Waterbury is truly becoming a destination for seekers of local flavor, packing as much good food, beer, art and culture as possible into less than 50 square miles.
Rounding out the localvore trifecta in the Cabot Annex in Waterbury Center is the newly opened tasting and barrel room of Smugglers’ Notch Distillery, a small craft spirits enterprise from Jeffersonville.
Ron and Jeremy Elliott, father and son, started the distillery in 2010. Jeremy, 38, brought a technical background — a research chemist in the pharmaceutical industry — and “our skill sets just meshed,” said Ron, a former business executive in the restaurant industry. It’s a true family operation: Marcia Elliot, wife and mother of the respective makers, does marketing and promotions the small company; daughter Dawn also contributes.
The first spirit the Elliotts produced was vodka — a nearly four-year process, according to Ron, noting that Jeremy set out playing to win.
“‘Dad, we’re going to get double gold,’ he said, and we did,” referring to their out-of-the-gate win of one of 12 coveted double gold medals awarded to vodkas at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Not too bad for an initial offering, but they haven’t rested on their laurels.
Next came a single-barrel aged rum, followed by gin and then bourbon whiskey. New offerings in 2014 included a limited-release rye whiskey and a hopped gin.
The secret to all the smooth, silky spirits? “Vermont ‘wet,’” says Ron, referring to the base — pure water from the Mount Mansfield watershed that is filtered carefully to remove “every possible mineral” and off-flavor that could taint the finished product. After that, says Ron, “the science is in the making; the art is in the blending.”
The clean, industrial feel of the new location — steely racks, dark slate-gray walls and ceiling, copper-sided counter — is a departure from the rustic woodiness of the Jeffersonville distillery, which occupies an old lumber mill.
The sleek store, which opened in early December, isn’t just for show, however — seventy-six 25-gallon American oak barrels line three walls of the space, waiting to be filled with liquid treasure.
Over the years, the space has seen its share of Vermont businesses pass through, including Brave Coffee & Tea, J.K. Adams kitchenware, a T-shirt and souvenir shop, a candle store, and Mesa pottery. Ron said a customer recently came in looking for the coffee store, and walked out happily with a bottle of bourbon.
The Elliotts are passionate about their product — they think of the employees they hire as “an extension of (their) family,” with nearly 20 individuals performing a seasonally driven combination of full- and part-time work. All spirits produced by the distillery are hand-bottled, hand-labeled and hand-corked.
The life of a barrel
Smugglers Notch Distillery ages both its bourbon whiskey and rum in American oak barrels. The bourbon’s barrel time is mandated by federal regulations stating that, among other parameters, bourbon must be aged in new, charred American white oak barrels.
Once bottled, finished spirits are intended to last indefinitely; in wood, liquor is constantly aging, absorbing and developing layers of flavor. The size and composition of a barrel has a big impact on the finished product — the location of the tree and terroir of the growing region, thickness, esters and resins, grain of the wood, and char of the barrel all contribute to the finished product.
Achieving consistency is one of the primary concerns of the Elliotts. Ron said Jeremy approves every batch, every barrel, every blend of whiskey to ensure that it’s up to their standards, and noted with pride that their most recent batch of bourbon would be indistinguishable from their first batch in a side-by-side tasting.
The rum, a decidedly different liquid than the white or spiced varieties a drinker might be familiar with, is aged in new barrels for three years, then spends one year in a former bourbon barrel to finish off the unique flavor profile. The “single-barrel” moniker suggests that each barrel will yield slightly different results.
The distillery’s barrels are sourced mainly from Kentucky and Michigan. What happens to them when their useful life comes to an end? They can be re-used for years, Ron explains, but at a certain point a benefit “peak” will be reached, and the barrel’s effect diminishes. Then, says Ron, they are ready for a new purpose.
Smugglers’ Notch Distillery has sold barrels to breweries, including Rock Art, Citizen Cider and Stowe Cider; home brewers also seek them out. Barrels can also be used in the aging of other spirits, such as sherry or brandy. Artists and homeowners in search of a rustic, sylvan look will often buy used barrels as well.
The final step, Ron imagines, is for a barrel to be sawed in half and filled with plants — put out to pasture, as it were. Customers have even tried to buy barrels from the Waterbury store, Ron said, but without luck: The fresh containers are maybe “more valuable than the booze!”
I found the vodka to have an almost sweet smell and taste — Ron says the perceived sweetness is result of the purity and smoothness of the liquor.
The gin is made by taking their vodka — a distinctive start, as many gins are made with a neutral grain spirit base — and distilling it through a proprietary blend of herbs and spices, including juniper sourced from southern Vermont, and grains of paradise. Ron won’t divulge any more ingredients, however — the essences that make their gin unique are a valuable trade secret.
The hopped gin is crisp and clear with a more evergreen flavor, nuanced by a distillation through Cascade hops, some of which come from a grower in North Hero. All of the ingredients are grown in the country, Ron said, and Vermont crops are used when possible and available.
The rum is made with Florida blackstrap molasses derived from cane sugar, and offers an oaky vanilla nose, strong and warming on the palate, with a very subtle sweetness.
Ron says most people who taste the bourbon perceive strong notes of chocolate, caramel or cherry on the finish, or a combination of all three. I found it to be caramel-hinted, with a pleasant dark, toasty almond element.
What’s the proper way to enjoy Smugglers’ Notch spirits? “Just having them!” laughs Ron. The Elliotts recommend sipping at room temperature to fully appreciate the flavors, and keeping the bottle out of your freezer, which can mask flavors — which could be a desired effect in a booze of lesser quality. If you’re wary of straight liquor, put on your big-girl or -boy pants and pay a visit the distillery or the tasting room — $3 gets you four quarter-ounce pours of your choice, all of which may surprise you with their smoothness.
Visit Smugglers’ Notch Distillery in the Cabot/Vermont Annex on the Waterbury/Stowe Road in Waterbury Center, or at 276 Main St. in Jeffersonville. Smugglersnotchdistillery.com.