February 23rd, 2021
Distilling in Maine: Ingenuity, Craft, and History
It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday and I’m in an up-and-coming industrial neighborhood in one of Maine’s coastal towns, enjoying a drink. It’s Maine Craft Distilling’s take on a Moscow Mule, served with their spiced Ration Rum, ginger beer, and lime juice. Or perhaps it’s peppery Gunpowder Rye from New England Distilling, served straight up along with a tour of the distillery. I could be in Biddeford’s Pepperell Mill sipping a Bimini Special—a refreshing tonic made with Round Turn Distilling’s Bimini Gin, coconut water, lime juice, and a dash of bitters. The spirits may vary, but one thing is consistent: these craft distilleries are helping to bring life back to once-neglected industrial spaces as part of a resurgence of distilling in Maine that hasn’t been this robust since before Prohibition.
Craft distilleries and their accompanying tasting rooms are following in the well-trod steps of craft breweries. Fifteen distilleries have opened in Maine in the last 11 years, wrestling consumers’ attention away from national brands with carefully crafted, often locally-sourced products in a wide array of styles. Like breweries, the forerunners of the industry worked to change unfavorable laws leftover from the 1930s for their businesses to thrive. And it’s working—as regulations become friendlier to small businesses and the public’s thirst for craft beverages grows, more and more distilleries are firing up their stills and slinging drinks across the tasting room bar.
Distilling in Maine was actually outlawed for the longest period of time in the country—from the passage of the so-called Maine Law in 1851 until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933—a total of 82 years. It should follow then that near every distillery in Maine gives a nod to history by revitalizing forgotten spaces. Distillers work in once-abandoned mills and warehouses in Portland, Brewer, Biddeford and in renovated barns in York, Freeport, Union, and Newcastle. They create spirits that honor our state’s rich history of shipyards, working waterfronts, and agriculture in these spaces made relevant once again.
Of course, no one narrative captures the wide variety within Maine’s craft distilling industry. The men and women behind the stills produce unique spirits using technology that was first discovered in Medieval times, but given a 21st century twist. Unwanted potatoes become gin and vodka at Maine Distilleries; Split Rock Distilling ferments and distills locally-grown organic grains into vodka and bourbon. Several distilleries use molasses to make a number of rums as varied as those from the Caribbean Islands, and gins are flavored with unique botanicals like chamomile, rose petals, and naturally, blueberries. There’s a Maine-made spirit for everyone from fruity mixed drink lovers to serious whiskey aficionados.
As the Maine craft distilling industry grows, so does the average drinker’s knowledge of spirits. Bespoke cocktail menus featuring bitters, amaros, egg white-topped drinks, and housemade ingredients have helped turn many average bar-goers into a knowledgeable and discerning consumers. Others are simply happy to try something new that tastes good, and many are looking to connect with the story behind the drink. As a result, the last few years have seen a rise in the popularity of events and groups that offer drinks with a side of education.
The Portland Spirits Society (of which I am the founder) hosts ladies-only educational events about different styles of liquor. We’ve learned about everything from tequila and Scotch to what kind of whiskey pairs well with chocolate. Briana Volk, owner of the Portland cocktail bar Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, coordinates the New England Cocktail Conference annually, a multi-day event for industry professionals and the public. The conference’s events in years past ranged from tiki drinks 101 to a “grandpa drinks”-themed retro dinner.
A natural extension of the farm-to-table ethos that has gripped our nation’s food, craft distilling has what’s missing from those ubiquitous national brands: a unique sense of place. People want a drink with a story, and the ingenuity and craft that has long characterized the makers of our state fills every bottle. So next time you order a drink at a bar, ask what’s local, and listen for the unique story that only a Maine-made spirit can tell.
— Kate McCarty is a food and drink writer living in Portland, Maine. She has written two books, including Distilled in Maine: A History of Libations, Temperance, and Craft Spirits. Find more of her writing at blueberryfiles.com.