Driving into Hardwick from the south on Route 15, a Ford dealership sits on the left. Set between towers of balloons and signs selling Ford trucks is a small dirt road, Log Yard Road.
If you drive down this path, past the Fords and dust-covered trucks moving logs, the road dead-ends at Caledonia Spirits, a small, barn-like building housing a distillery.
From this inauspicious spot, makers of small-batch gin and spirits toil to change the world. But before I get to that, I must back up.
American agriculture devolved throughout the last century from small farms producing food products for home and local and regional markets into a global commodity business. The lowest-priced agricultural commodities from wherever are used to make what we buy.
Homogenized and processed food, from frozen beans to Wheaties, guarantees a steady supply of consistently processed foodstuffs for low prices. This is terrific for keeping food costs low and margins high for manufacturers, but not so good if you live in a region of the country where hill farms and working landscapes make up the culture and source of livelihood and it is nearly impossible to compete on price alone.
Following this trend, Vermont’s agricultural landscape has changed relentlessly over the years and decades. In the recent past, dairy was king and the Holstein cow the coin of the realm. The old saying about Vermont — more cows than people — is sadly no longer true and the ability to make a good living farming well gets harder each year.
Many are working to buck this trend. Butterworks Dairy, which I wrote about many years ago, makes the best Jersey milk yogurt in the galaxy; farm-to-table is moving from cute idea to major movement; locally sourced grains are milled for locally baked breads; burgeoning farmers’ markets and community-sourced agriculture — CSAs — keep us close to our roots when buying food.
All this means as well the food we eat is better for us.
Making this change is a hard row to hoe. It is nearly always easier to make stuff for less somewhere else. Making stuff for less somewhere else is, simply put, at the root of all evil.
The relentless search for the lowest-cost source of commodities and goods hollows out small towns and big cities alike, breaks down community and leads always to crack-dens and street crime. If you don’t believe me, check out the old mill towns in Maine where America used to make shoes; take a hard look at what ails Baltimore or Detroit; try to raise a family on the wages paid to serve french fries.
So how do you change the world and find a way to bring valuable jobs back to hardscrabble places? One approach is to make very good gin and vodka.
The founder of Caledonia Spirits, Todd Hardie, told me a simple truth about making spirits and it seems the Scots started it:
They don’t grow grains to make good scotch; they make good scotch to create value in the grains they grow.
Land otherwise worthless has a value because the grain is turned in a lovely gold liquid sold in an expensive and beautiful bottle. Making farmland valuable and creating local farm jobs is why Todd founded Caledonia.
I met Todd when he wanted help to ensure his business would always be required to support jobs and farming in the Northeast Kingdom, even if that took value from the company. A lovely idea. It was a short and fun engagement.
I always thought about gin as simple: nice medicine with which to start a dinner party. Now I get the trick. As described by Todd, distilling spirits is a way to give crops value, preserve them for sale and move them to market at a cost that works. The making of gin then is part of a logical plan to save the world, so I visited this shed at the end of a dirt road.
Making a region work
People buzz around the building, working the alchemy of distilling. Rooms are full of large plastic barrels of honey, boxes of shipping containers, marketing material and lovely bottles of gin and vodka.
The cold concrete floor and sweet smell of distilling reminds me of a milking parlor.
The still itself is a massive, shiny steel tube with bright copper-colored pipes coming off at odd angles, like an incredibly large saxophone attached to massive metal bowls.
I stand and watch as workers test the gin’s proof, making sure it will neither kill you nor disappoint. I talk with the team about their work. I ask about the value of sourcing ingredients locally.
Caledonia now sources the white oak in Vermont forests for barrels used to age the elixirs. It’s too soon to say whether it’ll be all Vermont, but that’s the plan.
The ingredients for the gin is not all from Vermont — organic juniper berries come from Croatia and getting high-quality honey for the gin and vodka mean a regional reach. Aiding a local economy, we are still part of a big world. We can’t expect to live in a bubble and world economics can’t be boiled down to a return to feudal craft economies. All the spent grains and junipers go to local farmers to feed chickens and make compost.
It is a small start, using locally sourced crops as much as possible to make spirits. The plan now is to expand to make more whiskeys and source the vast majority of these grains locally.
Although I doubt we’ll ever make shoes again in Maine, we should try to make a region work. We should not base every decision only on return on investment and lowest cost.
Next month I’ll visit Todd to learn about growing rye for whiskey and stop in with Ryan Christianson, president and head distiller at the plant. I want to learn about the whiskey plans and about efforts to grow local hops for our brewers (which will take me to meet even more visionary alchemists).
I want to learn how much we can take the agricultural economy away from commodity buyers and give it back to ourselves. That this research will involve whiskeys and beer is a small price to pay.
David Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe. Email letters to email@example.com.