• Stephen Mills, Times Argus

Glasses raised at Caledonia Spirits' grand opening

MONTPELIER — The Capital City toasted the opening of the new Caledonia Spirits distillery at its grand public opening on Saturday.

As soon as the doors opened at 11 a.m., people started pouring into the 27,000-square-foot facility on 4.3 acres of land off Barre Street, which marked an expansion and move of the distillery from Hardwick to Montpelier, bringing 50 high-wage jobs to the city. There were hourly facility tours, craft cocktail demos at the bar, local cuisine from J.D.K. BBQ and live music by The Starline Rhythm Boys, Chad Hollister, and Eric George and Mountain Elder.

Caledonia Spirits makes the company’s signature Barr Hill Gin and Barr Hill Vodka, and a barrel-aged Tom Cat Gin, and expects to produce 40,000 cases a year, according to company president and chief distiller Ryan Christiansen. The key ingredients, Christiansen noted, were the raw honey for gin and maple syrup for vodka.

The company was founded by Todd Hardie, who decided he wanted to start distilling spirits using honey from his apiaries between 2009 and 2010. Hardie named the distillery’s products for the beautiful Barr Hill area near his Greensboro home and farm operation. In 2011, he hired Christiansen to oversee the distillery he established at his 6,500-square-foot building in Hardwick. Hardie sold the company to Christiansen in 2015 to focus on farming the organic barley and rye used by the distillery. The 60,000 to 90,000 pounds of honey used in the distillery now comes from an apiary in New York.

Ongoing research and development of new alcohols by the distillery includes looking at using maple syrup from trees at Christiansen’s home and neighboring Farnham Farm in Plainfield. The company is also looking at a liquor from burdock root, produced by Richard Wiswall, of Cate Farm in Plainfield, which Christiansen likened to tequila.

The facility includes a spacious cocktail bar with a Barre granite counter top and bar stools and table tops made of spalted maple. Nearby is the retail shop, selling clothing and baseball caps carrying the Barr Hill logo. The shop also sells many of the ingredients in the cocktails prepared at the bar and include cocktail syrups and a range of non-alcoholic beverages.

There is also an outdoor patio overlooking the river, where the company will build a dock to allow people to put kayaks into the water, and there is conference room space that will also be used as community space.

The distillery room is dominated by a 30-foot-tall German pot still named Phyllis that can produce 500 gallons of 190-proof spirit at a time, or smaller batches of different spirits.

Among the first visitors was Doug Zorzi, of the Aja/Zorzi family, which sold the land to Caledonia Spirits for the new facility.

“The family is very pleased at what has occurred, especially for Caledonia Spirits and the city of Montpelier,” Zorzi said. “The city is going to benefit greatly with the added jobs, increasing tax revenue, increasing the water demand and the sewer (services).”

Denise Gregore, of Barre, was also impressed by the facility.

“It’s an amazing place,” Gregore said. “I don’t drink myself but it’s interesting to see what they have done here, especially as it’s going to be a tourist destination.”

George Wilson, of East Montpelier, was enjoying cocktails with his wife, Pamela, and friends, out on the patio, and said he was impressed by the distillery.

“I think it’s wonderful, it’s local, and we’re really happy that a local person can do so well and bring this nice establishment here,” Wilson said, adding that he was friends with the Christiansen family.

Michael Balzano, of Bolton, and his brother Chris, of Waterbury, and his wife, Emily, were also enjoying cocktails on the patio.

“We’ve been fans of Barr Hill for a while now and used to travel up to their old location,” Michael Balzano said.

“This is the fun stuff. Seeing people’s reactions is the best,” Christiansen said as he greeted arrivals at the door. “You work on something for four years in a dark office and then you suddenly open the doors and it’s sunny and everybody is here.”

Christian said the response has been “really positive” so far.

One highlight of the opening was the launch of limited-edition Montpelier Gin, made with honey from local beekeepers and blended for two years in the company’s oldest oak barrels from the Hardwick distillery.

“It felt like a really nice, transitional, one-time release to celebrate this project that we’ve been working on for so long,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen said the company would continually experiment with new elements in the fermentation and distillation of spirits, such as maple syrup to make vodka, and burdock root to make what Christiansen described as a “tequila of the Northeast” supplied by organic farmer Richard Wiswall, of Cate Farm in Plainfield.

“It was Richard’s idea,” Christiansen said. “Richard called me and said burdock has sugar. What it comes down to is if there’s accessible carbohydrates, you can make a spirit out of it. To be honest, we thought it would taste terrible. But it tasted truly amazing and we were stunned.

“We want new sugar sources and new spirits,” Christiansen continued. “This keeps me in the distillery and working with farmers. Distillation is all about agriculture. We distill to preserve these agricultural products. I think of a still like a tractor. It’s a farming tool but it just so happens to be inside.”

For Christiansen, the distillery, with its cocktail bar and retail operation was a significant investment in connecting its products with customers in a meaningful and profitable way.

“We made the decision, moving to Montpelier, to put the still closer to the cocktail bar than the farm — you can do it either way,” Christian said. “But you still need those three parts: You need to grow the crops, you need to create the spirit that preserves and adds value to the crops, and then you need to serve the cocktail.”

For Christiansen, the most important element of the business was the symbiotic relationship, supporting small farmers in Vermont, and vice versa.

“So, when Richard Wiswall calls and says, ‘Would you like five pounds of burdock root, see if you can do anything with it,’ we say, ‘Sure,’” Christian said. “We’ve got a tiny, little still and we can test it out.

“We’re each taking small steps forward while the relationship gets better. And eventually, when we all feel confident about it, we co-invest. Maybe they buy a new tractor, and we buy a new tank,” he added.


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