GOULDSBORO, Maine — Anyone familiar with Maine-produced wines knows the name Bartlett Winery.
Tucked into the woods off Chicken Mill Pond Road, Maine’s first winery was founded in 1982. Its internationally known 17 varieties of wine and two types of mead are produced from Maine-grown apples, blueberries, pears, honey and loganberries.
But if you walk down the hill away from the winery, the tasting room and the casks of fermenting wines, you come upon a second business: There is an enormous copper still — an almost diving bell-like machine that looks like something out of a Jules Verne adventure novel.
Curving copper shapes, stainless steel tanks and yards of piping wind around, over and under the still, which is lovingly named “Lola.”
On a recent visit, the machinery bubbled and steamed and was busy producing rum made from locally grown pears.
“Taste this,” Bob Bartlett directs, offering a tiny bit of clear liquid in the bottom of a glass. Ten minutes later, the taster’s lips still tingle.
Far from being finished — 130 gallons of the rum will go through three tanks that Bartlett calls the head, the heart and the tail, before it is placed in oak casks to age for up to two years — the rum packs an amazingly potent punch in its raw state.
Although they still make their well-known fruit wines, Bob and Kathe Bartlett are stretching beyond just a winery into the world of distilling and producing a series of award-winning brandies, liquors and rums as Bartlett Spirit of Maine Distillery.
At New York City in March, the company’s Apple American Brandy (40 percent alcohol by volume), tied for third place, garnering 93 points out of a possible 100. Bartlett’s Pear American Brandy (also 40 percent alcohol) received 87 points, enough for a seventh place.
“This is quite an accomplishment,” Bob Bartlett said. He added there were 550 entries from 40 countries at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge in New York.
Bartlett’s Pear Eau de Vie also ranked at 92 points at a recent tasting in Chicago, rating a gold medal and the rank of exceptional.
At the 2010 International Eastern Wine Competition in New York, Bartlett earned a silver and a bronze rating for his American Apple Brandy and Pear Eau de Vie, respectively.
Turning his attention back to the rum in the still, Bartlett draws a taste off the tanks. He will do this every 15 minutes until he is satisfied with the product.
“There is some good alcohol in this batch,” he said, which means that since he has to cut the product to bring the alcohol content down, the yield will be high. The rum will be marketed at 80 proof. It is at 120 proof while being tested.
Winning awards will reap large benefits for out-of-state markets, Bartlett said. “We are getting major interest from California markets,” he said.
Bartlett returns to testing the rum.
The process began with two kinds of molasses: organic and sugar cane molasses. The thick syrup can be seen bubbling away as an agitator keeps the fruit pulp and molasses moving. The steam rises and condenses, then falls back into the still, which was custom made for Bartlett in Germany.
“The copper is vital to the process,” he said, “because the alcohol reacts with the copper.”
In the helmet of the still, or the “onion,” rectification takes place, whereby the alcohol is released from the ingredients and becomes vapor.
Once the rum is condensed to a certain point, Bartlett uses the stainless steel fraction tanks to move the rum through the final process. “Some of this is like alchemy,” he said. At each tank, Bartlett uses a hydrometer to check the alcohol level. The rum moves to the next tank when it reaches 85 percent alcohol.
“This is for sure more difficult than making Champagne,” Bartlett said. Tucked into the corner of the room are several 5-gallon glass jugs with cryptic labels. He said these were his “secret experiments” for product development.
The first distillery in Maine — Cold River in Freeport — produces vodka from Maine potatoes. “But I’m not interested in vodka,” Bartlett said. “This is a still created to keep the character of the fruits intact.”
By tweaking the heat, the cooling and the flow of cooling water into the product, Bartlett can control its flavor.
Each batch takes between five and six hours to complete, and at peak production, Bartlett can make two batches a day. He said he makes the brandy and rum each day, but after three days, he can no longer smell correctly.
“I have to ask Kathe to smell it for me,” he said.
Again, Bartlett turned to testing the rum. Clearly this is a man who has a passion for fine alcohol. He smelled the liquid, tasted the liquid and smiled.
“This is good,” he said.
Bartlett Winery is located off U.S. Route 1 in Gouldsboro. It is open from from June to Columbus Day, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Off-season appointments may be made by calling 546-2408 or through www.bartlettwinery.com.