Remember that alphabet of maple treats I posted earlier this year? I have a new "V": maple vodka from Vermont.
On a trip home, I discovered Vermont Spirits, a small St. Johnsbury distillery that makes vodka from the fermented sugars of maple sap instead of potatoes or grain, the usual suspects.
"We're the only ones I'm aware of in the world who do this," the company's distiller, Harry Gorman, told me. "Others are using maple as an additive or flavoring, but we're actually making alcohol from it."
A builder by trade, Gorman met the company's founder, Duncan Holaday, while building a house for him. Gorman mentioned that he'd been experimenting with making his own beer, wine and cider for decades, and Holaday eventually recruited him as a distiller.
Vermont Spirits has existed since 1998, but this is the first year it has been able to offer tastings to the public at events like the craft festival where I encountered it. (Before a 2009 change in Vermont legislation, distillers could only sell bottles in liquor stores, with no sampling.) Now that word is spreading and business is picking up, the micro-distillery plans to move into a larger, better-located facility next year and start offering tours.
"People go around looking for a gift, and maybe they’re used to buying maple syrup and other things made in Vermont, but they’re usually surprised to see this," Gorman said.
The vodkas from maple are called Vermont Gold and Vermont Gold Vintage; the company also makes a Vermont White using milk sugars. The idea in both cases, he said, was to use ingredients that represented the state.
"Maple is a very expensive source of sugar for fermentation—potatoes or beets would be much cheaper. But Vermont doesn’t grow as many potatoes or beets as it does maple trees," Gorman explained. "Plus, it just makes an extraordinarily good vodka."
To make the Gold, he starts with something between sap and syrup, since sap is only 2 or 3 percent sugar and syrup is at least 66 percent, while about 20 percent is best for fermentation. The distillery ran its own sugaring operation at first, but it was "a huge project," so now they buy syrup in bulk and dilute it with spring water. The mix is fermented with yeast in a temperature-controlled tank for roughly a week.
"At that stage it's about 9 percent alcohol, so we call it a beer, although it's not a particularly good one," he said. The first distillation stage separates the heart (ethanol) from the heads (other compounds) of this "beer," and the heart continues into a "fractionating-column still" for evaporation. The third and final distillation refines any remaining compounds (tails) out of the alcohol. You can see the process in this photo gallery on VPR's website.
"I think one of the big secrets to distilling good vodka is making absolutely certain than you've made a clean cut between the heads and the heart, because heads really make the flavor go bad," Gorman said. "After making that cut you've got 192-proof pure spirits, 96 percent alcohol, which is as pure as you can distill."
After adding distilled spring water to dial the alcohol down to 80 proof, he runs the vodka briefly through a charcoal filter "to take the sharp edges off, but ensure that we're not removing the flavor," and then it's ready for bottling. Vermont Spirits produced about 30,000 bottles this year, which retail for $40 and up.
Technically, there's no maple in Vermont Gold, just alcohol—but the taste somehow lingers through the distillation process, giving the vodka a very subtle sweetness and hints of buttery caramel.
"People have often said that good vodka has no flavor; it's supposed to be a clear, neutral spirit for mixing," Gorman acknowledged. "But making it from these sources produces vodkas with a very different character. The Gold has such a unique flavor that I would only have it neat, personally. I use a lemon twist and that's it."
Neat is right.