A new distillery in downtown Rockland is making aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian distilled spirit. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― If your bar cart staples are getting a little stale and you’re looking for a different ― yet locally made ― spirit to spice things up, a new nano-distillery in downtown Rockland might have something to pique your interest.

Aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian distilled spirit.

Luce Spirits earned state approval earlier this month to sell its Maine-made brand of aquavit, Aquiline Vitae. The aquavit is the first of several herbal distilled spirits that co-owners Nate Luce and Justine Kablack plan to produce and sell at their small distillery and tasting room on Main Street.

The new distillery will focus primarily on traditional European spirits that are rooted in history, ritual and are largely herb-forward. In addition to distilling unique spirits, Luce and Kablack will be serving them up neat or mixed in selected cocktails in their sleek barspace to give folks in downtown Rockland another evening destination.

“We wanted to have a social, cultural, recreational hub in a way that this town sort of seemed to be lacking. But then simultaneously be pursuing our interests in distilled spirits [and] the sort of history of them, the cultural history. I guess you could say the early, spiritual, medicinal, kind of witchy history,” Luce said.

Justine Kablack and Nate Luce are the new owners of nano-distillery in downtown Rockland. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

Luce first delved into that history when he was working for a whiskey distillery in New York City shortly after graduating college. While working for the distillery, Luce began researching and developing a recipe for absinthe, a spirit developed in Switzerland centuries ago.

This sent him down the rabbithole of wanting to learn more about the history of Europe’s distilled spirits and herbal traditions, which often involved medicinal, ritual and spiritual purposes.  

“I realized there was an extremely rich history there and I’ve just been kind of continuing to research that and do whatever little dabbling projects have been legal,” Luce said.  

After working in a multitude of realms over the last five or six years, mostly in non-profits, Luce is refocusing on distilling and his larger goal of producing a product — and creating an environment — that encourages people to reconnect with a sense of ritual and history.

“This sort of secret point of this project, in a big way, is to reintroduce ritual into drinking and drinking culture, rather than just thoughtlessly becoming intoxicated, [to] create more thoughtful consumption,” Luce said. “Creating something and making it special.”

Luce experienced the ritualistic side of aquavit on a trip to Sweden he took several years ago with his brother to visit distant family. During meals, aquavit would be poured into little glasses and consumed in between courses accompanied by drinking songs, Luce said.

Luce Spirits is launching aquavit as their first product in part because it has a short production time, Kablack said. The production process begins by taking a neutral grain spirit, adding herbs, letting them macerate and then redistilling the product.

Luce Spirits’ aquavit is flavored with caraway, coriander, dill and black pepper. Luce said their recipe is a riff of one his brother developed.

“[Aquavit] follows along with the tradition of folks just using what was growing in their backyard and throwing it into moonshine and serving it at dinner parties, pretty much like the way that most of the European herbal spirit traditions have originated,” Kablack said.

Despite the product being relatively niche, Kablack and Luce said several people they’ve come across in Rockland have been familiar with the product, mainly because of the city’s strong maritime ties.

“Some 70-year-old boat builder who has been living in Rockland for 40 years comes in and he’s like ‘oh yeah, I’ve heard of aquavit,’” Kablack said. “It seems like there is a maritime tradition of drinking these sort of moonshine-y European spirits that they’ve probably encountered sailing somewhere, or meeting someone from sailing somewhere.”

In addition to aquavit, Luce Spirits is slated to release a gin next month called, Old Tom Gin. This style of gin — which is less dry and more earthy —  was popular around the late 19th century, Luce said.

All of the botanicals for the gin — including juniper, spruce tips and bayberry — were locally foraged by Luce and Kablack.

Kablack, a self-taught forager, said focusing on herbal spirits allows them to get creative with things that are growing locally.

“It’s fascinating to me the flavors that you can pull out of the weeds that are growing in your yard, that’s what I’ve always been interested in,” Kablack said.

Other planned products include an apple brandy and an absinthe. Luce said they will also likely produce other limited-release spirits that are more localized in their ingredients..

By branching out from the mainstay distilled alcohols, Luce and Kablack are hopeful their spirits will entice folks wanting something just a bit different.

“People are leaning towards bitter and herbal flavored things,” Kablack said. “You look at the rise in popularity of natural wine, people are looking for something a little less conventional to be drinking and we are also just excited about drinking weird, bitter herbal things.”

Luce Spirits is currently working on setting its weekly schedule, though is largely open for bottle purchases and tasting room hours on Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as Sunday afternoons. To keep tabs on its hours,  visit its Instagram page.