Small-batch distilleries resurrect an old craft
At nearly every point in history, alcoholic beverages played a role in civilizations across the globe. Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian cultures have documented evidence of fermented and distilled beverages as early as 800 BCE, made from ingredients like honey, rice, and fruits. Fast forward to 18th-century Britain, when parliament began incentivizing distillers to use grains to create their spirits, and inexpensive gin flooded the market. After attitudes and laws pertaining to alcohol consumption swung back and forth over the next 300 years, today, distilling is a $150-billion industry in the United States, and accounts for nearly a third of all alcoholic beverage sales. Here in Connecticut, two small-batch distilleries are doing their part to bring back the craft.
Bridgeport’s Asylum Distillery is the first of its kind to open in Fairfield County since prohibition. Co-owned by Southporters Robert and Bridget Schulten and Neil Doocy, they chose the Park City for its history of manufacturing, an abundance of available, affordable warehouse space, and the convenient location. Their “grain-to-bottle” process uses Connecticut-grown, non-GMO corn as the basis for small-batch whiskey, vodka, and an award-winning gin. “We wanted to go in with some sort of intention. Local ingredients add so much value to the product,” says Doocy. “The local concept really differentiates us from other distilleries.” Together, the trio is creating products that focus on flavor, resulting in “sippable” spirits.
There are two whiskeys currently in production, an unaged corn whiskey and “Fifth State” aged corn whiskey. The robust corn flavor is evident in both varieties, one clear, one oakey brown. “People have expectations of whiskey being dark, but it doesn’t have to be,” explains Robert Schulten, who also serves as master distiller. Always looking to the future, a Connecticut maple syrup-infused whiskey is currently in production and will be released this fall.
In its first year of production, Asylum’s gin was named the American Distilling Institute Craft Spirit silver-medal winner, for its bold, modern taste. It is vapor-infused with six botanicals giving it a strong but smooth flavor that holds up to mixers, but is also great straight. “All the bitterness is distilled out,” explains Schulten. “It has ‘happy flavor’ tastes!” The vodka is also corn-based, which makes it smoother than other vodkas. “It doesn’t burn and has a good ‘mouth feel’,” he says.
When brothers Jack, David, and Peter Baker launched Litchfield Distillery, it began as a side project. As the family behind Crystal Rock bottled water, the brothers started by batching two bourbons and one gin. Three years later, there are six bourbons, two gins, and three vodkas in their profile. “Craft distilleries can pay attention to a hundred more details than a huge distiller,” explains Jack. “We are passionate about it and are quality focused.”
Bourbon, which by law is aged in charred barrels that can only be used once, is a time-consuming process, but is at the heart of the Litchfield Distillery. Patience paid off when the original Batchers’ bourbon whiskey took home the silver medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Characterized by a 70 percent corn, 25 percent rye, and five percent barley mash, the two-step barreling process spends two to eight years in white oak casks. Other bourbons created by the micro-distillery include a double-barreled bourbon, ten-year cask-strength bourbon, and a Port cask infused bourbon. Newer to the line is vanilla Bourbon, which uses a whole vanilla bean in every bottle, and coffee Bourbon, which is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country. “I always enjoyed bourbon in my coffee,” Jack Baker says. “We decided to marry the two, using a Windsor, Connecticut-based coffee roaster. We’re getting great consumer reviews.”
In addition to bourbon is the small-batch gin, also a silver-medal winner at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The martini-grade gin is slightly on the sweet side but has a classic juniper flavor with citrus overtones. They recently introduced a barrel-finished gin as well, using their retired whiskey barrels which give it a subtle Bourbon taste and a slightly caramel color. Initially, the Bakers were not planning to make vodka, but after many requests, they added a100-percent corn vodka to the mix. Seasonal flavored vodkas use locally harvested fruits including apples and blueberries. “We are there all day long, watching and tasting,” says Baker. Visitors can do the same, by visiting the distillery’s tasting room, which is nestled in the hills of Litchfield.
Distilling has a long history in America, and after years of market domination by large-scale manufacturers, small-batch producers are having a renaissance. The number of Distilled Spirits Permits issued in the US has skyrocketed and currently there are about 1,000 craft distilleries operating nationally. Experts predict this number will double in the next five years, nipping at the heels of the craft-beer industry.
That’s the Spirit! Two Fairfield neighbors have joined forces to give back. Alex Mackiewicz, a hospitality expert, and Alex Plitsas, a veteran and first responder during 9/11, launched American Valor Spirits in July. For every bottle of American-made whiskey and non-GMO corn vodka sold, ten percent is donated to first responder and veteran’s charities. americanvalorspirits.com.