Inside Vermont’s Cocktail Revolution

With more than 25 craft distilleries in Vermont, bartenders around the state are finding creative ways to mix local spirits into creative new cocktails that offer a taste of summertime in a glass.  

For an original, summery cocktail you can make at home, created especially for Vermont Ski + Ride by 2019 Vermont Bartender of the Year Emily Morton, click here.

At 3 p.m., the bar at Ludlow’s Main + Mountain hotel was bumping as some of the best bartenders in the state served specially-invited guests—and judges—hand-crafted cocktails. Behind the sleek, gray bar, mixologists stood ready, wearing long, leather aprons. Artfully tattooed forearms stirred and shook drinks with style against a backdrop of mirrors and a sign that read “Soup of the Day: Whiskey with Ice Croutons.”

“Welcome!” said co-owner Eliza Greene, 30, who greeted me at the door with a warm smile, looking chic and like she might have run up Okemo mountain that morning. It was March 27 and this was the final round of the Vermont Bartenders’ Guild Association’s annual Vermont Bartender of the Year competition.

At one end of the bar, a rotating cast of bartenders muddled, shook, poured and whisked cocktails before a panel of industry experts: Andrew and Briana Volk, co-authors of the cocktail book Northern Hospitality and Lauren Hayes, wine director for the Cambridge, Mass., trattoria Pammy’s. The trio perched on green leather swivel chairs and grilled bartenders about their hometowns, the Vermont products they served and the stories that gave them context.

The challenge? To be the best representative of Vermont’s local spirits, wines, beers, secret swimming holes, backroad bike rides and restaurants, all while serving judges and guests a preset list of cocktails made with Vermont liquors and liqueurs. Contestants, who had already been through a quarter finals round and had to fill out a written test before advancing, were judged on their knowledge, creativity and overall delivery of each drink.

Over the past few years, Ludlow has emerged as a hotspot for craft cocktails in Vermont. In fact, four Ludlow bartenders made it to the semi-finals at this year’s competition—Jamie Pessoa Monteiro of Mama’s VT, Steven Kelly of Main + Mountain, Danny Childs of Homestyle Hostel and William Mordecai of Coleman Brook Tavern, who was a finalist.

From left, third-place bartender Jackson Zieper of Burlington’s Monarch + the Milkweed, second place bartender Josh Wilcox of Mad River Distillers and 2019 Vermont Bartender of the Year Emily Morton of Burlington’s Deli 126. Photo by Lindsay Selin.

Though Emily Morton of Burlington’s speakeasy-style Deli 126 won Bartender of the Year, Ludlow’s bartenders proved the village of less than 2,000 to be a true cocktail town.

At the hip new Main + Mountain (which opened in early 2018), you can order a “Leaf Peeper”—a frothy concoction made with gin, elderflower, apple syrup, lemon and ginger beer.

Or hop across the street to Homestyle Hostel, also owned by lifelong Okemo Valley locals Eliza Greene, a graduate and board member of Okemo Mountain School, and Justin Hyjek. The pair opened it in 2014, serving their creative and constantly changing cocktail creations (like the Do Wrong Right—made of Barr Hill Gin, Byrhh, cantaloupe puree, burnt orange syrup and sea salt) in their chic but homey farmhouse hostel on Main Street.

Down the road at Mamas VT, which opened in summer 2017, you can order a Vergroni, a Vermont twist on the classic Italian aperitif with Green Mountain Distillers’ Green Mountain Organic Gin, bitter Italian Campari, sweet vermouth and a dash of Vermont Cassis, a sweet, dark liqueur made from native black currants at Putney Mountain Winery and Spirits.

“Mixology is all anyone can talk about in the [food] industry,” says Mordecai, referring to the art of creating cocktails. “And in Vermont, there’s a lot of rich stuff to play with.”

A Sip of Vermont

Boutique cocktail bars like these are offering more than just drinks: they offer an experience. From the bars themselves (think locally-harvested wood and field-fresh wildflower arrangements at Homestyle Hostel or the chic speakeasy vibe of Deli 126 in Burlington, where the menus are made from vintage books), to the balanced and aromatic drinks they serve, these establishments each offer a unique taste of Vermont’s rich landscape.

People are returning to an older way of drinking that is about taking the time to enjoy what is in your glass,” says Morton. “ Vermonters have known how to do that for a long time.”

As the founding bar manager at Burlington’s Deli 126, Morton spends her days crafting drinks from a palette of local ingredients. “I love that if I have an idea for a new drink or a

Local ingredients like blueberries, raw honey and garden-fresh mint come alive in a Barr Hill cocktail. Photo courtesy Caledonia Spirits.

question about a product, I can go straight to the source and shake hands with one of our amazing distillers and producers, in the place where that essence is being created.”

Since 2008, the number of distilleries in Vermont has grown from just three to more than 25. Many have tasting rooms where you can sample uniquely Vermont vodkas, bourbons, gins, brandies and liqueurs while learning about them from the people who distill them. Tasting rooms can be found all over the state, from Eden Ciders’ Newport tasting room to Vermont Distillers’ new bar at their Hogback Mountain headquarters in Marlboro, and it’s worth it to make a road trip of it (with a designated driver, of course.)

“Like a lot of things in Vermont, the great thing about Vermont spirits is that they pop up in the places you least expect,” says Sas Stewart, a co-founder of Middlebury-based Stonecutter Spirits. “Like cheesemakers, brewers and vintners, Vermont artisans are all part of the same amazing maker community. I think what makes Vermont unique as a food and craft cocktail destination is that you may order a drink with one of these spirits and have the bartender say, ‘Oh, my childhood best friend’s uncle started that. Let me tell you about what he does and what’s in your glass.” 

For bartenders like Morton, crafting a drink is like cooking a fine dish. “The more flavors you have in your repertoire, the more creative you can be,” Morton says. “Every cocktail requires a balance of bitter, tart, sweet and herbal notes. All of that can be achieved with things grown in Vermont.”

Bitters made with dandelion, burdock and gentian root from places like Burlington’s Urban Moonshine give even a Prohibition-era cocktail a fresh new kick. As Neil Goldberg of Mad River Distillers says, “Bitters are like spices for cocktails. A dash or two can elevate a cocktail to something beyond just the sum of its parts… and bartenders rely on a bottle of bitters the way a chef relies on salt.”

In the summer, field-fresh blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and currants also make their way into glasses. Caledonia Spirits recommends pairing their award-winning raw honey-infused Barr Hill Gin with Fino Sherry, fresh lemon, one whisked egg white and blueberry reduction with Vermont-grown berries in a frothy Dye House.

At Mad River Distillers’ tasting room, you can try a Bad Apple, with their Mad Apple brandy, Maple Cask Rum (aged in Vermont-made maple barrels), beet juice, Angostura bitters, allspice and cinnamon.

Tasting Your Way, from North to South

At tasting rooms around  Vermont, you can sample everything from the delicately floral and slightly tart sweetness of Eden Ciders’ Northern Spy Barrel-Aged Ice Cider at their Newport tasting room, to the Manhattan at WhistlePig Pavilion at Stowe’s Spruce Peak, which features 10 Year WhistlePig Rye Whiskey distilled in Shoreham, and Boss Hog maple bitters.

Hardwick-based Caledonia Spirits opens a new 26,000-square-foot distillery, bar and tasting room in Montpelier in June. In late 2018, the distillery also opened a tasting room at Edelweiss Deli on the Mountain Road in Stowe. At both locations you can try their Barr Hill and Tom Cat gins, which are finished with raw honey, or their Barr Hill vodka, distilled entirely with honey. Founded by lifelong beekeeper Todd Hardie, the distillery is now owned and operated by original lead distiller Ryan Christiansen.

With notes of caramel, the barrel-aged Tom Cat Gin makes a wicked Negroni. Raw honey produced by bees who gather nectar from native northcountry wildflowers like goldenrod, red clover and alfalfa lends floral notes to each spirit, and each bottle of the Barr Hill spirits is sealed with beeswax. At the new distillery and bar, you can try cocktails like the Bee’s Knees, a concoction made with fresh lemon juice, raw honey syrup and floral Barr Hill Gin.

Jump off of a bike ride on the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail for a tasting at Smugglers’ Notch Distillery’s new 14,000-square-foot tasting room and distillery by the Lamoille River in Jeffersonville. Cocktails are yet to come at the new facility which opened in October 2018, but you can sample, among other spirits, their Maple Bourbon Whiskey, made by infusing their bourbon with Vermont maple syrup aged in bourbon barrels. Expect tones of charred oak and sweet maple. You can also try their organic vodkas and rums at their Barrel House Tasting Room in Waterbury Center or on Burlington’s Church Street.

In Waitsfield, head to Mad River Distillers’ tasting room at Mad River Taste Place. Try the Mad Apple, a European-style dry brandy distilled with apples, many of which are grown at the distillery’s Warren location, Cold Spring Farm. The recipe was inspired by co-founder and legendary extreme skier John Egan’s love for French Calvados. 

The Barrelhead Rums at Barre’s Old Route Two Spirits get their flavor from the native hardwoods the company uses to create the casks they age their spirits in. Born from the rugged granite hills that are still quarried today, the maple imparts a round creaminess to the rums while the ash lends a little smokiness.

You can sip a mountaintop cocktail and take in hundred-mile views at  Vermont Distillers’ new tasting room, which opened at the summit of Hogback Mountain in Marlboro. The Metcalfe family, who own the distillery, located it in the former base lodge of Hogback

At Vermont Distillers’ Hogback Mountain tasting room, you can try a Peach Fizz, which features Metcalfe’s Raspberry Liqueur, hand-distilled and infused with berries. Photo courtesy Vermont Distillers.

Mountain ski area. They also produce Metcalfe’s Fine Liqueurs and Spirits, including small-batch Catamount Vodka, Vermont Maple Cream and Vermont Maple Liqueurs, made with syrup produced in Brattleboro. Try the Peach Fizz, with Catamount Vodka, Metcalfe’s Peach Liqueur, a dash of lemon, Metcalfe’s Raspberry Liqueur and prosecco.

Morton insists Vermont  is bringing the craft of bartending back to basics. “Craft cocktails are as American as apple pie,” says Morton. “The drinks and spirits being made now in Vermont hearken back to a time when people had certain values about what and how they drank. We’re stripping away the drink mix, the additives, and going back to food and drink made with our hands, great spirits made by our neighbors and the flavors of this place.”

Justin Hyjek says that’s exactly what’s happening in Ludlow. “We live in an amazing place that is gaining a reputation as a food destination. Now, we’re putting our drinks on the map too.”  

Featured Photo Caption: 2019 Vermont Bartender of the Year finalist Nadia Womble of Waterworks Food + Drink serves fresh cocktails during the competition’s final round at Main + Mountain in Ludlow in March. Photo by Lindsay Selin

Abagael Giles

Abagael Giles is the Assistant Editor at Vermont Ski + Ride Magazine. She loves free-heel skiing and exploring her home state of Vermont–one ridgetop at a time.

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