By Tom Lamia
For the end of a summer day in Maine, nothing beats a frosty, lime-topped gin and tonic at the barbecue pit. Taking in the sunset and sharing opinions with visiting family adds to the pleasure. For most of my years, Gordon’s Gin was all that I required as the base ingredient. Some aristocrats talked down my choice of Gordon’s, telling me, “It’ll give you a hangover.” It didn’t and in every other way it was adequate to the task at hand—social lubrication.
A few years ago, about the time that I moved to Maine full-time, I noticed that the gin section of my local supermarket was featuring, along with the pricier well-known stuff, artisanal brands from U.S. distillers, including several from Maine. These were often priced even higher than the better-known premium brands. But, I am nothing if not loyal to my new home state, so I began to buy and try these Maine gins. Without exception, they are highly distinctive and pleasing in aroma and taste. All are made within 100 miles of where I live in South Bristol, and two are just up the road in Union and Newcastle.
Sweetgrass Winery and Distillery in Union is a broad-spectrum farm. In 2005, its owner, Keith Bodine, began distilling Back River gin. I visited Sweetgrass and talked to Keith. “Why gin?” I asked. “Because I like gin,” was the deadpan answer. The farm now makes a variety of other distilled products, as well as fruit wines, liqueurs, and brandies. (Farm-raised lamb is also available.)
Split Rock Distilling in Newcastle is a different story. Its Owner-Distiller, Matt Page, is a local, as are all of his investors, but Matt’s story begins in Tennessee and Kentucky where he was raised. There, he was infected with the whiskey bug. Split Rock makes organic corn-based products: whiskey (80-proof bourbon, 100-proof ‘white whiskey’) and vodka (80-proof and 151-proof plain and 80-proof blueberry and horseradish varieties). In June, gin was added to the line. All are made from corn, which is the traditional whiskey base.
These Maine distillers are small batch, entrepreneurial, highly personal, and creative businesses. Gin is their most common spirits product. The formulations and ingredients are unique, coming from the heads, and often the fields, of their creators. Like many other farm businesses, the distilleries are open to the public for tasting and sale.
How did all of this come about? There is a history. Maine was legally dry for 82 years, from 1851 to 1933, when Prohibition ended. Maine abuts Canada along hundreds of miles of empty wilderness and has a long and irregular coastline, offering opportunity for smugglers. This ample access kept alcoholic beverages in circulation throughout the dry years. A taste for the good stuff was never lost. Then the farm-to-table movement, particularly well-suited to rural, tourist-influenced, coastal Maine, set off a boom in quality restaurants and bars from York to Bar Harbor.
Distilling and farming fit nicely together. Farm produce that exceeds local demand can be fed to farm animals, either directly or as fermented mash, a by-product of distilling. The rocky soil of Maine and the distance of its farms from large urban markets mean that creative effort is needed for small-scale, specialized crops and aromatic field products to find profitable markets. The influx of food enthusiasts among summer visitors and retirees has created a growing clientele for bars and restaurants offering fun and quality local food and drink. Portland has become a hub for this lifestyle, but there are standout examples in Rockland (Primo’s) and Freedom (Lost Kitchen) as well.
Why gin? Gin does not require aging and is more accommodating to herbal infusion than rum or whiskey. Juniper, blueberries, cranberries, and exotic herbs are everywhere along the coast. Small distillers have experimented with a range of fermentable abundant crops, including potatoes, carrots, corn, and barley. The result is variety and uniqueness.
In addition to Back River and Split Rock, these are some Maine gins that you might want to sample: Alchemy, a dry gin; Chesuncook, a botanical spirit; and Sprigge, a barrel-rested gin, all from Maine Craft Distilling. Ingenium, a grain-based gin from New England Distilling, contains South Asian aromatics. Cold River from Maine Distilleries is potato-based and gluten-free. You might also try Wiggly Bridge, Hardshore, Bimini, or Stroudwater.
The producers are clearly having fun coming up with these gins, so often different in flavor and appearance. Chesuncook, made from carrots, is a light orange. Sprigge is colored a light amber by the oak barrels in which it matures. Cranberry Gin, from Sweetgrass, is a ruby red.
From all of this, it seems safe to say that my pleasurable moments by the summer barbecue pit, with friends and family about, will not suffer from a lack of old and new varieties of Maine gin to go with the tonic.