The juniper trees that grow on the 160-acre Hermon farm that’s been in Matthew Murphy’s wife’s family for six generations have run wild for decades, and are among the few stands of wild juniper in Maine.
Those trees are one of the reasons why Murphy, his father, Larry, and fellow business partner, James Beaupre, decided that they not only wanted to start a distillery, but that their main product would be gin flavored with their Maine-grown wild juniper berries.
Nearly five years after the idea for the distillery was conceived, Devil’s Half Acre Distillery’s first product, Jigger & Jones American Gin, hit shelves at liquor stores across Maine this week. The gin, flavored with juniper, coriander, citrus peel and other spices, herbs and botanicals, is made on site at the farm in Hermon.
“I’ve always had a passion for really good spirits, and I’ve always loved chemistry, and I’m also really into Maine’s farms and Maine-made products, so this hits all of that,” said Matthew Murphy, a U.S. Army veteran who is still in the National Guard. “And entrepreneurship really fits in with my military background. It all kind of comes together.”
Murphy met Beaupre, a Madawaska native and the University of Maine’s director of industrial cooperation at the Foster Center for Student Innovation, when he was in the French class Beaupre’s wife taught at UMaine. Though Beaupre’s background is in papermaking chemical processes, he has, like many Mainers, always had a side hustle — working as a chemistry consultant to distilleries across North America and Europe.
When Murphy mentioned his idea for a distillery, Beaupre jumped at the chance to stay in the spirits business but not have to hop on a plane every weekend to fly to his latest consulting gig. Murphy enlisted his New Hampshire-based father Larry, also a military veteran, who has more than 40 years’ experience in sales, marketing and advertising, as their marketing director, and the business was born.
“The market in Maine is ripe for a great gin,” Beaupre said. “We spent a lot of time blending all these different herbs and spices and botanicals until we got just the right well-balanced spirit. If you like gin, you’ll love it. If you don’t love gin, this could definitely be the one to make you feel otherwise.”
Starting a distillery wasn’t easy, however. The team first tried to get Devil’s Half Acre off the ground back in 2017 and 2018, but found that getting both the finances together and approvals at the municipal, state and federal levels was challenging. They shelved the idea for about two years — until the pandemic struck.
Murphy was called up by the National Guard to serve in a COVID-19 response unit in the Baltimore area. With so many changes happening so rapidly at all levels of society, he felt that it was now or never when it came to launching their business. This time, however, approvals and finances came together much more easily, and by October, they were getting ready to bottle their first gin.
“This time, the three of us working together really made it all happen in a very synergistic way,” Larry Murphy said. “The fact that we were able to get our product on shelves before the holidays was incredibly important, and we managed to pull it off.”
The name Jigger & Jones refers to two iconic Bangor-area historical figures: the lumberjack Albert “Jigger” Johnson, and Fan Jones, a legendary madam who operated a brothel during Bangor’s more salacious, freewheeling past. Both were known figures in the Devil’s Half Acre, Bangor’s red light district in the late 19th century, the namesake for the distillery.
Johnson, a real-life lumberman, fur trapper and fire warden, made a name for himself in the late 19th century as a hard-drinking, womanizing outdoorsman, felling trees and spitting tobacco all across Maine and New Hampshire. Though he was very much a real person, his exploits were often wildly embellished — that he was born with a peavey in his hand, for example, or that he could catch a bobcat with his bare hands. There’s a campground named for him in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest.
Jones, also a real person, in the 1860s and 70s operated arguably the most famous brothel in Bangor — the Sky Blue House of Pleasure, so-named for its chimney painted baby blue, so visiting lumbermen would know where to look when coming into town and looking for a certain type of companionship.
The history-referencing name — and the fact that the family farm where the distillery is located has been in the family for six generations, originally as a woodlot — speaks to the team’s emphasis on doing as much as possible locally.
“We’re the only distillery in the country that is using our own juniper berries to make gin, and we might be the only one in the world,” Matthew Murphy said. “The idea of revitalizing this farm is something that is really important to me. And I think we’ve made a gin that can compete with anything else on the market.”
Jigger & Jones American Gin is now available at more than 40 liquor stores across Maine, with more being added every day. A list of where to buy it will be available on the Devil’s Half Acre Distillery website .