Barrel aging is all the rage these days; here in Vermont, local artisans use oak to flavor everything from maple syrup to coffee. But as the practice became trendy, barrels became scarce. The shortage — spurred by increased demand for American bourbon, which must rest in new oak barrels by law — reached its height a couple of years ago, but it's still a very real issue for many brewers, distillers and winemakers.
In a 2014 Seven Days story about Vermont's burgeoning craft-distilling industry, Ken Picard noted that some local distillers were feeling the barrel shortage. He quoted Todd Hardie, owner of Hardwick's Caledonia Sprits (makers of the popular Barr Hill Gin), who said he hoped to start making his own barrels from Vermont-grown white oak. Hardie had located the wood and found foresters to harvest it, millers to mill it and dry storage where it could cure for the necessary year or more. All he needed was a cooper to make the barrels.
After Picard's story came out, a farmers market patron connected Hardie with Bob Hockert, a barrel maker near Plattsburgh, N.Y. Hockert crafted several five-gallon vessels — using Hardie's responsibly harvested Vermont oak — for a pilot run. Head distiller Ryan Christensen filled those barrels with booze and put them to bed.
This weekend, that liquor — 645 bottles of the brand's popular Tom Cat Gin — will hit the market at the Made in Vermont Marketplace at the Champlain Valley Exposition. Dozens of local food and beverage businesses will be slinging everything from craft cider to goat-milk caramels.
Caledonia's batch is Vermont's first liquor aged in native oak — maybe ever. "It's certainly [the first] since Prohibition," Christensen says. "It's tough to say if anyone was finding white oak and making barrels of it before that."
The distiller says you can taste the difference. Because of Vermont's climate, trees grow more slowly here than in oak-rich regions farther south. Compared with southern wood, Vermont's has a tighter grain and carries more wood sugar, which gives the liquor a sweeter flavor and reduces tannins and green astringency. "We're getting more sweetness on the tongue, rather than the much more masculine flavor that you'd get from that wider-pore oak," Christensen says.
With positive results from the pilot run, Caledonia Spirits has commissioned dozens of full-size 30-gallon barrels to store gin and other spirits. "We have a total of 25,000 board feet," Christensen says. "Most of that's been aging for more than a year, so we're kind of pressing 'go' on the project."
The original print version of this article was headlined "From Forest to Barrel"
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