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Spirits From a Working Landscape

The Rapid Growth of a Vermont Distiller

Caledonian Spirits

The logo of Caledonia Spirits is the honeybee. This not only hints at the key ingredient of its award-winning Barr Hill brands but also symbolizes its practical and spiritual bond with the Vermont working landscape.

Like older, more traditional fine liquors and wines that are rooted in the soil and landscape from which they spring — Tequila from Mexico’s Jalisco region, Scotch from the crags and barley fields of Scotland, or the terroir of any fine wine — the distillations of Caledonia Spirits are infused with their locale.

The Fields of Scottland

Northern Vermont is a region marked not only by traditional dairy farming and maple syrup production but is also a hotbed of contemporary innovative sustainable agriculture and value-added food production. The Barr Hill area itself is one of the breathtaking vistas overlooking the Green Mountains, an area immortalized by Wallace Stegner — a long-time summer resident of the area — in his last novel, the semi-autobiographical Crossing to Safety.

This is our sentiment, our ethos, our paradigm shift

“Our mindful approach to distilling, the influence of Vermont’s four seasons, and the premium raw ingredients that come from the agricultural lands that surround our region define our craft spirits,” announces Caledonia Spirit’s website. “This is our sentiment, our ethos, our paradigm shift. This is the meaning of Landcrafted in the heart of Vermont.”

Born From the Work of Bees

After a long career as an apiarist and bee inspector for the Vermont Department of Agriculture, Todd Hardie founded Caledonia Spirits in 2011. Not surprisingly, honey is the core of the distillery’s product line.

“Raw honey is a medicine, a food, and a sweetener, and it makes everything taste wonderful. So, adding raw honey to the Gin at the very end makes it softer and rounds off the edges,” Hardie explained in an interview with the Boston Globe. “It’s made from corn, and legally to be a Gin it has to have juniper in it, but there’s really nothing else to it. People do taste other things, but those are carried through and expressed by the raw honey. The Gin is basic, but there are over 100 different flowers present in the honey.”

The Barr Hill Trio

Caledonia produces only three brands — Barr Hill Gin, Tom Cat Gin, and Barr Hill Vodka — but in less than a decade, these premium products have won top honors at events around the world.

The flagship spirit is Barr Hill Gin, an “ode to the hardworking bees of the Northeast.” A corn-based spirit distilled in a customized botanical-extraction still, raw honey is its hallmark. It won a gold medal at the Hong Kong International Spirits Competition in 2013, which helped spark the early growth of Caledonia Spirits outside of Vermont.

The Bottling Process

First released in 2016, Tom Cat Gin is an even more experimental spirit, aged in new American oak barrels custom-made from local forest products, in part due to the barrel shortage brought on by the booming craft liquor and beer production sectors in the United States. In keeping with Caledonia’s deep ties with the landscape, the cold climate of the area infuses Tom Cat through the slow-growth white oak, helping create this exceptional and unusual Gin that drinks like a Whiskey. It won Master status at the 2016 Gin Masters competition in London sponsored by The Spirits Business.

Finally, Barr Hill Vodka is distilled after the honey has been harvested in late summer. The honey is never heated before distillation, which occurs no more than two times. The spirit is infused with wild yeast and the wildflower fields that the bees fed from over the summer. It won Caledonia the American Vodka Distillery of the Year award at the Berlin International Spirits Competition in 2016.

Big Growth in Less Than a Decade

Their rapid collection of prestigious international awards have come only a few years after Hardie tapped into the already thriving Vermont homebrew beer scene — the foundation of Vermont’s now impressive craft brewing sector, best known globally via brands such as Hill Farmstead Brewery and the Alchemist’s Heady Topper — by hiring Ryan Christiansen as head distiller in 2011. At the time he was operating a homebrew store. Since then they’ve experimented and expanded their operations at a steady — and at times breakneck — pace.

“Our business has its foundation in Vermont’s working landscape,” Hardie told Vermont Business Magazine. “Consumers from Vermont, Montreal through New York to Virginia, Chicago, Hong Kong and Japan appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into each bottle of Barr Hill Gin.”

A key part of Caledonia’s distribution and marketing is their participation in Vermont’s thriving network of farmer’s markets. They are full-time vendors at five weekly markets, and this was a key to their early “word of mouth” growth, which has since been expanded into tastings and special events in 29 states and international events.

And that expansion is about to take off in a new and pronounced way. In May of 2017 Caledonia announced plans to seriously upgrade their current production facility in Hardwick, Vermont.

Moving less than an hour south to Vermont’s state capital of Montpelier, a new home for Caledonia Spirits will be built on the banks of the Winooski River. It will add another element in the restoration of an industrialized area that has been redeveloped over the past two decades.

It’s in our genes, and it’s very much supported in Vermont where farming and business are tough

Construction on the new 30,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to begin in fall of 2017, and it will open in May 2018 with not only a state-of-the-art distillery, but also a tasting room, retail sales, and a riverfront picnic area that will be accessible via the extended public bike path that is part of the project.

For Hardie, the rapid growth of Caledonia Spirits is part of a long narrative that winds back from the original Caledonia — Scotland.

“In 1817, my great-great-grandfather came from Edinburgh to this country and farmed. He left behind a brother in Scotland whose two boys started making Whiskey,” he explained to the Boston Globe. “It’s in our genes, and it’s very much supported in Vermont where farming and business are tough. You have to do something special with the highest quality and integrity. What’s going on in Vermont right now is really wonderful, but I really see it going back over 300 years.”

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Written by Peter L. Smith

Peter Letzelter-Smith is a writer and editor living in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Well-travelled throughout Europe, North America, and New Zealand, he’s lived in New York, London, Dublin, and Nürnberg. Prior to settling down into life as a wordsmith, he worked in the entertainment industry, both as a stagehand in live theater and a motion picture technician. When not walking two Australian shepherds he’s juggling kids, a garden, and pursuing the moving target of living the good life.

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