Article By: Fred Bouchard
Brothers Donnie and Lee Thibodeau (co-Chairmen) have joined forces with CEO Bob Harkins and distiller Chris Dowe* to launch Maine Distilleries, the Pine Tree State's first commercial distillery. Their idea was to transform potatoes - that starchy tuber with somewhat tarnished acclaim among diet-crazed Americans - into premium vodka, a clear, potent straight-or-mixing beverage with evidently limitless appeal.
This novel marketing strategy was meant to boost the value of the successful potato crop that Donnie and wife Brenda have grown for several years on their 13OO acre Green Thumb Farm in Fryeburg, not far from the Cold River, near the New Hampshire border. It took the four partners over three years to create and perfect a potato vodka formula that hit the streets in Maine last Thanksgiving.
I arrived at Cold River Distillery a few weeks earlier, and, despite a full-page teaser that had run in boston globe sunday magazine, nary a drop of vodka was to be tasted. Assistant Richard Raeke, business student at Babson College in Wellesley and Freeport resident, handed out brochures to the handful of curious seekers and tantalizingly showed off the artistically etched clear glass cylindrical bottle. But he scrupulously followed his instructions - no sales, no samples - until the official release on Thanksgiving at The Harraseekett Inn.
Since that official launch, things haven't improved much for out-of-staters beyond The Granite State. The distillery is still scrambling to fill orders to on-premise clients in Maine and New Hampshire. Cold River does not yet ship to Massachusetts, so consumers must travel northward to sample this new product. Finally tasted in April - the triple-distilled vodka shows a light, crisp texture, very clean nose with a tang of potato, and a slightly sweet, firm finish. Good straight, good mixer.
COOL DRINK Despite the no-taste test back then, distiller Chris Dowe - pronounce it like 'female deer' - was on hand to outline the company's background and the vodka's evolution. "All the farmers in Aroostook County have talked for years about making vodka. Donnie and Lee came to me and Bob Haskins with the idea, and asked us whether we thought it was feasible. Well, we worked on it for three years. Bought this building last October, gutted and rebuilt it. I've been building breweries for McCann Fabrication (New Gloucester) over the last 11 years, mostly New England operations - Shipyard, Geary's, Gritty's, Sugarloaf.
"We bought the best pot still you can buy from Gobingen, Germany. It's 34.5 foot column allows us to make very pure alcohol. We're trying to get the cleanest, purest ethanol we can to mix with spring water, cutting down the strength to 4O%. 'Rectifying' is when we go from the first distillation of 3O to 4O% alcohol, to the second time up to 9O%, and the third time all the way to nearly pure ethanol at 96.2%. That is the highest possible, without going to the closed, anhydrous system used to make pharmaceutical alcohol. Tailings we collect because there's a lot of ethanol in them; we distill them again, then sell the rest to a pharmaceutical company."
A start-up distillery, particularly for a product as exotic as potato vodka, has few precedents to learn from. Dowe explains: "There's only one other potato distillery in North America, and that's in Idaho. That is Silver Creek, a contract distillery that makes great vodka and potato vodka. When we went looking for information, we found there wasn't much. We made our first test batch last July with the State University here at Orono and also the state university in Lansing, Michigan. Then in August, we made a second batch. We've worked the bugs out. A lot of things can go weird when you're growing from a small batch to large one. This happens at new breweries, too - it takes a while for you to get the machines to do what you want them to do."
Today Dowe has three assitant distillers on his team to help meet the expected summer demand; they are Joe Swanson, Chris Mills and Ben Francis.
Making potato vodka requires a different process from grain and corn vodkas. Unlike grains, which can be easily warehoused without change, potatoes evolve in storage. How many of us find our 5-pound bag a-shrivel and sprouting eyes? "Potatoes are live vegetables, they break down, they change. It's really important to keep potatoes in cold storage so they stay fresh until you want to make a batch. Our potato farmer, Donnie's dad, knows how they act and react, knows how to store them to keep them best."
Then Dowe gets a bit more technical. "99% of vodkas are made with grain, which has natural enzymes. Potatoes do not, so you have to add them to get the starches to change to sugar. There are commercial enzymes that you can buy.
"Some places use up to 15% malted barley and the rest potatoes. We could have done the same, but we want to use only Maine products in our vodka, and you cannot buy malted barley made in Maine. You can buy the barley, but you have to go to maltsters in Canada or elsewhere."
Ingredients are simple, potatoes and water, but require the best available and a patient technique. "Maine water has a great name and image: clean, pure, sparkling," Dowe continues. "We use only 75 gallons of well water per batch of 5O cases of product." But which potatoes? Maine russets? Ah, there's the scrub. Some are better than others, but the choice is a closely guarded proprietary secret. "We've researched potato types and we know which we want to use and which we don't," says Dowe with an inscrutable grin. "There are still hundreds of potato farmers around to buy from."
And lots of curiosity and appeal for a drink that has the stuff of legend in it. Dowe explains with a little local historical background. Apparently in Aroostook County during World War II there was a distillery that made potato alcohol to supplement the war effort. They kept it going until 1948, but then shut down because it was difficult work and not cost effective. "There's a lot of folklore about making poitin - the Celtic name for still spirits - and still vodka up here," Dowe continues, "mostly among the French Canadians."
Dowe claims they're closing the ecological circle on waste products. "We're researching how to dry out leftover potato must so we can package and sell it to farmers for sow feed or additives. We're generating about 1OOO gallons of waste per batch; so far we've been shipping it to composters. It gives the pigs proteins and other nutrients."
MAINE'S NATURAL BUZZ Chip Gray presided at Cold River's launch, held at his family-owned Harraskeet Inn at the north end of Freeport, just up the road from L.L.Bean. His mom, Nancy Gray - a passionate advocate of matters Maine-related - explained their support of the fledgling Cold River enterprise. "The Inn is more into Maine beer than Maine wine. (We're on wine spectator's 'Good' list.) And we want these Cold River boys to succeed, so we chased them and offered to run a blowout party on the eve of their opening. They were able to introduce the product locally, and soon show it off throughout New England."
The support extends to marketing strategies. Harraseekett Inn is offering a specially priced two-night Spirit of Maine Package that includes a fifth of Cold River, two "Maine-tinis" at the bar, and other perks. These drinks feature the vodka with anti-oxidant fruit juices like pomegranate and blueberry. The Inn goes through a few cases of Cold River Vodka a week, largely in Maine-tinis. Azure Cafe, in Freeport, has a Cold River Vodka Tomato Soup, a sort of warm Bloody Mary. Check the web for mixing ideas. Marketing manager Nancy Marshall claims it tastes fine warmed, like hot mulled cider or gluhwein. "We're trying to get it featured in ski resort bars next winter."