OAKLAND, Maine — The biggest challenge when it comes to selling liquor made from maple syrup and apples is that most people expect it to be too sweet.
When folks take a sip of Tree Spirits’ new-to-the-market drinks — which include two liquors and two sparkling wines — the questions stop and the compliments begin, said the Oakland-based company’s founders.
“Most people are very enthusiastic about it,” said Steve Buchsbaum of Belgrade, who co-owns Tree Spirits winery and distillery with Bruce Olson of Waterville. “We hear over and over again people saying they can’t believe how smooth this is.”
Smooth is definitely a virtue when the conversation is about liquor that’s as strong as whiskey or gin, which is the case with Tree Spirits’ Applejack and Knotted Maple. The Applejack, perfectly clear in color with a faint scent of cider, has an understated fruitiness. The amber-colored Knotted Maple is closer to a Scotch whiskey in taste. Far from the intense sweetness of pure maple syrup, it has a pronounced woody flavor.
“Well, it does come from trees,” said Olson on Friday, tasting a small sample with Buchsbaum and a reporter.
The fledgling company’s Maple Demi-Sec sparkling wine is equally surprising in the balance it achieves between sweet and dry. Tree Spirits is so new that its inaugural Apple Extra Dry sparkling wine is still fermenting, a process that produces the faint hissing sound of yeast eating sugar when you press your ear against the stainless steel tank.
Last week, Tree Spirits sent its first batch of Applejack and Knotted Maple to Maine Beverage Co. for distribution to liquor dealers all over Maine. It marked a major milestone in the two-year process of going from what was a wine-making hobby for Olson to a fully permitted winery and distilling operation. The two men, who each hold other jobs, have been friends for more than 25 years.
“Bruce was making some pretty good wine,” said Buchsbaum.
“And Steve was a very enthusiastic taster,” said Olson.
After achieving good results with apples, the duo wondered how maple syrup would perform, so Olson tapped some trees in his backyard. The first batch was too sweet; they were looking for something for wine lovers, not dessert lovers. The next step was distilling the wine to satisfy drinkers of high-quality hard alcohol.
“We think we’ve hit a very good spot,” said Buchsbaum.
A few bottles of the various products have already been sent around for feedback. Buchsbaum and Olson are waiting to hear from the judges of a spirits competition in San Francisco, but have already received kind words from Florence Fabricant, an influential food and wine critic for The New York Times. Of the Knotted Maple she said, according to Buchsbaum: “It’s very nice, a tad spicy, a tad sweet and very pleasant drinking.”
Olson said he hopes to increase production in the coming year, though not the number of products. He and Buchsbaum are targeting small-scale retailers such as independent grocers and facilities that host weddings. They’re gearing up production so they have enough stock for what they expect will be a busy season leading into next Christmas. Their syrup comes from Bacon Farm Maple Products in Sidney and their raw cider comes from The Apple Farm in Fairfield.
Steven Meyerhans, owner of The Apple Farm and Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, said more people are making value-added products out of apples now than at any time during his 35 years in the apple business.
“There are people out there making a whole gamut of stuff,” he said. “This kind of thing, alcoholic beverages, seems to be getting a little traction. It’s a great outlet for the orchards to sell their cider-grade fruit.”
Shelley Bacon, owner of the Bacon Farm, said she’s proud to have her syrup used in Tree Spirits’ products.
“They gave us some of their Knotted Maple so we’d know where our product is going,” she said. “It tasted really good. We think it’s a pretty unique product.”
To buy Tree Spirits products, Buchsbaum suggested asking the local liquor store to order some. The wine products can be purchased directly through the winery by calling 873-0432 or visiting the website www.treespiritsofmaine.com. Tree Spirits is also on Facebook.