Maine Roots

A blog about all things Maine


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Wine in Maine: Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery

When I think about our visit to Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery, the image that instantly pops into my mind is that first moment, as we pulled into the gravel driveway and had our first glimpse of a sweeping view of field, forest, and mountains.  The driveway itself is edged closely by both the road and the winery, as so many other old farms now are – pressed up against our modern roads.

The view at Sweetgrass

The view at Sweetgrass

The winery structure is charmingly, classically Maine.  A pretty, shingled building that has been updated to combine traditional elements with other, more modern influences like the wraparound deck and railing.  I found this combination of styles to be a theme throughout Sweetgrass – and it’s been executed so seamlessly that it enhances the experience without feeling too “perfect” or “untouchable.”  Inside and out, from the restored old truck and the gleaming copper Alembic still to the classic, white Adirondack chairs on the lawn, Sweetgrass hit all the right notes. “Sweet” indeed.

One of the most appealing aspects of Sweetgrass for me personally was how integral Maine traditions and products clearly are to the business.  I even feel the combination of the historic and the modern design elements and decor reflect this – generally speaking, Mainers hold on to a deep respect for the way things have been done for generations, while still moving forward themselves.  For example, in addition to operating as a winery and distillery, Sweetgrass is still a working farm.  They raise and sell Friesian and Friesian cross sheep for both meat and fleece; they have laying chickens and meat chickens; turkeys; pigs; and two cats.  They grow some of the fruit they use in their wines and liquors, and buy the vast majority of the remainder from other Maine resources, and they also grow grass (hay) for feed.  Sweetgrass sums up everything I felt about the experience there on their website, when asked about their philosophy: “to be a family run business preserving Union’s rich farming tradition, firmly rooted in the community, supporting local sustainable agriculture, local business, and donating 10% of profits to organizations which support families, children, and rural life.”

Philosophy and setting aside, the wines and liquors we had the opportunity to taste were exceptional on their own.  While my favorite, by a large margin, was their apple wine – delightful and crisp and pairs beautifully with lobster – I also enjoyed the sparkling cranberry apple (after all, what could be more holiday-appropriate than this flavorful, bubbly treat?) as well as the rhubarb smash.  Nick particularly enjoyed their renowned Back River Gin, which ended up being one of three bottles we purchased and brought home with us.  During our tasting, we had the opportunity to chat a bit with one of the owners about the business and what they’ve strived to accomplish.  I walked away understanding that vision, experience, and commitment have been critical to their success, which now includes an Old Port location and many accolades and awards, in addition to the Farm itself.

From beginning to end, this is a must-visit Maine winery. It was just our second of three winery stops during our cross-Maine trek from Crescent Lake to very nearly the Camden area, and it is the one I would most like to visit again.  Next time, though, I’d pack a picnic lunch, plan to stay a while, and indulge my wish to sit in one of those Adirondack chairs, soak in the view, and sip a Sweetgrass wine.

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That’s how I recommend you experience it!

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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!