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The Mad River Distillers Philosophy – A Distiller’s Journey

Fermented, Distilled and Bottled by Hand at Cold Spring Farm, Vermont.

There has been a lot written lately about that fact that many craft distillers are actually selling spirits that were distilled by somebody else.  With the interest in craft spirits and the number of people flocking to the industry, it’s easy to see how some folks can decide to bottle, or rectify, someone else’s spirits so they can get to market sooner. For the same reasons, some people choose to start off making un-aged spirits, like vodkas or gin, that also allow them to get to market.  Some people are completely transparent about doing this; others are less so.  In addition, it is hard to generalize about these approaches since some craft distillers show real talent when it comes to blending or aging and their products are quite good.  Given the focus and controversy, however, we felt it made sense to explain what we do, why we do it and what that means for the spirits we make.

When we started Mad River Distillers, we wanted to really learn the “craft” of distilling and also make differentiated products that were expressive of the grains and fruits from which we made them.  Initially, this led us to buy a German-made still which is tremendous at carrying flavors across the distillation process but which could not make vodka or gin if our lives depended on it.  We then spent a bunch of time canvasing Vermont and much of New England looking for farms, orchards and vineyards producing the best organic and non-GMO grains and fruits. Often, these ingredients were in limited supply and they were much more expensive than the bulk ingredients available through some of the larger agricultural conglomerates. Along the way, we met some great, hard-working people who bring our same craft sensibilities to their work.

Our passion required that we learn everything for ourselves.  Which meant that there were ups and downs along the way and often some false starts and wrong turns.  When we didn’t like the way our first corn whiskey tasted, we went back to school and learned about the chemistry of corn and starches and the practices of 19th century distillers.  In the end, this enabled us to produce a much smoother bourbon although our mashing process takes a lot longer and involves a number of extra steps.  When it came to fermentation, we bought some shiny closed top tanks that looked great but didn’t work so well with grain fermentations. We ended up having open top fermenters fabricated to our specs and the result has been a much better fermentation.  When the extreme heat this summer caused our fermentations to start running too hot we had to reconfigure our fermentation room to keep the ambient temperature within a range we liked better.

We have had similar experiences with barreling, aging and blending. We have started to age our products longer and are blending small batches to optimize the qualities we derive from different barrels. We are also experimenting with different barrels for finishing our spirits. And we love to try our hand at new spirits. Last year, we made some grappa on a lark and it was extraordinary. Unfortunately, there was only enough for us.  Today, we are working with a local craft brewer to make some smoked and hopped malt whiskies.  We have no idea how that will turn out but we are excited to try it.

In the end, there are a lot of different approaches to making craft spirits and we are not going to criticize anyone who is providing consumers with differentiated products that represent a break from the monolithic offerings of the big spirits conglomerates.  Our approach may not always produce the very best spirit in a class and there may be variation from batch to batch.  But our passion requires that we source the best raw ingredients, and do all of the mashing, fermenting, distilling and aging ourselves and that is our pledge to anyone who buys our products.

John Egan

August 2015

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