Berkshire Mountain Distillers aim to keep liquor local

Sunday, February 22
GREAT BARRINGTON — On a bright winter morning, barrels of molasses wait in the snow just outside the barn door for their chance to make the alchemical leap to rum. A nearby silo is filled with locally grown corn that will soon be transformed into bourbon.

Chris Weld walks through the 1952 hay barn, twisting and sliding among tightly packed kettles and pipes that, to the uneducated eye, look like they might provide steam heat to a Berkshire resort. But the jumble of metal is a precision instrument, a carefully engineered still that Weld uses to produce his Berkshire Mountain Distillers gin, rum and vodka.

Weld is part of a growing national trend toward craft distilling, a movement that is doing for spirits what the microbrewery did for beer. Thanks in part to new laws that make it easier to get a permit to operate a still, these small-scale producers are trying to change the taste buds of a nation that has been conditioned to drink mass-produced liquor.

"People's palates are getting re-educated," Weld said. "But we are still fighting the battle with people being branded and thinking superior products are the ones that are the most marketed."

The movement toward batch distilling is in part a throwback to early America, when farmers, hampered by slow transportation and poor roads, could only get some grain and corn to market by turning it to alcohol. But thanks to evolving mores and prohibition, small-batch distilling faded away. Other than a handful of moonshiners practicing their secret science in the woods and hills, the field was dominated by massive beverage companies.

But over the past six years, said Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute in Hayward, Calif., there has been explosive growth in the number of craft distillers, from 60 when he started trying to map every operation in the country to 160 today.

"It's part of what America is going toward — sustainability," Owens said. "People want things that are local and handcrafted. Do I really want to buy a Swedish vodka when there is a local vodka nearby, it tastes better, and it is helping someone local stay in business? Yes, that's what I want to buy."

The movement has been helped by changing laws, as many states have embraced small-scale distilling as a way to help local farms stay in business. In Massachusetts, a 2002 law allowed farmer distilleries for the express purpose of "encouraging the development of domestic farms."

For Weld and his one employee, Colin Coan — himself a veteran brewer who has converted to distilling — the plan is to make the product as local as possible. Their motto is "Think globally. Drink locally." His silo is filled with corn from a South Egremont farm, he is seeking local producers of rye and other grains that he can incorporate in his recipes, and he is toying with the idea of planting crops of his own, like juniper to flavor his gin.

The foundation for all his products — the water — comes from a spring on his Great Barrington farm. The same source once fueled a spa and, in 1901, Berkshire Soda Springs House sold 3,000 gallons from it a week to customers in New York City. Weld keeps a photocopy of a Pittsfield Sun article that described the water as "having no superior the world over and very few equals."

"Water is the cornerstone," Weld said. "We are really fortunate to have this spring."

Weld studied biochemistry in college and earned a master's degree as a physician's assistant. He worked in emergency rooms around Oakland, Calif., but returned east with his wife to be closer to family. He was working at Fairview Hospital when he bought a run-down apple orchard in Great Barrington's southern section and thought its dilapidated barn might be a nice place for a still.

"I thought I might take a stab at using the apples to make an eau de vie," Weld said, a high-alcohol, clear liquor distilled from fresh fruit. As he pursued a distilled spirits permit from the federal government, his ambitions grew and, two years ago, he left his job as a PA and committed to Berkshire Mountain Distillers full time. He wouldn't disclose the cost of the project to date, but said it is in the high six figures.

Weld first produced rum from molasses, tasting constantly to try to get the right formula. As the raw ingredients form alcohol, different congeners evaporate at different temperatures. The alcohols that are allowed to escape and the ones that are kept are what define the drink.

Weld and Coan spent entire days tasting, trying to find the magic moment when a raw, tongue-burning liquid turned to perfection.

"In the beginning, it was awful," Weld said. "You are tasting 30 times a day, so your palate was just fried by the end of the day."

But when Weld and Coan hit it, they knew. They aged the rums in bourbon barrels from Kentucky and then created a blend, smoothing it with more spring water. The result is what Weld calls a sipping rum, a fluent, mildly spicy blend that can be drunk easily over ice.

He has added Ice Glen Vodka and Greylock Gin to his line. All three sell for around $28 or $29 at most stores and are stocked throughout the Berkshires. Weld will soon unveil a second gin, Ethereal, that will be heavy on the botanicals that give it a junipery, herbal bite. The bourbon will follow.

Berkshire Mountain's products are now for sale throughout Massachusetts and are appearing on more and more bar shelves. He has already expanded into Connecticut and expects to strike a deal soon with a New York distributor.

As he tries to get on store shelves, Weld now spends most of his days on the road, conducting tastings and trying to convince merchants and bartenders that there is a market for his product.

"It is sort of like the music industry," he said. "If you sell your own CDs at shows and sell 50,000 copies, you are much more appealing for someone to pick you up. There is a lot of leg work up front, but I think it buys you credibility."

He has found that credibility already among local stores and restaurants. Jim Nejaime, owner of Nejaime's Wine Cellars, stocks Berkshire Mountain's full line at all three of his stores.

"They are a very good, quality product," Nejaime said. "They are not trying to reinvent what the product is. The rum, the gin and the vodka are very classic, elegant, well-made, world-class products."

And they are selling well. "People like that it's a local product but, more importantly for the future of the brand, people come back with many, many, many repeat buys. They like it and they tell people about it."

At Allium restaurant in Great Barrington, Berkshire Mountain's gin has replaced Hendrick's, a premium product, behind the bar; the vodka is now being poured in place of eponymous Grey Goose, a brand that helped launch the current craze for quality vodkas.

"When people ask for Grey Goose now, it is fantastic to be able to say that we have this local vodka and tell its story," said Halle Heyman, Allium's manager. "Now people ask for it. They say, 'Let me have the local one.' "

Despite enthusiastic entrepreneurs like Weld, small-batch distilling will never become as popular as the microbrew movement, said Owens of the American Distilling Institute. While the microbreweries could rely on a silent army of homebrewers who made beer in their basements during the day and sought the newest brew pubs at night, batch distillation has no such constituency.

And then there are the realities of the market, Owens said. It is one thing to produce a unique, small-batch bourbon, and something else to get it on store shelves. The producer must first convince reluctant wholesalers to distribute the product to retail stores, or, in 32 states, deal with monolithic state agencies that control all liquor sales.

"Chris Weld is one of the few who I have met in the industry who had focus from day one and got open in about a year and on the shelves," Owens said. "He is holding the banner very high, and he has all his ducks in a row."

For Weld, the next goal is to make a profit. He hopes to break even this year when he expands into New York. He says he has turned into a workaholic over the past two years, driven by his passion for distilling.

"Part of that passion is that I have to have a paycheck to pay the bills," he said. "The other part is that it is a really fun, cool project that just melds so well with all of my interests."

To reach Jack Dew: (413) 496-6241


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