This week, my beau made a run to East Fairfield to visit Elm Brook Farm and purchase bottles of their new spirit, Rail Dog, for Christmas gifts. (We might also have visited them at the Burlington Winter Farmers' Market where they have a booth). Rail Dog is a barrel aged maple spirit. It's a strong alcohol (100-proof), with a flavor that bears a glancing resemblance to rum, but not too sweet and what sweetness is there carries through the same earthy complexity as the maple sugars it's distilled from. Have a sip and you'll want to sit in a big armchair by a fire and read classic mystery novels all night. While drinking Rail Dog. Slowly.
But that's not what's most interesting about this new maple spirit. What's most interesting is that it's never been made before.
We have many wonderful maple-based spirits. We have Vermont Ice Maple Creme Liqueur from Boyden Valley, maple Sapling Liqueur from Saxtons River Distillers, Maple Flavored Rum from Dunc's Mill, maple-based vodkas from Vermont Spirits and Elm Brook Farm, and No.14 Bourbon also from Vermont Spirits. These are all variations on a theme of an existing kind of spirit. For Rail Dog, Elm Brook Farm invented something new.
David Howe, the distiller, told the Boston Globe that he experimented with everything from the yeast to cooking time to modifying equipment to aging the product differently before he reached the final flavor he wanted for a unique maple spirit.
Rail Dog isn't the first unique spirit to come out of Vermont. Ice Cider is another example. Ice cider began in Quebec about a decade ago, and Vermont's Eden Ice Cider introduced it for the first time to the United States. Producers in Quebec and Vermont have worked to make it a widely-recognized category of drink. It’s in many ways comparable to ice wine, a very concentrated sweet drink that goes well with cheeses or as a dessert. And it’s a great fit for Vermont agriculture, a value-added option for apple growers with a process based on the northeast's freeze / thaw winter cycle (Eden Ice Cider explains the process here).
It's not easy having something that's completely new. Eleanor Leger, co-founder of Eden Ice Cider, has worked for years to build a group of Vermont producers making their own brands of Ice Cider. That work involves not only teaching people the process, but also setting down very specifically what it means to make "ice cider" so everyone agrees on the process. Then there's getting consumers used to drinking something new (the new Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center in Newport will help with that). If it gets popular, there's a question of how to ensure the next generation of producers are, in fact, meeting the standards of what "ice cider" means so that consumers know what they're getting when they buy a product with that label.
Is this the work that lies ahead for Elm Brook Farm? Maybe. Right now, I'm just happy to be enjoying my taste of the first ever batch of this new spirit. Visit Elm Brook at the Burlington Winter Farmers' Market or visit their ordering page to find out how to try your first sip.