Caledonia Spirits - Barr Hill Gin
Vermont, New England: a stunning corner of the world where nature shines and showcases her changing seasons in celebratory style. Farmland connects with forest, sun-kissed summers turn into richly coloured autumns and the land provides inspiration for everyone.
Barr Hill Distillery is situated in Caledonia County and is named after the fantastic views found at the top of Barr Hill Nature Preserve. The overarching company is called Caledonia Spirits.
The aim of Caledonia Spirits is to create spirits using local raw materials, supporting working landscapes and agriculture.
We cannot talk about Caledonia Spirits without mentioning bees – they’re integral to this story.
As we all already know, sadly the world’s populations of bees are declining.
When owner Todd Hardie was 12 years old he bought his first beehive. 10 years later, in 1986, he opened Honey Garden Apiaries which became a 30+ year career. I learnt that an apiary is where you keep beehives for honeybees – a beekeeper can also be called an apiarist.
In 2009, Todd purchased a 15 gallon direct-fire pot still. He installed it in his 6500 square foot building in Hardwick and Caledonia Spirits was born. Todd’s vision was to produce spirits using raw honey in the distillation. Gin was the perfect partner. He needed a distiller and found one in Ryan Christiansen, who was the owner of a local homebrewing shop.
Ryan’s background and main interest was in fermentation so he accepted a part-time role at Caledonia Spirits. However, he soon found himself immersed in the world of distilling too. He sold his homebrew shop in 2011 and joined Todd on his journey to build a distillery.
Barr Hill Gin and Barr Hill Vodka were the first products to be launched.
By 2012, the brand was taking off. The use of honey excited and intrigued everyone. Ryan had to run nearly 450 gin distillations that year to keep up with demand…
Also in 2012, Alex Weiss joined Caledonia Spirits as Director of National Sales, enabling them to distribute to New York City and Washington DC.
The following year, they finally got a bigger still! A new 300 gallon custom-designed extraction still was delivered. They also began storing some gin in oak barrels as an experiment – this would become the much sought-after Tom Cat Gin.
2014. The TTB, (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) is notoriously finickity when it comes to labelling descriptions of barrel-aged gins. Todd, Ryan and their growing team finally received permission for their Tom Cat label to go ahead, (it says ‘Reserve’). Their year’s supply of stock sold out within three weeks…
This is where Caledonia Spirits take things to a whole new, totally impressive, level. The demand for Tom Cat Gin led to a shortage of barrels. So, Todd and Ryan spent six months working alongside local foresters, sawyers and truckers to source sustainably-harvested timber to build their own barrels. The wood was taken to their new friend Bob Hockert, a Master Cooper.
In 2015, Ryan bought the company from Todd, allowing Todd to purchase to some land. He established Thornhill Farm and planted four acres of barley, 24 acres of rye and 200 elder trees. These grains and fruit will provide Caledonia Spirits with truly local and the highest quality ingredients.
Caledonia Spirits released their first batch of Tom Cat Gin, 100% aged in Vermont-grown white oak barrels in 2016. This was, (and continues to be) an incredible achievement. It is the first and only product distilled in Vermont and aged in Vermont-grown barrels since Prohibition.
Also in 2016, the team purchased a 500 gallon, 44 plate copper still to produce their vodka and whiskey. Their smoky rye whiskey uses winter rye from Todd’s Thornhill Farm and malted barley from nearby North Hardwick Dairy.
Another fascinating aspect is that Caledonia Spirits employ the help of several Mangelitsa pigs to eat the spent grain – who doesn’t want distillery pigs?!
At first glance, the labels of Caledonia Spirits’ products may appear relatively simple and traditional. There is an image of a honeybee in the centre of each label and printed on the top of each cork. The bottles are sealed with beeswax, obviously in tribute to the bees themselves and the use of honey, but the great thing about beeswax is that it remains relatively transparent so you can still see the image of the bee through the wax.
The line drawing on the label is a direct representation of Caledonia County, as seen from the top of Barr Hill Nature Preserve. From left to right we look across to Buffalo Mountain, Elmore Mountain and the beginning of Mount Mansfield – the highest mountain in Vermont. The plants growing in the foreground are juniper bushes.
That's it! It's so impressive to take a single botanical, add juniper as required and create outstanding multi-layered products. The faith in that raw honey is incredible, but entirely justified.
Barr Hill Gin
The corn base spirit is macerated with gently crushed juniper berries for a day or so. The spirit is then run through the 300 gallon still during a four-five hour distillation. The raw honey is added post-distillation so that it is never heated or filtered.
Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat Gin
The production process for the liquid is the same as mentioned above. The resulting gin is then aged in Vermont oak barrels for three-five months.
Tasting Note – Barr Hill Gin
Aromas: Rich, silky and creamy nectar aromas with an almost savoury honey note. Wild flowers and beeswax. A solid purple juniper core runs throughout alongside a touch of almond and blossom.
Palate: A light, yet silky texture – not too heavy or cloying. Bright juniper flavours in a soft, resinous style. Deep, gentle sweet wild flower top notes and pure raw honey. An ever-lasting finish.
With Tonic: Soft, sumptuous yet also bold honeysuckle, meadow flowers and juniper. Gentle sweet citrus. A beautiful succulent texture. Good length and weight on the finish.
Opinions: Delicious and delightful. Evocative of bees buzzing across wide open countryside. A pure example.
Tasting Note – Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat Gin
Aromas: Beautiful bold resinous pine and sweet oak. Cinnamon and dusty nutmeg over lavender, juniper and sandalwood. Complex.
Palate: Lighter than expected with a soft texture. Sugared cinnamon, rich honey and subtle underlying juniper. Gently warm. A touch heavy on the oak on the finish – more charred bonfire. Good length.
With Tonic: Barrel-aged gins don’t tend to work particularly well with tonic. The oak char conflicts slightly with the quinine. A rich texture with earthy spiced honey and juniper characters. Less nuanced and with a shorter finish.
Opinions: Perhaps not quite so ethereal as the standard version, but a beautiful product. Would go well with cola.
I adore Caledonia Spirits. I love the whole ethos and the determination to work sustainably with their local environment and community. It helps that the liquids produced are outstanding too.