Rums, gins that 'taste like the forests and woods'
NORTH ADAMS — Ryan Max Riley is passionate about many things — skiing, hiking, the environment — and most importantly, creating unique rums, and soon gin, whiskey and bourbon, in his small distillery.
The distillery and cocktail bar, which opened earlier this year, is owned by Riley and his wife, Emily Vasiliauskas, a professor in the English Department at Williams College. However, the distillery is mainly a one-man show.
"There are no other employees, and I don't have any plans to add any," Riley said. "Emily helps in the design aspect of the business. She designed the bar and labels, and she had a good palette."
Ski Bum Rum is located in Greylock Works in North Adams, where Riley currently makes four rums and is working on creating new gins. Before creating spirits, Riley skied competitively around the world, which is where the inspiration for the distillery's name came from.
"Ski Bum Rum is an expression of my personality, my experiences foraging and skiing in the mountains," he said. "I know what great winter cocktails smell and taste like. I've skied in competitions around the world and for many years, lived in an endless winter, skiing in both the Southern and Northern hemispheres. When it's summer here, it's winter in the Southern Hemisphere. And Colorado was my home. I make rums and gins that taste like the forests and woods."
The distillery originally opened in Golden, Colo., in 2015. When Vasiliauskas joined the Williams faculty, the couple decided to move the distillery to the Berkshires. "I love it here," Riley said. "It's like where I grew up in the mountains of Colorado. We moved everything; I've never had any employees or sold a business."
"Everything" includes a large Italian-made shiny silver fermenter and a custom-made copper alembic (Arabic for "lamp" or "base"), also known as a pot still, from Spain. Riley explained that distillation began in Europe in the Middle Ages.The Moors brought it with them to the Iberian peninsula and used an alembic — an ancient style of pot still. Now, Scotch distilleries are the only other distilleries that use this kind of still, he said. He pointed out that his alembic is shorter than usual and has a downward sloping lyne, "which creates a more flavorful, robust flavor."
The fermenter is also unique. "This is a cooling collar," Riley said, putting a hand on a band with large cutout-looking circles. "A lot of distilleries don't have temperature controls and the fermenting process takes only two days. But great rum and whiskey need to be fermented slowly and carefully. I make mine like a Bavarian lager. It takes 18 days to ferment." He added the longer the ferment, the more the rum picks up flavor. And, with cold fermenting, it tastes more like the sugar cane it is made from than the yeast.
The sugar cane Riley uses for his rum comes from the the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. "I experimented with sugars from all over the world, and the one from Mauritius was the best one I found for my vision." Riley said soil and climate affect sugar cane, which grows best near the Equator.
"Most of the sugar today is refined in a centrifuge," he said. "With this sugar, the juice [from the crushed sugar canes] is placed on a screen and allowed to drip out. The sugar is a really dark brown sugar." He added he has to buy and import a whole shipping container of the sugar at a time —— 20,000 pounds of it, thankfully in bags. Each batch of rum uses a ton of the sugar.
In addition to a silver rum, Ski Bum Rum also offers a spiced rum, which Riley describes as "Christmas-y and having fall flavors." Cinnamon sticks, allspice and wild flower honey (which "has a more complex flavor," he said) is added. The silver and spiced rum are available at the distillery for $29 and at package stores in the Berkshires and one in Boston. Ski Bum Rum also makes a coconut rum and an aged rum that are only used in the distillery.
Riley and Vasiliauskas are in the process of developing a gin "that will reflect our experiences and life in the Berkshires." The gin will feature wildflowers, the new growth of spruce tree tips, local berries and birch tree twigs and sap, foraged by Riley and Vasiliauskas, who are avid hikers. "We take notes and photographs and talk to local foragers," Riley said.
They want to use really fresh ingredients. "In the morning before distilling, we'll forage for the ingredients," he said.
In addition to a year-round gin, Ski Bum Rum will offer four seasonal gins. The spring gin "should taste like new growth and things coming back to life, like bright green fir or spruce tips that will accent [gin's traditional ingredient] juniper berries" he said."Summer should taste like summer: Floral scents, like the mowed lawn with wildflowers in the midst of summer on Bee Hill."
The fall gin he envisions is not as floral as the summer gin, using rose hips and lavender. The winter gin, he said, "will be really interesting." He's looking at using fallen birch tree branches and in late winter, tapping birch trees for a bit of sap.
Future plans include also distilling whiskey and bourbon.
Part of the small distillery is set up as a sampling room, where customers can sit and relax and enjoy cocktails. The menu includes: "From the Woods — Spicy Blackberry Bramble, Wildflower Mojito or a Strawberry & Black Peppercorn Daiquiri; or "From the Past" — Classic Daiquiri, Old Fashioned or Smoked Old Fashioned. A flight, one full shot or two half-shots also are available, along with bottles of the silver and spiced rum for purchase.
Riley serves as the bartender, mixing up the cocktails that feature orange, sage, wildflower and black pepper liqueurs made in house.
The cocktail menu will change at least seasonally.
"Change keeps the distillery alive," Riley said.
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