ETNA, Maine — When Jesse Lupo was a student at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport in the 1980s, he wasn’t much for book learning.
Still, there were some books that proved fascinating to him: the Foxfire series, an anthology of articles about Appalachian culture written decades ago by high school students in Georgia. The books included how-to descriptions of skills such as basket weaving, soap making, wild food gathering — even snake handling — but what stayed in Lupo’s head was the chapter on making moonshine. Although moonshine, the clear, unaged whiskey, is now legally sold in the United States, the art of making moonshine, or illicit, high-proof spirits, plays an outsized role in mountain lore and American history. And all of that caught Lupo’s fancy as a young man.
“They talked about it like a fine art that was lost,” he said. “This is a very cool book, and has enough information to get a fire started in your belly.”
When Lupo turned 21, he followed the Foxfire directions for laying out and building a still from his great-grandmother’s 1-gallon pressure cooker. He added a copper liner and made a small batch of corn liquor, fermented thanks to wild yeast. Back then, Lupo didn’t know that this act of making liquor in a home still was and still is illegal. Fortunately, he didn’t get in trouble for his inadvertent law breaking. He just knew it was cool to make something himself and that the corn liquor that emerged from his homemade still was fun to drink.
“It was very unique,” he remembered.
His foray into the world of making moonshine did light a slow-burning fire in him. Decades later, the now 47-year-old Lupo is making a national name for himself with his company, Trident Stills. The custom stainless steel and copper stills and other he and his crew fabricate in a building on a quiet country road in Etna are found in nearly half of the distilleries in Maine as well as at distilleries in California, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, among other places. Altogether, 34 distilleries to date are using 42 of Trident’s stills to make spirits, with more orders in the pipeline. Lupo believes his is the only business that makes stills in Maine, and according to the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations that seems to be the case.
“We don’t do any advertising. It’s all word of mouth,” Kasey Fish, Lupo’s fiancee and office manager, said. “If you have the drive and the dedication and motivation, you really can do it — even something as niche as this and in such a tiny town.”
It took Lupo some time to figure out that making stills could be a viable career, though. He struggled in school and didn’t graduate, going back a few years later to get his G.E.D. College was not really on the table for him, but he was good at hands-on learning. Lupo became a welder and also worked as a technician in the biopharmaceutical industry, but it was when he was helping make alternative fuels for a Massachusetts-based company in the 2000s that his interest in making stills became rekindled. He talked to some of the engineers at the company and got ideas about how to design a good-sized still that could be manufactured in the United States. Then, in 2008, Lupo went to a distillery and saw the still there that had been imported from Europe at a jaw-dropping price of nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
“I said, ‘I could do this for you and for much cheaper,’” he told the distillers.
They told him they wished they had known that before importing their pricey setup, and that’s when Lupo figured he wouldn’t have a hard time finding customers if he went into business for himself. Still, it takes more than just welding skills to make a good distillery set-up, Lupo said. The business is highly regulated by the government, which wants to keep close tabs on all stills made and sold in the country so as not to lose out on any potential tax revenue. So he and Fish have to take care to dot all their I’s and cross all their T’s as they fabricate stills and other pieces used in distilleries. Their customers tend to be small craft distillers, who want to make something that tastes different and better than what is made by the larger corporations.
“If any of the larger distilleries are making ‘small batch,’ well, their idea of small batch and ours is very, very different. You’re talking about a firehose running versus a trickle,” he said. “It’s 900 bottles a week versus 900 bottles an hour.”
That’s something of a throwback to the pre-Prohibition days, when small distilleries dotted the nation. Lupo has heard that many Maine farms had a still set-up to make alcohol such as vodka from potatoes or brandy from apples. But after Prohibition, home-based stills remained illegal. While Americans are able to make a certain amount of beer and wine for home use, no one is allowed to make spirits at home without obtaining proper licenses. For many years, most American distilling was done by large companies that might have been focused on profit rather than craft, Lupo said. Those high-volume companies generally use grain-neutral spirits made at ethanol plants as a base to make the alcohol they sell.
The process of setting up a craft distillery is not for the faint of heart. Before a new business can get a license, they have to have the facility in place, which means the business has to spend a lot of capital before it will see a dime of profit. Still, more and more are opening up, as the “grain to glass” distillery movement takes hold. Smaller distilleries often make spirits the old-fashioned way, eschewing ethanol made from factories for apples, potatoes, corn, grain, molasses and other raw material that will become whiskeys, brandies, vodkas, rum and more.
“Every distillery I know works with local farmers and local grains,” Lupo said. “You’ll process that by cooking it and getting a sugar liquid.”
Then the mixture begins fermentation as yeast eats the sugar, leaving behind the byproducts of alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide and impurities are vented off, he said, and the alcohol is concentrated through the distilling process into what becomes the desired end product.
At one soon-to-open distillery in Gardiner using custom-designed Trident equipment, that end product will be rum. Dan Davis of Sebago Lake Distillery said that he learned about Trident Stills when he was taking a bourbon-making class in Kentucky and found that one of the stills at the distillery had been made in Maine.
“No kidding,” he remembered thinking, and when he and business partner Dave Tomer started to get their ducks in a row for their distillery, they gave Lupo a call. It was a good choice, Davis said.
“It’s nice equipment,” the distiller said, adding that Lupo has been very responsive as they get the distillery online. “I texted him at 6:30 this morning, and it was a nanosecond before my phone rang. He said ‘hey, what’s up?’”
Lupo, who prides himself on his customer service, said that he enthusiastically supports all his customers. He and Fish are planning to open their own, solar-powered distillery in Etna later this year, which will showcase whiskey, gin, rum and flavored vodkas. They are also hoping to be featured in a planned Netflix documentary about American whiskeys, which will be filmed this fall if the producer can get the financing squared away.
“We’re very excited about that,” Lupo said.
In other words, it’s a good time to be a craft distiller in America. The community of distillers is small and friendly right now, and there is a lot of room for growth. He and Fish are hoping that craft distilling will follow the same upward trajectory as Maine’s craft brewing movement.
“There’s not a lot of competition in this. People will work with each other,” Lupo said.
All in all, it’s not a bad life for a guy who was “definitely not voted most likely to succeed at anything” in high school, he said.
“You’ve got to figure out what you want to do, and don’t quit,” he said. “If you don’t quit, you won’t fail.”