The Hippo


Jul 21, 2019








Brian Ferguson in front of his still. Photo by Ryan Lessard.


Feedstock: Sugar source for fermenting
Case: 12 bottles (750ml)
Head: Acetone-heavy alcohol released early from a still
Heart: The cut of the distillate rich in ethyl alcohol
Tail:  The final cut of the distillate in which the flavor drops off, taking on a burnt characteristic. Often reclaimed for other use by distillers
Maceration: Steeping ingredients into a spirit
Mashing: Converting complex starches in grains into simple sugars. Also known as saccharification.
Mash: Porridge-like sweet juice from malted grains ready to be fermented
Wort: The liquid juice filtered out of the mash
Rickhouse: Warehouse for storing whiskey barrels
RTDs: Ready-to-drink spirits that are bottled and sold without aging
Angel’s share: The amount of alcohol that evaporates while aging in barrels
Proof: Two times the percentage of alcohol (i.e. 100 proof is 50 percent alcohol)
What happens in a distillery?
While many people are familiar with the results of the distilling process (whether you turn it into your favorite cocktail or enjoy it straight up) the process itself can be a mystery. Though it does involve multiple steps and sci-fi-looking equipment, what goes on inside a distillery can be broken down into a few simple stages. The distillers we talked to explained how it’s done.
First you start with raw materials — usually sugar rich foods like fruits, grains or molasses — which are broken down, cooked and mixed with water to make a mash. During the mashing process, the complex starches in the raw materials are converted to simple sugars. Then the mash goes through one of the two main processes for making spirits — fermentation, in which alcohol is created by combining sugar and yeast. The yeast feeds on the sugar, yielding a byproduct of ethanol and carbon dioxide. 
For products like beer or wine, the process pretty much ends here. But for spirits, the next step is distillation, which is simply the process of separating alcohol from water. This is done through a cycle of heating and cooling in a still where the alcohol is vaporized and condensed over a period of hours, producing drops of the distilled spirits. Depending on what spirit is being made, the next steps involve layering flavor profiles or barrel aging. Liquors like whiskey are made from what is essentially beer without hops. Similarly, brandy is made from distilling wine. Other spirits are defined by their raw materials, their alcohol level, ingredients added during the distillation process and the amount of time they age in oak barrels.
Coming soon
Two distilleries are due to open in the near future, the first of which is being added on to a vineyard. 
Haunting Whisper Vineyard & Spirits
Where: 77 Oak Ridge Drive, Danbury, 768-5506,
Haunting Whisper Vineyard & Spirits owners Eric and Erin Wiswall opened the vineyard in Danbury in 2009 and decided to make spirits to help diversify their customer base.
“It’s a good marriage,” Eric Wiswall said. “There are multiple reasons that one goes with the other.”
For example, if one season the grapes aren’t good for making wine, they’ll have the alternative to distill them. Plus, they want to broaden their customer base, which for the wine is mostly women. 
The first two spirits Wiswall plans to make are a maple-infused brandy and an apple pie liquor, going along with the goal of giving each product a New England spin.
“Everyone and their brother is doing vodka and gin and we don’t want to be another vodka and gin,” he said. 
Down the road he’d like to make bourbon and rum as well. Check the website for updates about the opening later this year.
Copper Cannon Distillery
Where: 2 Lyman Way, West Chesterfield, 225-241-1160,
Copper Cannon Distillery, due to open in 2016, is the brainchild of Louisiana native Blake Amacker. Along with his cousin Chris Arnold, the two “refurbished and reclaimed” a three-story barn in West Chesterfield which will soon produce rum and whiskey, followed by vodka and gin in the future. “As far as rum goes we’ll do seasonal rums, which is like our secret thing and then we have a regular white rum and an aged rum and a spiced rum,” Amacker said. “We’re planning to push the whole rum thing and see how that comes out.”

Homegrown Booze
Fresh flavors bottled in New Hampshire

By Allie Ginwala, Ryan Lessard

Flag Hill Winery & Distillery

Where: 297 North River Road, Lee, 
Year opened: 2004
Products: General John Stark Vodka, Karner Blue Gin, Josiah Bartlett Apple Brandy, White Mountain Moonshine, Flag Hill Spiced Rum
Fun fact: Most of their spirits are made from apples grown in Concord. 
While its 2004 opening is hardly ancient history, Flag Hill has the distinction of being the very first distillery to open in New Hampshire since Prohibition.
“This is actually one of the oldest micro-distilleries in the country,” Flag Hill owner Brian Ferguson said.
Ferguson says the trend of micro-distilling began in the late 1990s.
“And in just the last couple years, it’s completely exploded, and that’s true across the whole U.S., not just New Hampshire,” Ferguson said. “We’ve seen it grow from about 300 distillers a couple years ago to like 1,000-plus now.”
Flag Hill is selling its products in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York City.
“We’re working on getting our gin into Vermont and Maine,” Ferguson said.
Competing in New York City has been difficult, though, since several micro-distilleries set up shop in Brooklyn and consumers are drawn to the hyper-local options. Still, Ferguson says Flag Hill does well for itself.
“We’re well-established. We have pretty good sales for a small distillery, and we’ve been very slowly growing,” Ferguson said.
He says it helps that the company has its hands in other operations like its winery and catering business. That diversity made it far less risky to break into making spirits.
“Roughly, on average, we’re around 3,000 cases [sold] a year, which is tiny. Most big distilleries do that in a day,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson uses a small, hybrid pot and column still designed by Christian Carl.
“The still is designed to do many, many different things because small distilleries are nimble. We make whiskey, gin, vodka, brandy, cordials, rum, all kinds of stuff,” Ferguson said.
Most of their products are made from apple cider that comes from Apple Hill Farm in Concord.
“Apples are about as New England as it gets right now in terms of agriculture, so it’s the perfect feedstock to be the base for everything,” Ferguson said.
In a typical year, they’ll bring in about 10 2,200-gallon tanks of cider between September and late winter.
“That makes up about 60 percent of our feedstock,” Ferguson said. “We make our gin from that base, we make our sugar maple liqueur from the base, we make our Josiah Bartlett Apple Brandy, we make our vodka from that.”
Other products include an award-winning gin, a white rum, a spiced rum, and fruity liqueurs made with apple, cranberry, blueberry and maple sugar. One of their newest products is White Mountain Moonshine, made from a corn and barley mash processed at the Smuttynose Brewery.
Ferguson is a distiller by trade. When he came to Flag Hill two years ago, he didn’t plan on buying it, but when the opportunity presented itself last June, that’s what he did. Now, he wants to leverage his distilling skills to make it a bigger part of what the company does. And making whiskey, bourbon and other aged spirits is the key to making that happen.
“I would like it to be maybe 80 to 90 percent of the business,” Ferguson said.
Aged spirits are increasingly popular in the marketplace. Virtually everyone making spirits wants to age them, but since Flag Hill was the first local distillery, it’s already had more than a decade’s head start over everyone else in the state.
While it’s expensive to sit on a product for years, aged spirits are more profitable. Ferguson estimates the whiskey barrels in his rickhouse are appreciating in value by about 8 percent each year.
Now, he has product releases for aged spirits scheduled between now and 2020, starting with straight bourbon whiskey, which will be unveiled during a Bluegrass and Bourbon Hoedown on Nov. 7 at the winery. 
“This year it’s bourbon. Next year, it’s rye. The following year, it’s probably going to be 12-year-old Niagara brandy. The year after that it’s gonna be 12-year-old apple brandy and the year after that will probably be our heavy rum, which at that point will be seven years old, roughly,” Ferguson said.
Bourbon is a type of whiskey made with 51 percent corn and aged for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. Other types of whiskey can be aged for different periods of time.
“We’ve been making bourbon quite a bit differently than what a lot of small distillers are doing, mainly because we’re waiting on it,” Ferguson said.
Some small distillers get around the time restraints by using small barrels for something like three months to simulate the aging that takes place for several years in a large barrel. But Ferguson says aging is about more than just imbuing the charred oak flavor and brown coloration. It’s about letting the barrels breathe.
“You have to have good raw material, you have to do a good job mashing it, you have to do a good job distilling it and then you have to wait on it,” Ferguson said. “We let it open age in an open climate rickhouse. It’s cold in the winter; it’s warm in the summer.”
It’s that temperature fluctuation that happens between day and night, winter and summer, that Ferguson says will make this a truly New Hampshire product.
New England Sweetwater Farm & Distillery
Where: 136 Main St., Winchester, (617) 980-1860,
Year opened: 2015 (This month!)
Products: Ashuelot Vodka, Clark & Chesterfield Whiskey, King Fish Rum, Monadnock Moonshine
Fun fact: Many of their ingredients will come from their own farm up the road.
They’ve got booze in their blood, and that’s before they’ve had a drop. Emerson College film professor Robert Spruill and his brother Joshua are opening the New England Sweetwater Farm & Distillery in Winchester.
Rob Spruill bought a farm in the small New Hampshire town along the Massachusetts border for his parents in the late 1990s. When his mother died a few years ago, he inherited the more than 50 acres of property. It didn’t take long for Spruill to get to work on his dream of starting a distillery. He’s hoping to continue the legacy of his grandfather.
“Him and his brother owned a juke joint [in North Carolina], which is like an African-American blues bar back from the ‘30s and ‘40s. My grandfather’s job was supplying the product, so to speak,” Spruill said.
Spruill’s original plan was to set up shop in the farm itself. But when they first proposed the idea, not everyone in town was in favor.
“All of the neighbors sued the town and said we couldn’t have a distillery there, and we eventually won. That took about a year in court to get sorted out,” Spruill said.
But his difficulties didn’t end there. The federal government wouldn’t award a permit because of the farm’s proximity to the house. Their options were to upgrade electricity and plumbing in the old farmhouse or find a new location.
“We were recently smarting from getting rejected by the feds and a building downtown in Winchester ... [became] available,” Spruill said. “So we ended up down on Main Street.”
He says what began as a modest plan of using crops from the farm for a little 10-gallon farm still became a much more ambitious operation with downtown headquarters and a custom-made combo mash tun stripping still with 100-gallon and 50-gallon pot stills.
They obtained a federal permit last year and a state license in August, about the time they were finishing the installation of the stills.
“We just have one more to go, which is the permit of assembly so that people can come into our tasting room,” Spruill said. “That actually comes from our local fire chief.”
The farm can still be used as part of the distillery operation for secondary functions like juicing fruits or housing barrels for aging.
Spruill muses that despite New Hampshire’s relatively friendly regulations, in some ways it might have been easier to set up in Boston because at least there, inspectors would be familiar with distilleries.
“Whereas here, in our county — Cheshire County — we’re the first one. Everyone comes in, scratches their heads and has to figure out how to invent the wheel,” Spruill said.
He recalls having to persuade the local planning board that stills are not pressure vessels when some board members were convinced to the contrary.
But despite the earlier pushback from the neighborhood, he says folks have been largely supportive.
One of his most unique products for the state will be a single malt scotch whiskey.
Tall Ship Distillery
Where: 32 Crosby Road Unit 5, Dover, 842-0098,
Year opened: 2014
Products: White Island Rum, Cedar Island Spiced Rum, Malaga Island Barrel-Aged Rum
Fun fact: The owner is the son of Portsmouth State Rep. Laura Pantelakos.
Of the craft distillers in New Hampshire, few if any can boast what John Pantelakos can. He taught himself welding and built his own 250-gallon copper pot still. After a grueling seven-month process of trial and error, sealing leaks and balking at boiler salesmen’s price tags, he installed his own heating system, main still and 35-gallon testing still.
Pantelakos said it usually costs distillers close to $350,000 to get started, but he got it done with less than a third of that, and making his own still was a big part of the savings.
“Saved myself a lot of money. A still like this can go anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 to $100,000 depending on who you go to,” Pantelakos said.
He estimates the cost of the still without labor was about $14,000.
Pantelakos taught himself how to make spirits after a Caribbean cruise he took with his wife four years ago, when he discovered different kinds of rums. When he returned to New Hampshire, he visited Sea Hagg in North Hampton and Turkey Shore Distilleries in Ipswich, Mass.
He asked questions, took notes and read up. Then he set up space in an industrial park in Dover and started operating in August 2014. He released his first product, a white rum, the following November in New Hampshire liquor stores.
Now, he’s producing close to 200 cases of rum a month with distribution deals in Massachusetts and Maine, and he hopes to break into Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont within the next year.
The rum is made from molasses he orders from Favorite Foods in Somersworth. So far, he’s released the Tall Ship White Island Rum and Tall Ship Cedar Island Spiced Rum, and the Malaga Island Barrel-Aged Rum came out six months ago. This fall, he’s releasing an Appledore Rum.
“We’re doing testing now with flavored rums,” Pantelakos said.
His next project includes getting into whiskey, and he hopes to eventually upgrade to a column still so he can make vodka and gin as well.
Tamworth Distilling & Mercantile
Where: 15 Cleveland Hill Road, Tamworth, 323-7196,
Year opened: 2015 (last May)
Products: Apiary Gin, The Good Reverend’s Universal Spirit, Flora Gin (coming soon)
Fun fact: When viewed from the top, the Apiary Gin bottles are hexagon shaped, evoking a beehive cell.
Tamworth Distilling is the brainchild of marketing master Steven Grasse, the guy behind Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, Hendrick’s Gin and the Art in the Age organic liqueurs. 
The micro-distillery he built in the rural northern town along the Swift River is not meant for mass production. It’s meant to take spirits back to their organic and agricultural roots.
“I want to play with a different model here,” Grasse said.
He’s always had other people make his creations, but now he has a craft distillery to call his own. He plans on using it as a test kitchen while selling small, limited-release batches of products to test the waters of the market.
“It was always frustrating. We never really get exactly what we want because we’re one step removed from the process. So we wanted to have one of our own test kitchens to be able to make exactly what we’re looking for and make a lot of different things,” Grasse said. “We keep saying it’s the Willy Wonka [factory] for booze.”
If they pushed the Vendome stills to their limits, they could probably produce about 10,000 cases a year, but he never plans on doing that. Grasse doesn’t want quantity to compromise the quality.
“We’re trying to be extremely limited in what we create, not just as a marketing tool, but also because we want to really create exceptional, amazing things,” Grasse said. “I want to have, in New Hampshire, the best craft distillery in America. … That’s the goal.”
While he has lofty goals, operating a successful distillery for Grasse is a simple formula.
“You gotta have a good distillery and you gotta have a point of difference and a way of doing business that is unique,” Grasse said.
The distillery opened in May and has already made ripples in the world of liquors with some of its early offerings. 
“The thing that makes our distillery unique ... is my standing in the spirits industry. I’ve had three hit products in a row,” Grasse said.
Right now, there is demand for fewer artificial flavors and more natural and, if possible, locally sourced ingredients. Consumers are starting to realize it makes for a better drinking experience, and Grasse hopes to meet that demand.
He says if a product takes off, he can use his connections in the industry to seal an international distribution deal with a big company like William Grant & Sons. If he needs to ramp up production, he’d just build another facility.
For now, he says he picked Tamworth for two reasons. The first is the water.
“The Ossipee Aquifer is one of the purest on the coast, if not the whole country,” Grasse said.
Plus, he adds, “you can’t frack in granite.”
The second reason is the history of the town.
“[Henry David] Thoreau spent time here and I was drawn to that history and story. It’s a part of New Hampshire that is still very pure and it just seemed like a really interesting place to set down roots along the Swift River,” Grasse said.
And the state as a whole is a good place for a distillery, he said.
“New Hampshire is the third biggest single buyer of spirits in the world. You got Canada ... you’ve got Pennsylvania and then you’ve got New Hampshire,” Grasse said.
Right now, you can only buy Tamworth’s products in the distillery itself.
“We’re going to be in New York City in September in very limited quantities and we’re going to start selling wholesale to the state very soon,” Grasse said.
Though Grasse doesn’t have much of a hand in the day-to-day, his older brother David is overseeing the operation while a master distiller, Jamie Oakes, and a chemist, Matt Power, toil away making experimental batches.
Smoky Quartz Distillery
Where: 894 Lafayette Road, Seabrook, 474-4229,
Year opened: 2014
Products: Solid Granite Vodka, Granite Lightning Moonshine, Granite Coast Rum, V5 Bourbon
Fun fact: Smoky Quartz products are distilled from certified organic corn grown within 125 miles of the distillery.
Kevin Kurland hadn’t thought about opening his own distillery until he read an article in the Wall Street Journal amidst a rocket mortar attack during his second tour in Baghdad.
“It looked like a lot more fun than what I was doing,” he said. 
After returning home later that year, he read about and visited as many distilleries as he could while maintaining his job as an engineer, but didn’t decide to finally make the move until 2013.
“[I thought], I’m gonna do it now, and told my wife and she didn’t think much of it until big boxes started showing up,” he said. 
He enlisted the help of his father, brother, uncle and stepfather for the building’s construction and equipment installation.
“I devoted evenings and weekends for a full year [to] my building construction and design and getting it up and going,” he said. 
Prior to opening Smoky Quartz, Kurland’s only involvement with the spirits industry was drinking it, which meant starting his own distillery took a big leap of faith.
“Opening a distillery is a distinctly different animal,” he said. “You can make beer and wine at your house [but] you can’t legally distill in your house.” 
Before the licensing process can even begin there has to be a dedicated location, and equipment must be either purchased or ordered.
“It was a big dice roll,” he said. “But I figured … I could make very good basic products.”
He started with vodka because clear spirits can be made fairly quickly. Next he made a white corn whiskey moonshine followed by a Caribbean-style rum and then bourbon, which sold out — all 550 bottles — in only two months. 
Smoky Quartz products are all made with a single 300-gallon still, and Kurland is in the process of adding a second still to be dedicated solely to whiskey. All of his products are distilled with Monadnock Mountain Spring Water from Wilton, a point of pride for the New Hampshire native, who named his business after the state’s gemstone — the smoky quartz.
“I’ve gotten an exceptionally positive feedback on that name,” he said.
Though some people come to the distillery expecting to find a rock and gem shop, most head in knowing they are visiting a veteran-owned and locally sourced distillery. 
“I think this just plays to … the roots of where I am right now,” he said. “I’m very proud to be in the New Hampshire Air National Guard for 17 years. That’s part of my identity. I travel around the country [and] there’s a lot of pluses to being associated with New Hampshire … to leverage the good reputation of the state with my business.”
Sea Hagg Distillery
Where: 135 Lafayette Road, Unit 9, North Hampton, 379-2274,
Year opened: 2013
Products: Amber rum, blueberry rum, spiced rum, poitin white whiskey, strawberry rum (summer seasonal), peach rum (fall seasonal), apple eau de vie, apple brandy and Plaice Cove Irish-style whiskey
Fun fact: Their name was inspired by the seaside community and the fact that in every port you’ll always find a boat called the Sea Hagg. 
After leading the Granite State Growler Tours group through Sea Hagg Distillery on a Sunday afternoon, distiller Ron Vars sat in his office and recalled the moment he and owner Heather Hughes decided to start their own distillery. They were vacationing on an island off Puerto Rico. They explored the island’s distilleries, then came back to New Hampshire and ran the numbers before Hughes dove in and spent a year learning the art of making rum.
“New England’s got such a great rum history,” Vars said. “We made more rum than they did in the Caribbean [and] had rum barrels on our state seal until about 1850.”
Influenced both by their home in the Seacoast and the state’s rum history, they wanted to make a product that reflected the spirit’s traditional flavor, inspired by what one may have tasted while sitting in a Portsmouth tavern in 1742. 
Vars said traditionally the molasses used to make the rum would have been smuggled from the French Islands, but that’s where they draw the line at true authenticity, getting theirs from Louisiana.
Sea Hagg Distillery does open fermentation and distills its products with a copper alembic pot still. 
“We have a little bit different of a process in making the rum,” Hughes said.
She chose to age the amber rum, the traditional New England-style rum, in new toasted oak barrels, unlike many Caribbean rums that are aged in used bourbon and whiskey barrels.
“We’re using local strawberries and blueberries and peaches,” she said. “I’m not using flavorings or color additives.”
You’ll never see a coconut or pineapple rum coming from Sea Hagg because those flavors can’t be sourced from local farms like Applecrest Farm in Hampton and Butternut Farm in Farmington.
“I’m not going to go to a flavor company just so I can get the same thing I can get from the farm,” Vars said. “Utilize [the] resources you’ve got here.”
With a variety of fruits flavoring Sea Hagg rums, Vars said that sometimes the idea for a new spirit flavor is pure happenstance. At first he was using berries to make brandy, but was having a difficult time getting the flavor to come through. So instead, he took that distillate and blended it with rum, yielding a much better result. 
“The rum’s got that very nice sweetness to it,” he said. “I think the rum is a cleaner vehicle for bringing things across. … The sweetness helps celebrate the fruit.” 
Soon they’ll begin work to put in a second story in order to make more room for the fermenters, bottling operation and a bigger still. The distillery will remain open during construction.
Djinn Spirits Distillery
Where: 2 Townsend West, Suite 9, Nashua, 262-1812,
Year opened: 2013
Products: Distilled Gin, Beat 3 White Whiskey, Beat 3 Reserve Whiskey, Krupnik Spiced Honey Liqueur
Fun fact: Djinn Spirits is one of only four distilleries in the U.S. that makes Krupnik (recently featured in a Playboy article highlighting a spirit from each of the 50 states).
For Andy Harthcock, all it took was a passing comment to pique his interest in finding out how spirits are distilled. 
“Actually it was Cindy’s fault,” Harthcock said of his wife and Djinn Spirits co-owner. “She made a stray comment one evening to the effect of, ‘Well distilling would be fun.’”
Within 24 hours of that passing moment, Harthcock, an engineer, designed a simple still and built it out of materials from Home Depot (and Cindy’s pressure cooker). Two years after the moment of inspiration, they opened Djinn Spirits in Nashua. 
“We’re lucky,” Cindy Harthcock said. “New Hampshire is supportive of craft distillers.”
“They’re really helping to foster the small businesses in the state, and you can imagine how difficult it would be from a marketing standpoint for us to compete say with Seagram’s or Finlandia,” Andy Harthcock added. 
The first product they made was Beat 3 white whiskey, followed by their Distilled Gin, unique from others in that it has a slight color to it.
“It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but the foodies and people that are really thinking about what they’re tasting invariably love our gin,” Andy Harthcock said. 
Djinn Spirits uses a vapor infusion process in the still that he designed and built. 
“When we do the vapor infusion, you use what’s called a gin head,” he said, explaining that it’s a stainless steel container that holds mesh bags of botanicals, like juniper and coriander seed. 
While the alcohol is in its vapor form in the still, it passes through the botanicals in a downward flow, picking up the flavors and aromas. A small amount of condensation occurs because of slight heat loss in the metal container so as the vapor turns to a liquid it collects in the sides of the botanicals and drips down into the output.
“It actually picks up a little bit of color off of the botanicals that way,” he said.
The next spirit they made was an aged version of the white whiskey called Beat 3 Reserve.
“With the aged [whiskey] we needed to have a process that we could get to market with a product relatively soon,” Andy Harthcock said. 
Beat 3 Reserve is put in small 20-liter barrels, allowing it to age in months rather than years.
The last and perhaps most unique product Djinn Spirits produces is krupnik, a spiced honey liqueur.
“A friend of mine who’s Polish posted her recipe [on Facebook] for this spiced liqueur that her family makes,” Cindy Harthcock said. 
Curious, she researched the origin of Krupnik and other recipes. Starting with a high proof neutral grain spirit, Djinn’s Krupnik is made with honey from D’s Busy Bees in Amherst and Cindy’s mix of traditional spices like peppercorns (which is what “makes Krupnik, Krupnik,” she said) and her own inspiration like fresh ginger and allspice before aging it in used whiskey barrels. 
Currently in the works at Djinn is an apple pie moonshine product made with local apples. 
“You take a moonshine base spirit and add apple cider and spices to it,” Cindy Harthcock said. “It’s a nice fall product, and it’s a nice alternative for people that don’t drink wine [or] beer.”
Coming out in mid-November is Djinn’s malt whiskey that’s been aged in 15-gallon barrels for a year. 

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