Maine Roots

A blog about all things Maine

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Maine Made: Cold River Vodka

Since my first glimpse of an ad for Cold River Vodka, a brand owned by Maine Distilleries, LLC, I’ve been intrigued by their business and products.  Given my obvious pride in my Maine roots, I enjoy supporting Maine-based businesses, and only more so when those businesses have made a concerted effort to patronize other Maine businesses and/or make use of locally produced goods.

Maine Distilleries does both – and the concept for the business originated with a Maine farmer, Don Thibodeau, looking for an additional source of income from his potatoes.

One of the first things I noted about the brand was their bottle and label – elegant and classic – bringing to mind the look of other high-end vodkas like Grey Goose.  Following closely behind was that it was a potato vodka – made from potatoes grown in Maine – and, as we all know, I do love potatoes.

Cold River Vodka bottle with etched label

Cold River Vodka bottle with etched label

By following up on this initial interest, a family friend helped me gain the opportunity to speak with Bob Harkins, one of the owners of Maine Distilleries, and he shared with me how the business began and where they hope to go in the future. As he shared their story with me, it seemed to be one of connections, highlighting the best of Maine business and the relationships that so frequently drive it.  It began as I described previously, when one of the partners, Don Thibodeau,the owner of Green Thumb Farms, was searching for a response to the economic challenges facing the Maine potato industry.

Inspired by the idea of making a potato vodka, Don approached his brother, Portland-based neurosurgeon Lee Thibodeau, MD., about investing in a distillery business.  The Thibodeau brothers reached out to Lee’s college roommate and friend, Bob Harkins knowing he shared their appreciation for the Maine lifestyle and the common desire to preserve Maine’s farming heritage and open spaces.  Chris Dowe, today the Head Distiller, came to Maine Distilleries through yet another connection – Lee was describing the vision for a Maine-made potato vodka to his nurse anesthetist – and she suggested he talk with her husband, Chris, who had years of experience in the brewing industry.

It took the four men about two and a half years to get the business fully off the ground (proving that nothing comes without hard work and patience), and today they are producing about 5,000 gallons of alcohol a year and distributing to 17 states.  While the story of the business’ inception interested me, the tour of the facility and description of the distilling process fascinated me.

Cold River Blueberry vodka.. made with Maine blueberries from Wyman's!

Cold River Blueberry vodka.. made with Maine blueberries from Wyman’s!

Located on route 1 in Freeport, the distillery occupies the first floor and consists of a main room, which houses the fermenting tanks, and three smaller rooms – one that houses the potatoes, one for the distilling process, and one for bottling.  The space, with its very high ceiling, struck me as clean (a big positive) and starkly industrial, but not in an unappealing way.

Very high ceilings...

Very high ceilings…

Maine Distilleries is the only “ground-to-glass” distillery in the nation (yeah, Maine!), which gives them unmatched control over their small-batch production process, from the planting and harvesting of their Maine potatoes, to their triple-distillation process, to bottling.  From spud (potato) to glass, the fermenting and distilling process takes a total of 10 days for their classic vodka.  For vodka with infusions (like their blueberry vodka), add another 7 days.  Their commitment to local resources extends beyond just the potato – the Cold River brand takes its name from their source for water, as well – a local aquifer in the Cold River in Maine; the blueberries for their blueberry vodka are provided by Wyman’s of Maine; and they locally source as many other botanicals as possible.  The distilling process begins with steaming and mashing the potatoes in a massive kettle, until they are souplike.  Then, this “soup” ferments for 36-40 hours before entering the distilling phase.  Cold River performs three distillations, and during this process, the alcohol is vaporized to separate it from the water and solids.  After the first distillation, the vodka is 50% alcohol; after the second, it is 94% alcohol; and after the third, it is 96.2% alcohol.  The final step is proofing, when water is added to reach a target of 80 proof, or 40% alcohol content.

The "soup" is boiled in this kettle before fermentation begins.

The “soup” is boiled in this kettle before fermentation begins.

After our tour, we were treated to a tasting of the classic vodka, blueberry vodka, and gin.  I’m the first to admit I am not a big vodka drinker unless it’s mixed with a sugary juice (cranberry, anyone?), but one of the reasons potato vodka appeals to me is that the flavor of the vodka is much smoother than the more common grain-based vodkas.  This is because potato vodka retains some of its natural sugars, while grain vodkas utilize nearly all of their sugars during the fermentation process.  The vodkas did not disappoint, nor did the gin.  While I remain committed to mixing my vodkas in the future, both the classic vodka and the blueberry vodka were very smooth.  The blueberry vodka has the lovely fragrance you’d expect, but the nicest surprise of all is that the flavor was not overwhelming – just a light hint of blueberry.  Surprisingly, of the three alcohols, I enjoyed the gin the most.

The tasting room offers additional Cold River Vodka merchandise (including a variety of martini and shot glasses) and other products for sale including t-shirts, hats, and golf paraphenalia.

Getting my picture of the lovely, etched glasses

Getting my picture of the lovely, etched glasses

Whether you’re local to Maine or visiting Freeport on a vacation, I’d encourage you to stop in and visit this business.  Their high end vodkas reflect a quality well worth the price!


Weekly Recipe: Blueberry Molasses Cake

I’d been looking forward to making this blueberry molasses cake recipe, so rather than cave to my post-work exhaustion and sit on the couch, I decided to push through and give it a try.  Others gave this cake rave reviews – I admit, up front, that I was less enamored with it, but I think it would be delicious as a muffin or blueberry bread – it just wasn’t what I expected from a “cake.”

This recipe interested me for a couple of reasons.  Maine Home Cooking frequently includes a brief editorial about the history of each recipe and the significance of its ingredients, and in this case, the cookbook included a description of how molasses has been used by Maine cooks as a sweetener for all sorts of baked goods as a result of “necessary frugality.”  I liked this factoid because thrifty common sense is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the Maine people.  Another reason for my particular interest in this recipe, as described in an earlier blog post, is because the wild blueberry is such a significant role player in Maine’s economy, history, and identity.


For this cake, you’ll need:

  • 2 1/2 cups flour (since beginning my ‘Weekly Recipe’ posts, I have used more flour than I had in the last several years combined)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon each of your choice of spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger – I went with cinnamon and nutmeg)
  • 2/3 cup molasses
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 canola or vegetable oil
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 cup lightly floured blueberries

Remove two tablespoons of flour (for flouring the blueberries).  Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9″ x 13″ pan.  Sift the flour, baking soda, and spices together.  Mix together the molasses, sugar, oil, and egg, and combine with the flour and spices, then mix in the boiling water (this batter becomes markedly easier to mix once the boiling water works its magic!).

Wet ingredients... and dry ingredients...

Wet ingredients… and dry ingredients…

Add the blueberries last, and pour into pan.  Bake for 30 minutes or until a tester inserted comes out clean.  Serve with whipped cream.

This recipe, like some of the other baked goods I’ve made, is pretty quick and easy.  When we took it to my cousin’s for a family gathering, people dug in and all said it was delicious.  It’s pretty, too:




HoME Grown: Blueberries!

Welcome to the first post in my HoME Grown category!  Through this category, I hope to bring recognition to the agricultural industry in Maine and to some of the local farms themselves – one of the characteristics I love most about this state is the pride in local business and the commitment to entrepreneurial endeavors.

It seemed only appropriate to begin with the blueberry, as it is the state fruit of Maine, has many health benefits, and is a major contributor to Maine’s economy.  There are two types of blueberries – lowbush blueberries, which are wild, and highbush blueberries, which are cultivated and are frequently hybrids, enabling them to be more easily grown in other parts of the world.  Maine is the leader of lowbush blueberry production in the United States.  In fact, 90% of the nation’s wild blueberry crop comes from Washington County alone.


There are many blueberry farms in Maine – the state has over 60,000 acres of blueberries – and some farms are open for you to “pick your own.”  I’ll highlight a couple of blueberry farms below, but for a more complete listing, visit the Maine Living site on wild blueberries.

Merrill Blueberry Farm is located in Ellsworth, Maine, and has been growing and selling wild blueberries since 1925.  Through four generations, they’ve remained committed to growing and harvesting a high quality crop for their customers.  Today, Merrill Farm’s wild blueberries are frozen using the Individually Quick Frozen
method to ensure their long-lasting healthfulness and flavor.

Worcester’s Wild Blueberry Products, in Orneville, Maine, has been selling wild blueberries for over 30 years at local stores, farmers’ markets, and their own roadside stand.  In 2003, they branched out into other wild blueberry products including jams, jellies, syrups, and more.  Their emphasis is on small, high quality batches rather than large scale production.

Wild blueberries are smaller and have a more intense flavor than cultivated blueberries.  Blueberries have gained recognition for being high in antioxidants, which provide a great health benefit by combatting free radicals, particles that damage your cells and can lead to diseases like cancer and heart disease.  In addition, blueberries contain Vitamins A and C, zinc, potassium, iron, and magnesium.  So eat up!

This post will also be the first to be featured on my ‘Weekly Recipes‘ page.  Once a week, I’ll make a recipe from one of my Maine cookbooks and write a blog post about it – links to posts and recipes can be found on this page.  Today, I’m making a blueberry muffin recipe from my favorite cookbook (click here to see my favorite cookbook post), Recipes from the Maine Kitchen.  This recipe can be found on page 213 and is called “Barbara’s Blueberry Muffins.”  These muffins will become our holiday gifts to our mailman and garbage collectors, as well a snacks for us here at home.  Yum!

The recipe makes 1 dozen muffins, I doubled it.  You’ll need:

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 cup nonfat plain yogurt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups wild Maine blueberries

Blueberry Muffin Ingredients


2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Sift flour, soda, baking powder and salt together and set aside.  Beat or stir butter for 30 seconds and add sugar, then stir to combine.  Beat in eggs, yogurt, and vanilla (this can be done with a mixer or by hand – I did it by hand, and it’s a heck of a workout).  Stir in flour mixture.  Fold in blueberries carefully, so as not to break them up, and spoon into muffin cups.

Mixing Ingredients

Combine topping ingredients and sprinkle over muffins.  Bake at 400 degrees for 18 – 20 minutes.

The end result – time to enjoy- yum!

Blueberry Muffins