Water, water everywhere, and oh, so much to drink.
The water that flows through the city of Houlton’s pipes is some of the cleanest, best tasting in the state. It’s lifeblood for Scott Galbiati and Jessica Jewell. Besides using it for normal, everyday purposes, the couple take cold, pure, Houlton water straight from the tap and turn it into liquid gold.
Vodka, to be exact — Twenty 2 Micro Distilled Vodka has been Galbiati and Jewell’s pet project since they were students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. They’re now married, year-round residents of Houlton, a stone’s throw from Jewell’s hometown of Monticello.
At their distillery headquarters, located near the Houlton International Airport, the pair make smooth-as-silk grain vodka in 50-gallon batches, created in a self-designed, Maine-made still. Twenty 2 Vodka is available at bars, restaurants and liquor stores all over the state, from the Houlton IGA to restaurants in Bangor, Lewiston and Portland.
“Small batches, handmade. That was the original plan,” said Galbiati, 27. “We wanted to be absolutely sure that we’re making the best vodka we possibly can.”
Their high-end brand was originally conceived back in 2004, as a senior project for Gabiati, who studied product design and marketing at Rensselaer. Jewell studied chemical engineering.
“I took a class in product design, and our final project was to create a full business plan for a business,” said Galbiati, who is originally from New Jersey. “This was back in 2004. At that time, high-end vodkas were just becoming all the rage. So that was my plan. So by the end of the class, we already had a full business plan ready.”
After Galbiati and Jewell graduated college and married, they moved to western Maine. The entrepreneurial dreams were set on the back burner, as the couple took full-time jobs. Over the holidays of 2005, however, two very important things happened, almost simultaneously.
“Both Scott’s grandfather and my cousin John asked if we were serious about starting a vodka distillery,” said Jewell, also 27. “After we talked, they both invested in the company. It was definitely a pivotal moment in our lives. And we’ve been working on it ever since.”
Starting in early 2006, Galbiati and Jewell quit their jobs and began the process of starting up their business. While getting a license for a winery or brewery is, relatively speaking, not uncommon, getting the license for a distillery is a much more involved process. According to federal law, a person can brew up to 100 gallons of beer on their own, or 200 gallons if two adults are present in a household. A person also can make up to 5 gallons of wine. Any more than those amounts, and a license is needed.
A person cannot under any circumstances distill any amount of spirits without a license. It took Galbiati and Jewell about three years to get the OK to start making Twenty 2.
“Maine enacted statewide prohibition before it was in the Constitution,” said Galbiati. “They were slow to join back into allowing alcohol after Prohibition ended. There’s a long history of conservative attitudes towards alcohol in this state. Up until the mid-’90s, there were still some towns that didn’t allow you to buy alcohol on Sundays.”
They did not receive final approval from the state until the summer of 2009. Though they had lots of business expenses to pay before they could set up shop, they could not make an actual product to show banks and other investors until just last year.
“It’s akin to asking a bank for a loan to open up a taxicab business, but you don’t have a car or a driver’s license or anything,” said Galbiati. “You can see how some would be hesitant to give you money for something you’ve never actually done before.”
The couple persevered. With Jewell’s chemical engineering skills and Galbiati’s marketing muscle, the pair knew that when that first batch of vodka came out of the distiller and into a bottle, it would be only a matter of tweaking a few things to make the spirit they wanted to sell. Besides, they’re two people who love their vodka.
“It’s about 90 percent science and 10 percent art,” said Jewell. “We’re really lucky that we have such high-quality water right here in Houlton, and that we have the background that allows us to understand exactly what makes a vodka taste good.”
In their opinion, the best vodka tastes like — well, nothing. That first official batch of Twenty 2 Vodka back in September was the result of many hours of trial and error, working to get the sharp alcohol taste, or “character,” of the vodka to a minimum.
More than 100 vodka brands are now nationally distributed, from well-known labels such as Absolut and Grey Goose to the other Maine-made vodka, Cold River. Galbiati and Jewell believe their brand sticks out not only because it’s made in Aroostook County, but also because their focus was simply on making their vodka as smooth as possible.
“Ideally, a vodka should taste as close to pure water as possible,” said Galbiati. “All these flavored vodkas have really jumped the shark. There’s bubble gum-flavored vodka now. I think that’s gross. Really good vodka is just clean and pure and smooth.”
As for their brand name, Jewell and Galbiati admit that, originally, the name for the vodka was Jewell Vodka. But a company out West already had a copyright on that name, so it was back to the drawing board. The couple decided to get a bit more abstract.
“We talked about doing Aroostook Vodka or Katahdin Vodka, but those are so obvious. We figured, let’s pick a word that can be freely associated with anything,” said Galbiati. “Twenty 2 could be anything. It could be your address, your birthday, a sports jersey. It can mean anything to anyone. It sticks in your mind. Plus, the alliteration is nice. A Twenty 2 and tonic sounds good.”
Every few weeks, Galbiati and Jewell get experimental in their tasting bar at the distillery. The 3 O’Clock Cocktail, as they call it, is a chance for them to put their vodka to the test, concocting new drinks and sharing them with their more than 1,000 fans on Facebook. A couple favorites? The Honey Orange Baked Apple and the Twenty 2 Touch of Class Martini.
The pair admits they’re still in the early stages, though last month Twenty 2 Vodka was awarded the bronze medal for vodka in the 2009 World Spirits Competition. The next big step for them will be to use what Aroostook County is perhaps most famous for: potatoes, for potato vodka.
“We are still working on our potato vodka,” said Galbiati. “We have an endless supply of them right outside our door, and we can’t wait to get our recipe right. But we’re not going to start marketing it until we’re completely sure it’s perfect.”
For a full list of places where Twenty 2 Vodka is available, visit www.twenty2vodka.com, or become a fan of Twenty 2 Vodka on Facebook.