Distilled to Perfection: Maine’s wineries & distilleries take craft production to award-winning heights

By Lisa Wolff

Cellardoor Winery is located in a beautifully restored 200-year-old farm in Lincolnville. PHOTO: John Finch

Cellardoor Winery is located in a beautifully restored 200-year-old farm in Lincolnville. PHOTO: John Finch

Fancy a gin martini flavored by a hint of sea air? Seeking a sip of a sparkling sour apple and pear sangria? Have a hankering for a blueberry pancake on the rocks?

A growing network of talented craft distillers and wineries throughout the state are making delectable cocktails  like these not only possible, but also very local and of award-winning quality. According to the Maine Winery Guild, Maine has 27 licensed wineries and distilleries with annual production of more than 100,000 cases of locally produced products. From Portland’s “East end” to the coastal blueberry fields Downeast, the state’s wineries and distilleries are united by a passion for preserving the best of Maine’s soil and sea in a bottle.

Maine may not be as well known as Napa Valley or Kentucky in the class of world-renowned American wine and spirits (yet). However, a few dozen passionate experts are building upon the state’s deep-seated reputation for quality food and beer, putting “vacationland” on the wine and spirits map.

“The strength of Maine’s brand is rooted in the talent of its craft producers. Take craft beer, for example,” said Ben Alexander, owner of Maine Mead Works and president of the Maine Winery Guild. “Wine and spirits take that craft a step further. Based on Maine’s brand, we can make really great peach, apple and blueberry wines from native fruits of the state. We have some good grape producers, too.”

Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery’s Back River Gin, for example, was recently named one of the top two gins ever made in America by Spirit Journal. Its intriguing sweet-salty ocean air flavor is distilled from its signature ingredient — blueberries — grown on the Union farm only 17 miles from the sea. Sweetgrass produced about 3,000 cases of Back River Gin in 2013 and it’s the top seller yearround. It can be purchased at liquor stores across the state, on the farm in Union, or in Sweetgrass’ tasting room in Portland’s Old Port.

Sweetgrass is one of Maine’s more mature distilleries, founded in 2005 with other pioneers like Maine Distilleries. Freeport-based Maine Distilleries has also earned such esteemed titles as “No. 1 vodka in the world” by Wine Enthusiast magazine for its Maine potato-based Cold River vodka, among others.

Sweetgrass was the first small distiller in the state to evolve out of an existing winery. “Since then, wineries are more commonly becoming a winery / distillery combination,” said Maine Winery Guild President Ben Alexander.

Tree Spirits crafts sparkling wines and spirits from apples, pears and maple syrup harvested within an 8-mile radius of the Oakland-based distillery and tasting room. PHOTO: John Finch

Tree Spirits crafts sparkling wines and spirits from apples, pears and maple syrup harvested within an 8-mile radius of the Oakland-based distillery and tasting room. PHOTO: John Finch

Savage Oakes Vineyard and Winery is one of very few wineries using Maine-grown grapes. Savage Oakes, founded in 2002, grows 10 varieties of cold-hardy hybrid wine grapes, making it the largest grape crop in the state. The vineyard has been producing wine from its own grapes since 2005 and offers the largest selection of estate grown grape wines in Maine, according to Holly Savage, who runs the vineyard with her husband Elmer and their two sons in Union.

Meanwhile, newer up-and-comers such as the two-year-old Maine Craft Distilling in Portland’s “East end” and four-year-old Tree Spirits Winery and Distillery in Oakland, are making their own craft spirits with less traditional fruits of the earth, such as Maine barley and maple.

In comparison, wineries have a longer history in the state, with companies like Bartlett Maine Estate Winery dating back more than 30 years. Bartlett opened in 1983 with 8 wines produced from native Maine fruits. Having produced 600 gallons a year then, the company has since expanded to include 20 varieties of fruit wines, selling 7,000 cases a year at its winery and in specialty stores and some supermarkets across the state.

LOCALS SUPPORTING LOCALS

On a visit to Maine Craft Distilling’s Portland tasting room, Chief Distiller Luke Davidson proudly shared a video of a northern Maine barley grower using old-fashioned horse-drawn farm equipment. As Davidson held up a bottle of his 50 Stones single-malt whiskey, he said: “This is as Maine as it gets.”

Davidson, who grew up on a farm in rural Maine, appreciates helping farmers increase their yield and their profit. Barley has traditionally been grown as a potato cover crop and sold off as hay. Enterprising farmers have discovered more value by growing higher quality barley for export to Molson and the Canada Malt Company for beer production. Davidson likes doing his part to keep the barley in-state.

Draft horses in northern Maine harvest barley for use in Maine Craft Distilling spirits. PHOTO: Luke Davidson

Draft horses in northern Maine harvest barley for use in Maine Craft Distilling spirits. PHOTO: Luke Davidson

The Maine connection between beer and distilled spirits goes beyond barley. New England Distilling Company’s whiskey and gin, for example, are fermented with yeast harvested from Maine Beer Company’s Mean Old Tom and Zoe beers. Not only is the yeast ultra local to Portland, it is also zero waste. Working farms / wineries / distilleries like Sweetgrass also benefit from zero waste production. “We can use all of the ‘leave’ and put it back in the fields and garden,” said Candace.

Many distillers and wineries are making a niche by building collaborations with farmers or other ingredient suppliers across the state. The “farm to flask” concept is a cornerstone of Maine Craft Distilling’s mantra and signature product offering. Case in point is Blueshine, a white whiskey distilled from Maine blueberries, Brunswick barley, and Unity maple syrup. Davidson affectionately refers to it as “liquid pancakes.”

At Tree Spirits Winery and Distillery, Bruce Olson procures the apple and pear ciders and maple syrup used in his wines and spirits within an 8-mile radius of the Oakland-based distillery and tasting room. His apple and maple sparkling ciders have won gold awards in the San Francisco Wine and Spirits competition. But he also makes a mean maple spirit that shines in his signature hot buttered maple cocktail. At press time, he expected by early summer to release his own absinthe and a sour apple sangria mix to blend with his pear sparkling cider.

One of the best examples of “locals supporting locals” is Sweetgrass. This winery / distillery takes the cake—or the Maine fruit bowl, as it were—for having used 70,000 pounds of fruit in its fruit wines and distilled spirits in  2013. The winery and distillery sources the fruit from its own farm and from a network of local farmers in the surrounding area.

DESTINATION TASTINGS

Sweetgrass’ Back River Gin was recently name one of the top two gins ever made by Spirit Journal. The Cranberry Gin offers a unique twist on the original. PHOTO: John Finch

Sweetgrass’ Back River Gin was recently name one of the top two gins ever made by Spirit Journal. The Cranberry Gin offers a unique twist on the original. PHOTO: John Finch

Sweetgrass opened a second tasting room in Portland’s Old Port on Valentine’s Day this year to bring its local flavors to a more convenient southern Maine location. Sweetgrass may have started out as a destination winery/distillery, but its brand in a bottle is all about taste.

“Everything is ‘over-the-top’ flavor,” said Owner Candace Bodine. “There is something for everyone; all of our products have different flavor profiles.”

Bodine’s husband Keith is a master enologist and graduate of the University of California at Davis. Having conducted his thesis on sensory research, Keith is the nose and taste buds behind Sweetgrass’ award-winning wines and spirits. “This is not your uncle Bob’s fruit wine,” said Candace. (One taste of Bleujolais, a “vibrant young blueberry wine,” and this foodie writer knew precisely what she meant.)

Speaking of destination wineries, Cellardoor in Lincolnville and Rockport, also harkens to a vision of being a working farm and winery. Owner Bettina Doulton not only invites guests to taste the wine but to also learn about its production from farm to glass.

Cellardoor has significant space on-site in the beautifully restored 68-acre, 200-year-old farm in Lincolnville to offer “edutainment.” This ranges from cooking and winemaking classes and dinners with celebrity Maine chefs to VIP tours and private weddings. Cellardoor wines are primarily made with grapes from California, Washington and New York, however Bettina has a goal to eventually use at least 20 percent Maine fruits in every product.

Grape-growing conditions in the state have presented distinct challenges to local vineyards. New red and white hybrids in use at Cellardoor have been researched and perfected at Cornell University to work with Maine’s climate and “are looking very promising,” said Doulton. Maine fruit and grape-based staples in the line include blueberry dessert wines and an estate sparkling rose released at this year’s “pop for change” fundraiser in Rockport in June.

While many of the distilled spirits can be bought in local liquor stores, many small-batch wineries sell their wares only on site in their tasting rooms, in restaurants or in specialty markets. Therefore, visiting the farms can also come with a “thrill of the hunt” and opportunity to grab limited-edition wines while they’re ripe for the picking. Sweetgrass’ maple smash, for example, is “a smashing hit,” said Candace, and always sells out by the end of its June through September run.

The Maine Winery Guild has made it easy for tourists to experience the farms, vineyards and tasting rooms of its 24-member wineries and distilleries by publishing the Maine Wine Trail Map & Guide. The printable guide to 20 different wineries, distilleries and fermentories is available online at www.mainewineryguild.com/trailmap/.

 

LisaWolff_HeadshotLisa Wolff has enjoyed nature and “tastes” as a resident of Maine for 33 years. She enjoys the spirit of discovery through the senses, with a particularly keen interest in food writing and healthy eating. Lisa’s writing has appeared in Gourmet News and the Portland Press Herald, Go magazine, and a variety of business communications.

 

DIRECTORY

1 2014-GHM-Cover.inddMany of the spirits listed here can be purchased at Maine liquor stores across the state. Wines are often only available for purchase on site in the wineries or distilleries that often have their own tasting rooms. Here’s a guide to help you take home a taste of Maine in a bottle.

Bartlett Spirits of Maine Distillery
174 Chick Mill Road, Gouldsboro
bartlettwinery.com
Products: Pear, peach, blueberry and blackberry wines, mead, aged apple brandy, rum, spirits and fruit liqueurs.
Tasting room: open Jun–Oct or offseason by appointment.

Bar Harbor Cellars
854 State Highway 3, Bar Harbor
barharborcellars.com
Products: grape wines, fruit wines
Hours: 10 am – 5 pm, 7 days a week

Blacksmiths Winery
967 Quaker Ridge Road, South Casco
blacksmithswinery.com
Products: sparkling and white blueberry wines
Hours: 11 am – 6 pm, 7 days a week

Breakwater Vineyards
35 Ash Point Drive – Owls Head
375 Maine Street – Rockland
breakwatervineyards.com
Products: estate wines from local grapes
Hours: 12 – 5 pm daily, call for Rockland hours

Catherine Hill Winery
661 Blackwoods Road, Cherryfield
cathillwinery.com
Products: grape and berry wines
Hours: call for hours, open early May-Oct

Bettina Doulton of Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville. Offering wine tastings daily from 11 am – 6 pm. PHOTO: John Finch

Bettina Doulton of Cellardoor Winery
in Lincolnville. Offering wine tastings daily from 11 am – 6 pm. PHOTO: John Finch

Cellardoor Winery / The Villa
The Vineyard – 367 Youngtown Road, Lincolnville
The Villa – 47 West Street, Rockport
mainewine.com
Products: estate rose, blueberry and maple dessert wines
Hours: 11 am – 6 pm daily

Dragonfly Farm & Winery
1069 Mullen Road, Stetson
mainewinegrower.com
Products: estate grape and fruit wines
Hours: Thu–Sat 10 am – 6 pm

Fat Friar’s Meadery
39 Meadow Ridge Lane, Newcastle
thefatfriarsmeadery.comProducts: mead
Hours: call ahead

Luke Davidson of Maine Craft Distilling. Offering spirit tastings Tue- Sat afternoons. PHOTO: John Finch

Luke Davidson of Maine Craft Distilling. Offering spirit tastings Tue- Sat afternoons. PHOTO: John Finch

Maine Craft Distilling
101 Fox Street, Portland
mainecraftdistilling.com
Products: gin, rum, vodka, blueshine
Hours: Tu–Thu 1 – 5 pm, Fri–Sat 12 – 6 pm

Maine Distilleries / Cold River Vodka
437 Route 1, Freeport
coldrivervodka.com
Products: potato vodka, Cold River Blueberry Flavored Vodka and Cold River Gin

Maine Mead Works
51 Washington Avenue, Portland
mainemeadworks.com
Products: mead, fruit mead, lavender mead
Hours: Mon-Sat 11 am – 5 pm, tours at 3

New England Distilling
26 Evergreen Drive, Unit B, Portland
newenglanddistilling.com
Products starring New England grains: Gunpowder Rye Whiskey, Ingenium Dry Gin
Distillery tours: Mon-Fri 12 – 4 pm, Sat 10 am – 4 pm Tastings: Tues-Fri 12 – 5 pm

Northern Maine Distilling Co.
55 Baker Blvd. Ste 22, Brewer
twenty2vodka.com
Products: micro-distilled corn vodka 

Prospect Hill Winery
318 Orrills Hill Road, Lebanon
prospecthillwines.com
Products: grape wines
Hours: tours and tastings on Sun 1 – 5 pm

Savage Oakes Vineyard & Winery
174 Barrett Hill Road, Union
savageoakes.com
Products: grape wines
Hours: call ahead 

Shalom Organic Orchard Farm and Winery
158 Eastbrook Road (Rte 200), Franklin
shalomorchard.com
Products: organic fruit wines, mead, maple wines
Hours: call ahead, “farm stay” accommodations also available

Sweetgrass Farm & Distillery / Portland Old Port Tasting Room
347 Carroll Road, Union
324 Fore Street, Portland
sweetgrasswinery.com
Products: gin, fruit wines, fruit brandy, vermouth, bitters, whiskey in the works
Hours: Open daily 11 am – 5 pm, every day in Union; Portland tasting room open Thu–Sat 11 am – 6 pm, Sun 12 – 5 pm.

Tree Spirits
152 Fairfield Street, Oakland
treespiritsofmaine.com
Products: maple, apple and pear wines, apple jack, maple spirits “brandy,” absinthe and sangria mix in the works
Tastings: Wed-Sun, 12 – 5:30 pm or by appointment

Two Hogs Winery
186 Mudget Hill Road, Vassalboro
twohogswinery.comProducts: fruit and grape wines
Hours: call ahead

Winterport Winery and Penobscot Bay Brewery
279 South Main Street, Winterport
winterportwinery.com
Products: fruit wines
Hours: Fri and Sat, 11 am – 5 pm

Younity Winery & Vineyards
317 Albion Road, Unity
younitywinery.com
Products: fruit and grape wines, including pumpkin and rhubarb
Hours: call ahead

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