinner will be May 18, from 6-10 p.m. at Flag Hill Winery & Distillery, 297 North River Road in Lee. For more information, call 659-2949 or go to flaghill.com. For more information on Sea Hagg, go to seahaggdistillery.com.