FREEPORT, Maine — When Christopher Dowe launched Cold River Vodka in 2005, he had scant company.
The managing partner at Maine Distilleries, who built craft breweries for the previous decade, saw artisanal beer explode and decided to chart a new course.
“When we first started, we literally couldn’t make it fast enough. They were lining up in the morning hours before we opened. We sold out in an hour every day for weeks and weeks,” said the Freeport distiller, who makes small-batch vodka from Maine potatoes.
Since then, consumers’ thirst for craft spirits has only increased, and shows no sign of abating.
According to American Distilling Institute, there are 623 distilling plants in the country. Ten years ago, there were 63. In the Northwest, states like Washington, with 80 distilleries, lead the way. As the trend for artisan everything sweeps across the country, Maine, with nine distilleries and counting, is poised for growth.
Still an outlier industry, compared to breweries, of which there are now 53 in the state, it’s growth potential is steep. “We are at the start. We are still in the beginning of the growth of craft distilling. I don’t see it slowing down for 10 years,” said Dowe.
Bill Owens, president of American Distilling Institute, a trade group in Hayward, California, says the interest in hand-crafted hard stuff is so strong he is starting to teach vodka-making classes in cities on both coasts.
“Part of the renaissance that’s happening with food, coffee, wine and beer is the same thing that’s happening with spirits. It’s being rediscovered and re-invented,” said Owens.
What took so long?
With no instructions, unlike wine and homebrew schools, shops and prefab kits, most spirit makers are on their own. That appeals to do-it-yourselfers like Bruce Olson.
As the only licensed absinthe maker in the state, Olson of Tree Spirits in Oakland is testing the market. He hopes his apple-based liquor will make a splash when it’s released May 14 at Big Easy in Bangor. Adding herbs like fennel, lemon balm and wormwood into this historic 130-proof beverage that was popular in 1800s Europe should set him apart, he hopes.
“During the Belle Epoch it had a reputation as the drink of the artists. It was outlawed in early 1900s and in 2007 became legal again,” said Olson, who runs a small winery and distillery with a tasting room on his rural Maine property.
His knotted maple, pear brandy and apple jack spirits can be sampled along with fruit wines.
Absinthe, which comes with its own ritual and a storied past, could propel him into the big time.
“It’s hard to say if it will be an explosion of sales or a culty thing. We don’t really know. If the demand goes through the roof, we will have to get busy cranking out absinthe,” he said. “Because we are small we can do something like this.”
Scott Galbiati, president of The Northern Maine Distilling Co. in Brewer, says distilling in Maine has a built-in advantage. Since he launched in 2009, sales have increased year after year.
“Maine has an incredible reputation through the country, built by L.L. Bean and Poland Springs. We are able to capitalize on that reputation,” said the New Jersey native who married a County girl. “When we travel throughout the country, people have an automatic expectation of quality.”
Outside Maine, his Twenty 2 Vodka is available in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Maryland. “We are picking up new states every year,” said Galbiati, who “micro distills” in 50-gallon batches.
“We are in an amazing area that focuses on local, local, local. It helps put a face to the name and brand and consumers respond to that,” he said. “We have our eyes set on the country.”
Despite such enthusiasm, growth presents challenges. Some boutique distillers say government regulations make it hard to thrive.
Eric Michaud of Infiniti Fermentation and Distillation in Portland opened in March 2013, but didn’t start selling bottled spirits until November. It took him that long to get his licensing and labels approved and jump through the state’s regulatory “hoops” to get his spirits on the market.
As one of 17 controlled jurisdictions for spirits, Maine law requires sellers to list their products with the state. Under that system, suppliers must bring their inventory to the warehouse in Augusta to be verified.
That is hard for Michaud, distilling 55 miles south.
“Maine as a state is not very business friendly. It was the first one to enact Prohibition and is still very slow to change,” said Michaud, whose large, gleaming copper still displayed in his striking bar and restaurant attracts crowds and tourists.
But handmade booze gives him only an ancillary revenue bump.
“We are not making money hand over fist. If I was solely relying on my distilling, if all my eggs were in a distilling basket,” the picture would not be so rosy, he said.
Retailers like Bill Milliken are not complaining.
At Maine Beer and Beverage Co. in Portland’s Public Market House, Maine-made spirits are now front and center and generating conversation.
“People are pretty impressed when they walk in and see it now. They look up and go, ‘Whoa,’” said Milliken, who added liquor three months ago and carries most regional labels. “They look wonderful. As a retailer for the past 15 years, it’s good to have so many local spirits.”
Beyond aesthetics, cranberry gin made in Union and Eight Bells Rum with a detail from a Winslow Homer painting are profitable. “Our business has picked up considerably. We have a great deal of interest in the local spirits, which is remarkable especially since it is not cheap,” he said.
At a tasting of Maine Craft Distilling last week, a half dozen bottles were sold. Ringing up at approximately $30 each, “that’s like two bottles of wine,” said clerk Theresa Nessel.
Sampling the Portland-made Blueshine, customer Tom Sambito was struck by the quality of the white whiskey, made with blueberries, barley and maple syrup a few blocks away.
“I saw the bottle and it captivated me,” said the 30 year-old, grabbing one and heading out the door.