October 1, 2018
Focus on food and drink

Craft liquor: local distilleries making spirits are on the ground floor of a new boom

Photo/Matt Wright
Nashoba Valley Spirits' Chief Operating Officer Justin Pelletier in Bolton.

Local breweries have multiplied so fast in past few years, it can be hard to keep track of all the latest additions.

Yet, it isn't beer, but hard cider and spirits – rum, vodka and the like – Americans are drinking more of.

Beer consumption in the United States fell by almost half a percent – more than 10.6 million cases worth – from 2012 to 2017, according to IWSR. The industry publication projects beer consumption to fall by another 1.2 percent in the next five years.

Spirits, on the other hand, rose by 2.5 percent in the last five years. The biggest growth by percentage in alcohol is hard cider, a still very small segment of the industry grown by 20 percent since 2012.

"The local trend has gone through food and now wine and beer, and now craft spirits is taking off as well," said Justin Pelletier, the chief operating officer at Nashoba Valley Spirits in Bolton and a member of the family owning the facility.

$1M liquor expansion

Nashoba Valley Spirits is a relatively old player in craft spirits as a 15-year-old distillery. When the Pelletiers bought the farm and its winery in 1995, they weren't sure what to do with a surplus of apples. The family began experimenting with different products and in 2003 began selling its first apple brandy.

Sales have been taking off, spurring Nashoba Valley Spirits to embark on a $1-million expansion early next year to triple is capacity to make vodka, gin, brandies, whiskeys and liqueurs.

"The local trend is a main reason for that," Pelletier said. "People are really passionate about purchasing their products locally."

Since reaching a low in the mid-1990s, spirits have gained an ever larger share of the alcohol market, taking from both beer and wine, according to The Beer Institute. Last year, the number of distilleries rose by 16 percent to 1,835, the American Craft Spirits Association said in its annual report in September.

Photo/Courtesy
An apple brandy from Beaver Pond Distillery in Petersham.

Since reaching a low in the mid-1990s, spirits have gained an ever larger share of the alcohol market, taking from both beer and wine, according to The Beer Institute. Last year, the number of distilleries rose by 16 percent to 1,835, the American Craft Spirits Association said in its annual report in September.

There are signs further growth is on the horizon. Craft spirit producers doubled their business investment from 2015 to 2017, the American Craft Spirits Association reported.

Dreaming of fruit brandy

Massachusetts has 29 distilleries, according to the association, but they are still relatively few and far between in Central Massachusetts.

In Petersham, retired lawyer Jerry Friedman started Beaver Pond Distillery in 2014 not entirely to pick up on drinking trends but because it fulfilled a longtime passion. Friedman first tried eau de vie, a type of fruit brandy, four decades ago on a trip to Europe and kept his dream on hold during his career.

"I finally decided I was done with that, and I would like to have some fun," Friedman said with a laugh of his recent retirement.

Beaver Pond Distillery's eau de vie and other brandies are available in few stores, mostly around Petersham and Boston, near Friedman's home in Newton. Friedman isn't in the industry to necessarily make it big.

"I'm doing this because I'm enjoying it," he said.

The hard cider founding fathers

Hard cider commands just 10 percent of the volume of spirits, but with so many apple orchards in Massachusetts, the state appears to have a potential for far more growth.

In Central Massachusetts, hard cider is made at, among others, Lookout Farm Brewing & Cider Co. in Natick, Ragged Hill Cider Co. in West Brookfield, and Pony Shack Cider in Boxborough. Carlson Orchards in Harvard launched a hard cider this spring, and Stormalong American Hard Cider in Sherborn added a second location in Leominster last year.

Lookout Farm began making hard cider in 2015, when the Belkin family sought to diversify its business on the 180-acre farm.

Jay Mofenson, the operations manager at Lookout Farm in Natick, which added hard cider in 2015.

The hard cider business grew by 72 percent from 2016 to 2017 and another 68 percent so far from last year to this year, said Jay Mofenson, the farm's operations manager.

"That speaks to the staying power of craft cider and the versatility of it as a beverage," Mofenson said.

Steve Garwood, a co-owner at Ragged Hill, attributes the hard cider trend, perhaps ironically, to Angry Orchard, a hard cider owned by Sam Adams parent Boston Beer Co. Angry Orchard, he said, introduced, or reintroduced, many to hard cider, which ferments just like wine or beer.

That, Garwood said, combined with a renewed interest from many consumers in local products has pushed hard cider to new highs. Ragged Hill began making hard cider last September and had already embarked on its expansion two months later.

Anne Garwood-Hampp, a sales and marketing manager at Ragged Hill Cider Co. in West Brookfield.

"It's a renewed interest in cider and spirits, and also a renewed interest in agriculture and agricultural products and local products. All of these things are working in the same direction," Garwood said. "From the past 10 years or more, I've been moving in this direction [of doing hard cider]. I knew it was going to take off."

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