I paused for a moment and realized, while I had done plenty of beer and wine tastings in my life, I had never done a spirit tasting before. Apparently I’m not the only one.
“I think spirit tasting is new for a lot of people,” Buttenheim told me as I sampled a few of the distillery’s products, including the No. 14 Bourbon: a whiskey bourbon distilled with maple syrup that I was quite fond of. The distillery is part of a new wave of craft spirit companies in the state with many of them—including Vermont Spirits—now offering tastings so visitors can sample the products they make.
Vermont Spirits recently moved from its original location in Barnet, Vermont to Quechee in March 2011 and is now doing all production, bottling and packaging at the new facility. The distillery is known for creating high quality spirits made primarily with local Vermont ingredients. The distillery currently offers eight products including its popular Vermont Gold Vodka distilled with maple sap, and Coppers Gin which is distilled with hand-picked wild Vermont juniper berries. Now, with its new location in Quechee, including a wide-open view of the distillery, the company is able to educate the public about the distilling process, and offer tastings to further promote its brand. It is one of 18 distilleries in the state that is licensed by the Vermont Department of Liquor Control to have a tasting room.
The craft spirit movement
“The craft spirit movement is pretty new,” said Buttenheim, who, as general manager, oversees much of the marketing and daily business operations at Vermont Spirits and has been with the company for three years. “So the idea that you can make vodka from apples, or from whey, or from maple…it’s pretty foreign to a lot of people. But, I think people are very receptive to it. And they’re excited that we’re using Vermont products to make our spirits.”
Vermont Spirits was originally established in early 1999, but didn’t release a real product until 2004. Between 2005 and 2008, the company saw some ups and downs but was completely revitalized when current president and CEO Steve Johnson, a former investor in the company, stepped in in late 2008. Johnson, a Columbia University graduate who has lived in Connecticut since 1992, says the company is doing better than ever at its new location.“Moving to Quechee Gorge Village was the smartest move we have made,” said Johnson. “The location could not be better for tourists to visit our distillery, and for our shipping and supply needs. I did not expect the business to grow as rapidly as it has since we moved here.”
Herrell, Vermont Spirits sales manager who has been with the company since its move from Barnet, also views the move to Quechee as a positive one.
“Before, there was no retail aspect; no visitors coming in. Being here has given us the opportunity to have people try something before they buy it and get them to understand what they’re buying,” he says.
Using local Vermont ingredients
Vermont Spirits’ key selling point is its use of local, Vermont agricultural products as well as its careful distilling process using custom-made equipment, which is spearheaded by two distillers, Joe Buswell and Harry Gorman. With a small operation, the distillers are able to give the products the attention and care they need.
“Everything we make comes from something grown in Vermont: maple for Vermont Gold Vodka, corn for our bourbon, apples for our brandy and Crimson Vodka, and fruit for our line of liqueurs,” said Johnson. “We start from scratch whenever possible, to create the base alcohol and then work from there. Vermont agriculture is excellent and we use it to distill what we hope our consumers think are excellent distilled spirits.”
With use of Vermont products, support of local businesses and having “Vermont” in its name, Vermont Spirits is fully representing its home state. Its smart utilization of the Vermont brand has been very beneficial for the company.
“I do a lot of traveling to other states and Vermont has a great brand and great brand recognition,” said Buttenheim. “People have really fond memories of traveling to Vermont. So when they can associate a spirit with a place and the fact that we’re using Vermont sugars essentially to influence our spirits, that really resonates with people.”
Buttenheim came to the company from the vineyard wine industry in Napa, California. While the process to make wine and spirits is similar, said Buttenheim, spirits are more marketing-driven and brand recognition is key.
“To get people to hang onto something there’s a lot more that goes into it in terms of marketing,” she said. “When you see the brand, you’re more likely to order it at a restaurant. If you’re sitting at a bar and you don’t know a spirit, unless it’s in a cocktail, very few people are just going to take a chance on it.”
In addition to the brand recognition from the Quechee store, Vermont Spirits promotes its brand in other ways, including offering tastings at festivals and Vermont liquor agency stores, and also frequently sponsoring events. This year, it sponsored events with the Vermont Ski Association and also plans to sponsor Vermont Restaurant Week. Vermont Spirits is also a member of the Distilled Spirits Council of Vermont which now offers a stampable “passport;” similar to the Vermont Brewers Association passport. The company does business with wholesalers in Maryland, Washington DC, New York City, Boston and more.
As the company continues to succeed at the new location and increase its brand recognition nationally, Johnson is already thinking about expanding the company. Johnson says he’s looking to open a second Vermont Spirits facility by early 2015 to accommodate new stills and product inventory. He’s also planning to hire three to four new employees. Currently, the company has six full-time employees and a few part-time bottlers.
“We are growing and will add new production capacity, storage and employees all very soon…not soon enough,” said Johnson.
Both Buttenheim and Herell said they were excited to see returning visitors this year and they hope the trend continues.
“We’ve seen people who came last year and then returned this year and this is now a regular stop for them. It’s great,” said Herell.
Locally, people can find Vermont Spirits’ products at nearby liquor stores including the Vermont Liquor Outlet, Woodstock Beverage, and Jake’s Market & Deli in White River Junction, or at local restaurants including Simon Pearce, The Parker House, Carpenter & Main in Norwich, and Canoe Club and Salt Hill Pub in Hanover.