To In’finiti and Beyond
The evolution of craft distilling in Maine
When In’finiti Distillation & Fermentation opens this month on Portland’s waterfront, the locavore movement in Maine will have reached its highest incarnation to date.
Guided by the vision of 32-year-old Yarmouth native Eric Michaud — proprietor of Novare Res Bier Café, the craft beer mecca in the Old Port — In’finiti is the first restaurant of its kind in Maine, and one of only a handful nationwide. It’s a brewery, distillery and eatery where patrons will soon be able to enjoy food, beer and cocktails entirely crafted within their range of sight.
“Obviously we won’t be growing our own food,” Michaud acknowledged during an interview last month, as workers hammered and sawed wooden railings and tables in the restaurant’s handsome space at the foot of Union Wharf on Commercial Street, “but we’re going to source our food as locally and organically as possible. If you’re eating a lobster, it might’ve come right out of Casco Bay, right to the back door. If you’re having a pint of beer, it was brewed right here on-premise. If you’re having a cocktail, every ingredient in that cocktail was made here. So if there’s three or four different alcohols in that, we made it. If it’s a gin martini, we made the gin and the vermouth.”
As patrons enter In’finiti, the first thing they’ll see is the gleaming copper pot still made by the German company Kothe Destillationstechnik, which Michaud picked up secondhand in (of all places) Nagasaki. Joined by his brother Ian, who left a career as a Broadway stagehand and set carpenter to become a distiller, Michaud will start making bourbons, which need time to age in barrels before consumption, then get going on the clear liquors that have a far shorter turnaround time, like gin and white rum.
The still is not the type commonly used by distillers to make vodka, but Michaud plans to make a basic, low-grade house vodka for well drinks by refining neutral grain spirits, rather than concocting the liquor from scratch. Customers who want a high-grade sipping vodka will be able to order Maine-made Twenty 2 or Cold River vodka at In’finiti. The Michaud brothers will also be trying their hands at all manner of mixers and specialty spirits: absinthe, aperitifs, bitters and herbal liqueurs.
Creativity and collaboration are likewise the bywords on the brewing side of the operation. In’finiti will have 16 taps: eight for its own brews, and eight guest taps featuring craft beer from Maine and away. Customers can expect a wide and wild variety of styles, including one-of-a-kind brews Michaud will make in partnership with fellow brewers.
The restaurant’s name was inspired by the fundamental connections between food, beer and booze — the way grains, for example, can be fermented to make beer, which can be distilled to make hard alcohol. “It’s not the word ‘infinity,’ it’s the symbol of it,” Michaud said. “That figure eight … crossing things over from the kitchen to the brewery to the distillery, and everything’s interconnected.”
The connections also allow an operation like this to economize. “A lot of the breweries and brewpubs I enjoy going to in Germany also have a small still,” Michaud said. “They essentially use it to cut waste — they make a bad batch or a batch goes wrong or they just have some dregs or whatever, they can distill that and get a schnapps out of it. It’s kind of waste not, want not. We have the opportunity to do that. If a batch of beer doesn’t quite go right, instead of dumping it down the drain, we distill it out.”
Michaud believes the craft distilling renaissance now underway in Maine, itself an outgrowth of the craft beer craze, is a natural progression of the locavore movement — the desire of a growing number of people to consume food and drink originating close to home. It’s about “getting back to basics and just turning things back locally, small batches,” he said. “And most people are drinking [alcohol] while they’re eating, so now people are stepping away from the food and looking at, What else am I consuming?
“The craft beer scene is pretty big, and that’s been a great movement,” he continued. “The next step is just booze. It makes sense.”
— Chris Busby
Beyond the hype: Maine booze reviewed
Medals and awards from contests few people have heard of aren’t worth much. How do Maine’s micro-distilled liquors stack up against the national brands in terms of taste and value? And how well do they play with the mixers people most commonly imbibe them with? I recently set out to find out.
First up was Twenty 2 Vodka. The recipient of nine medals over the past four years, including a “double gold” at last year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Twenty 2 is marketed as “America’s Most Awarded Vodka.” I didn’t waste any time researching that claim, but after one sip I believed it.
Twenty 2 is a medium-bodied vodka with an impeccable neutrality. Its crisp, dry, purely alcohol taste is nothing short of extraordinary — a smooth, full burn from the tip of your tongue to the back of your mouth. Founders Scott Galbiati and Jessica Jewell have created a corn-based vodka that belongs in every Maine drinker’s cabinet or freezer. The couple’s goal was not to reinvent the spirit, but to perfect the process by which it’s made. They micro-distill in custom-designed, 50-gallon pot stills at their Houlton headquarters. Twenty 2 immediately became one of my favorite vodkas, and I’m astonished it went unnoticed right under my nose for so long.
Next up was Maine Distilleries’ flagship product, Cold River Vodka. Founded in 2005, this Freeport-based company was at the forefront of the craft distilling resurgence in Maine, and as a result, Cold River is the most recognizable local liquor label in town. It’s also been the recipient of many awards, including the prestigious double gold at the San Francisco competition, in 2008. The only “ground-to-glass” distillery in America, according to its website, Maine Distilleries controls every aspect of its product’s creation, starting with the potato seeds planted at Green Thumb Farms in Fryburg.
In press materials, Maine Distilleries asserts that the major vodka producers blend in additives that make their products taste “too think and sweet to be natural.” Cold River lacks sweetness, but it’s still quite thick, and it has a starch that is palpable. This vodka has a consistency similar to Barton (the well vodka in many Portland bars). It’s so visibly thick at chilled temperatures that it leaves an even swirl on the glass. As a mixer, this isn’t a bad quality, but in a martini, it’s too much weight. Compare this to Grey Goose, a grain vodka commonly found on the top shelf. Goose is light and bright, with no base starchiness and a subtle burn that stays with you for only a moment, even with no chaser.
Cold River has a nutty undercurrent, as well. It’s peculiar to have so much going on in a spirit that’s supposed to lack any taste or scent. The distillers seem to have been more interested in making a Maine vodka than a superior vodka, a suspicion backed up by the subsequent introduction of a blueberry-infused version.
Maine Distilleries’ Cold River Gin, introduced in 2010, is another story. This is one of the tastiest offerings produced in the Pine Tree State. The gin has a full, biting nose with an earthy boutique. You notice the scent of alcohol as well as the juniper as the burn presents itself at the back of your throat.
I put Cold River Gin up against Hendrick’s, a top-shelf spirit in quite a few Portland establishments. Hendrick’s has a much more focused nose — it’s light and airy, and gives away its texture even before it hits your lips. Cold River is clearly broader and, to my palette, more satisfying, with a cleaner finish. It’s refreshing and exciting with a light mixer, like tonic, or neat. The alcohol in Hendrick’s is tightly packed behind a botanical flavor that leaves a floral, almost soapy taste in your mouth. Cold River has a full flavor that never overpowers or hides the fact it’s an adult beverage.
Sticking with gins, next up was New England Distilling’s Ingenium. Established in 2011 and based in Portland, New England Distilling presently has a gin and a rum, with a rye whiskey on the way. Trying Ingenium for the first time, I noticed the hint of a pungent odor. On the tongue, this manifested as a subtle sourness I found unpleasant. (The bottle indicated this was batch #3, so results may vary.)
I subsequently discovered Ingenium’s chameleon-like aspect. As I was tasting a sample at room temperature at Boda, the Thai restaurant on Congress Street, I was amazed by the influence the scent of spices in passing dishes had on Ingenium’s profile. The gin finishes with a plucky, peppery aftertaste that almost makes up for its initial sourness.
Maine Distilling’s rum, Eight Bells, is named after a Winslow Homer painting. The sample I had, from batch #1, had a punchy nose and a punchy mouth. It’s all attack, as any rum will be with too much proof and too little time in the barrel. Eight Bells has a light caramel color, but a distinct lack of sweetness. These qualities don’t make for a good sipping rum.
I guessed Eight Bells’ saving grace could be as a mixing rum, its full mouth able to stand up to acidic juices and cola, so I made an Eight Bells Rum and Coke with a healthy squeeze of lime. Sadly, the bright, attacking nose of the Eight Bells overpowers the crispness of Coke, and the body muddles with the sweetness poorly.
Compare Eight Bells to a product like Mount Gay, with its smooth, sweet finish and nose that smells like grandma’s just-emptied candy jar. There’s nothing punchy about Mount Gay. It doesn’t have a lot of personality. But it’s an easy drink, which is why it’s so popular in bars across Maine. And the price is significantly less than Eight Bells.
Price is, unfortunately, a big factor when you’re considering any of Maine’s micro-distilled contenders against the big-name brands. With some bottles exceeding $40, including the governor’s cut, you have to have a genuine fondness for local hooch to justify the expenditure.
With the notable exception of the flavorless Twenty 2 vodka, the micros’ unique flavor profiles generally don’t blend well into traditional drinks. The websites of some Maine distillers offer innovative cocktail recipes that accentuate the particular qualities of their booze. But who wants a $40 bottle of gin that’s not palatable when you add tonic and lime? In two years it’ll be three-quarters full and coated with dust on top of the fridge, behind your George Foreman grill. Hardly a prudent investment.
The brandies produced by Bartlett Maine Estate Winery, in Gouldsboro, and Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery, in Union, exemplify the cost conundrum. Available in 375 ml. bottles, they range in price from $30 to $35 — about the same as most other Maine liquors, but those come in 750 ml. bottles.
Of course, an exceptional product justifies an exceptional expense. So I gave these brandies a try.
Sweetgrass is Maine’s most diverse distillery. They’ve got wines, bitters, brandies, gins, a rum and vermouth. I tried their Apple Brandy, which has a light nose of sweet apple. The burn of the alcohol is very bright, which in the initial sip can be a bit too biting. There is only a subtle McIntosh undercurrent. The flavor is pleasant but not very complex. I thought it tasted more like a rum than a brandy.
Bartlett’s new Pear Brandy scored double gold in San Francisco two years ago. I can understand why. It has a sweet, distinct finish. The pear fights valiantly against the alcohol, which, like the Sweetgrass brandy, burns a bit too brightly for what is typically a sipping drink. That said, once your mouth becomes accustomed to that, the reward pays off.
On balance, both Sweetgrass and Bartlett are making good brandies, but I’ll wait until the state liquor contract battles shake out before putting either on my shopping list.
— Carl Currie