For Jesse and Kacey Lupo, opening Mossy Ledge Spirits in Etna, their distillery and tasting room, has been a long labor of love.
But even though they will mark their one-year anniversary next month, the work hasn’t slowed down for the couple. In fact, they’re at the Lakins Road business almost all hours of the day, minus a few for sleeping, they said, but it’s all worth it.
As they surveyed the spacious tasting room, the shiny 600-gallon custom-made copper still, the barrels where whiskey and gin are being aged, and the neat rows of bottles that are ready to be filled with their spirits, Jesse Lupo couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s turned out exactly like we’d hoped,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Just a few years ago, he and Kacey were starting to make a name for themselves, both regionally and nationally, with their company Trident Stills. Their custom stainless steel and copper stills that they fabricate in Etna are used in distilleries all over Maine and as far away as California, Colorado and Kentucky.
Business is good, with their stills especially appealing to customers who belong to the nation’s growing small craft distillery movement. They could have stopped at making stills. But Jesse Lupo did not want to just support the craft distillery movement — he wanted to be part of it.
He and Kacey had an idea of the kind of place they wanted to create — homey, welcoming and comfortable — and the kind of spirits they wanted to make: smooth. They built a dirt road on a patch of land next to their still fabrication shop, and got to work building the perfect distillery and tasting room complex for their needs. It features a solar array on the roof to generate electricity that helps to power the building and a still large enough to let them make as much liquor as they figured they could sell.
And as they built the distillery, they worked to keep costs down and their focus local, providing Jesse Lupo some good stories to tell as he gives a guided tour through the building.
“We recycle and upcycle,” he said.
Tables in the tasting room are former computer tables from the University of Maine that the couple purchased for a bargain price. An old nurse’s station from Eastern Maine Medical Center provides a good spot to store instruments used to distill spirits, and a special machine they use to stick labels on the filled bottles came from a local woman who had a bittersweet story.
Ruby Davis and her late husband, Tom, of St. Albans, had dreamed of opening a winery together, but when he died, it never came to pass, Jesse Lupo said. She sold the labeling machine to the Lupos for what they could afford to pay — which was much less than what it cost, Jesse Lupo said.
He encouraged her to try selling it online to make more money, but she was undeterred.
“I almost cried,” he said.
The Lupos are looking local for their ingredients, as well. The maple syrup that gives their sipping whiskey, “Jester’s Best,” its subtly sweet flavor comes from Cider Hill Maple Farm in Exeter, run by one of their friends. And all the barley they use to make their spirits comes from Buck Farms and Maine Malt House in Mapleton.
“Their malt is becoming renowned around the country,” Jesse Lupo said, adding that he loves supporting local farms and businesses. “When I went out to work after high school, I had the choice of leave the state or stay and fight for scraps. It’s good to see these smaller businesses keeping Maine people in Maine.”
But all of that focus on buying local and on creating the perfect distillery and tasting room would be worth little if the spirits made here were blah or terrible. Luckily for the Lupos and for Mainers who enjoy sipping whiskey, sampling cordials or mixing cocktails with artisanal gin or rum, they are not. They are smooth, full of flavor and do not burn going down, just the way Jesse Lupo likes it.
“Almost all of your commercial brands have a burn to them,” he said. “That’s where craft does well. I can control the product.”
When they opened the tasting room to customers last May, they were not exactly sure how it would go. Etna, about half an hour west of Bangor, is definitely off the beaten track. But so far, so good, the Lupos said. People came, took a tour of the distillery and sampled the spirits.
And many went home and asked their agency liquor stores to carry the brand. Right now, Mossy Ledge Spirits can be purchased in 49 different retail locations, as far north as Caribou and as far south as Portland, and the Lupos credit that list to the enthusiastic customers who have sampled their wares and ask their local retailers to sell them.
“What makes it worthwhile is just knowing people love our product,” Kasey Lupo said. “It makes you feel good.”
The best seller right now is toasted coconut cordial, a 40-proof spirit derived from their double-distilled, carbon-filtered vodka. There are other flavored cordials, including Jesse Lupo’s own favorite, pineapple, and cherry, amaretto, sweet tea, cinnamon and peppermint. As well, they sell pure, unflavored vodka, Jester’s Best flavored whiskey and expect to have dark rum, gin and an unflavored whiskey available soon.
It’s all in a day’s work for the couple, Jesse Lupo said, adding that that’s a good thing.
“My job doesn’t seem a lot like a job,” he said.