Mad River Distillers – The Essence of Vermont

By Maria Buteux Reade / Photography By Brent Harrewyn | February 15, 2018
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Up in the hills above Warren, magic happens. A gleaming copper and stainless-steel still transforms local grains and fruit into bewitching spirits, and a cadre of distillers nurtures those powerful liquids into barrel-aged whiskey, rum and brandy. Mad River spirits? Drink them when you can.

Mad River Distillers evolved from the founders’ love of Calvados, the French apple brandy. After Maura Connolly and John Egan bought Cold Springs Farm in 2002, they decided to venture with their friend Brett Little into apple brandy, a nod to the plentiful fruit growing on the farm.

They hired Alex Hilton, a local contractor, to convert an old horse barn into a distillery. The renovation took almost two years, and during that time, Connolly and Egan brought Hilton on as distiller and general manager. “He was a natural fit and jumped right in,” Connolly says. The team started ordering equipment, getting permits and visiting other distilleries. “None of us had ever distilled before,” Hilton admits, “so we wanted to learn as much as we could in a relatively short time.”

The Mueller pot still arrived from Germany and took up residence in the former hayloft. That’s when the fun began. “We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” Connolly recalls. “John and Brett have science backgrounds and amazing palates, and they read and read. The still is small enough for us to experiment and run trial batches, so it’s like a science lab, and we all have our own pet projects.” Rum and whiskey soon joined apple brandy. “We thought this might be a fun hobby,” she adds, “but then we started winning medals and began to take this a bit more seriously.”

“Distilled and bottled by”—look for those magic words on your next bottle of craft hooch. That essential phrase distinguishes spirits made from scratch versus those with an imported distillate base. Mad River Distillers prides itself on doing everything from scratch. All the mashing, fermenting, distilling and aging happen in Warren, and the bottling is done by hand a few miles away in Waitsfield. Non-GMO grains, organic corn and fruits are all locally grown or regionally sourced, and the raw cane sugar is fair-trade certified. Maple comes from Runamok Farm up in Cambridge, and the farm’s natural spring supplies the pristine water. Family-owned cooperages make the barrels where the tantalizing spirits slumber.

“Even in the last five years, it’s become easier to source these ingredients locally, which I think stems from the boom in craft distilling,” Hilton states. “Farmers and producers are really responding to this resurgence and growing high-quality ingredients. It’s a fantastic time to be in craft beverages.”

Hilton oversees daily operations with Zack Fuller, who joined the team in 2014 after spending a year at a distilling and brewing school in Scotland. He came to ski at Smugglers Notch and ended up with the position here. Hopping between the mash tun and still, Fuller lets Hilton run with the story.

“Most craft distillers start with a clear spirit that doesn’t require any barrel aging. We started out with a white whiskey and rum and progressed from there. Now we’re pumping out consistently high-quality products that just continue to improve with age.”

Revolution Rye, one of the top sellers, incorporates three different varietals of rye that create a distinct peppery profile with hints of chocolate. “We have some pretty stiff competition with other Vermont ryes, but Revolution Rye is definitely holding its own,” Hilton notes with justified pride. Mad River Bourbon, made with four grains rather than the standard three, is smooth, rich and dependable, while Burnt Rock Bourbon, a limited edition run, has a slightly different mash bill that involves malted barley smoked over maple wood. One sip makes you hope this visitor becomes a full-timer. Malvados, aka “wicked apple brandy,” uses local heirloom apples and cider, the essence of Vermont distilled into a fruit-forward warmer.

Mad River’s four varieties of rum start with a lightly refined Demerara cane sugar, which produces a clean taste and a light finish. All the rum is barrel-aged with the exception of the vanilla rum. Maura Connolly laughs and explains its genesis: “I’m always doing Mason jar experiments, flavoring spirits with different spices to see what evolves. I had thrown some vanilla beans in a jar of rum to make extract. Friends convinced me that should become our vanilla rum. It makes an amazing daiquiri, playing more like vodka, perfect for mixing in cocktails.” The award-winning PX Rum ages in coveted Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, which lend a rich, nutty and lingering finish.

Maple Cask rum has its own native flair. “We ‘round trip’ rum barrels with a couple sugar makers, Runamok and Al Wood in Randolph,” Hilton explains. “They age their syrup for six months then return the maple-infused barrels to us, and we fill them again with our First Run rum.” Caribbean meets Green Mountains!

Hopscotch, Vermont’s first single malt whiskey, is a collaboration between Mad River Distillers and several local brewers, including Sean Lawson, Stone Corral, Von Trapp and 14th Star. Single malt is distilled beer, after all. (Get it? Hops? Scotch?) “They make a run of their beer, which we distill and barrel-age into single malt Scotch. We let the experts brew the beer and we take it to the next level.”

“The nice thing about being smaller scale,” Hilton continues, “is we can experiment. Right now, our spirits age for a minimum of one year. Our goal is to keep building up stock so they can age longer. Since no two barrels age the same way, no two batches are ever the same. That’s what distinguishes our craft products from industrially produced spirits. Large companies get their consistency by tipping thousands of barrels into enormous vats and blending them all together. We harvest one or two barrels at a time. This is what makes distilling so much fun for us. We can experiment with mash bills and flavor profiles.”

Mimi Buttenheim, company president and New England sales guru, adds, “We do a lot of tastings at farmers’ markets and events throughout the state, and it’s fun to hear people’s reactions to our products. Our tasting rooms in Burlington and at the Mad River Taste Place in Waitsfield have been incredibly popular as well. People can explore different spirits before they commit to buying a full bottle.”

Neil Goldberg manages the Burlington Tasting Room at the corner of St. Paul and Main Street in downtown Burlington, prime location for regulars and passers-by.

“Craft cocktails are burgeoning, and we’re a beacon for that culture,” Goldberg offers. “Having a tasting room in store allows me to showcase our spirits in cocktails. I’m definitely humbled by the platform I’ve been given. Mad River spirits can make a classic cocktail amazing, and I have about 20 cocktails on our menu plus specials. Most popular are the classics: the old-fashioned, sours and daiquiris. In the Maple Bourbon sour, I swap in maple for simple syrup. This winter, I’m serving ‘Pine and Berries,’ which calls for vanilla rum, pine syrup, black currant soda and lemon juice. I also stock the store with bitters, mixers, syrups and barware from around the world, so we’ve become a resource for hard-to-find cocktail elements. You can try a cocktail here, buy all the ingredients, and re-create it at home.”

Co-founder Maura Connolly reflects on the growth of Mad River Distillers in six years. “I’m really proud of how our products have evolved. We’ve stayed true to our values by using local and regional non-GMO and organic ingredients. We also price our spirits fairly for a handmade craft product. We don’t want to be that trophy bottle that sits untouched on a shelf—we want people to be able to enjoy our spirits.”

And come back to buy another bottle, of course.

Which is exactly what Maria Reade did, after sampling a few Mad River spirits. For research, of course. Her favorite(s)? Revolution Rye and Burnt Rock bourbon. Or maybe PX Rum.

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