Down East 2013 ©
The gin capitals of the world, England and Holland, have a new, unlikely competitor in Union, Maine.
Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery makes a highly acclaimed gin that was named to Wine Enthusiast magazine’s Top 50 Spirits of 2008 list. The key, says spirits expert, author, and founder of Spirit Journal F. Paul Pacult, is balance: “The people behind Back River Gin are particularly adept at having the various botanical flavors work together. That is the strength of it.” An artisinal spirit, Back River Gin embodies a recent iteration of gin-making Pacult refers to as New World American style. These gins tend to rely a little less on traditional juniper in favor of other botanical flavorings. Like, in the case of Sweetgrass, blueberries.
For owners Keith and Constance Bodine, wild Maine blueberries were a natural choice given their surroundings. They used eight thousand pounds of them last year (for the gin and other blueberry products) from Union farmer Rick Noyes’ fields on nearby Coggins Hill. “The blueberries lend acidity and a general fruitiness,” says Pacult, “which is really, really pleasant in this particular gin.”
The blueberries are just part of Sweetgrass’ proprietary blend of botanicals that were chosen to not only taste good but evoke the smells — pine trees, ocean air, blueberry barrens — of Maine. Blueberries, citrus, angelica root, and, by law to be considered gin, juniper berries, are just some of the ingredients that are placed into Sweetgrass’ copper alembic pot still with grain neutral spirit. The fire is lit under the still, the liquid is brought to a boil, and as the mixture vaporizes and condenses, “the heads, the hearts, and the tails” (components of varying percentages of alcohol) are collected. The hearts go into a 520-gallon tank, then water from the farm’s well is added to reach a 43 percent alcohol level. The gin is then bottled with a label featuring a photo of ice crystals from the Back River (the gin’s namesake and Constance’s summer stomping grounds as a child) in Boothbay.
Opening a winery and distillery in Union culminated a long journey for the couple who met as freshmen geological engineering majors at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. For nearly two decades, the Bodines traveled from vineyard to vineyard, coast-to-coast, pursuing their shared passion for wine and the science behind it. Eventually, in 2005, they found a place to call their own; a seventy-acre farm on the Medomak River in Union.
“The first time I ever came to Maine was in 1984,” says Keith, “when Constance brought me to the Union Fair. We both have always loved Union.”
At the time they purchased the property, Keith had been a winemaker and distiller for other vineyards for nearly fifteen years, but he had a nagging desire to make his own gin. “I had always enjoyed gin,” says Keith, “so when we started our own [winery] I knew I was going to make it. I just didn’t know how.”
Keith learned quickly. The back corner of the barn at Sweetgrass looks more like a homemade chemistry lab than a vineyard showroom. Glass test tubes and electronic scales line the faded brown counter, abutted by a window that looks out to the farm’s herd of sheep and the rolling hills in the background. It is here, on this counter, that Back River Gin was born in a small five hundred milliliter glass still nearly three years ago.
“Having an engineering and analytical background is incredibly helpful,” says Constance, a mathematician for the state. “We’re able to set up truly blind tastings so we don’t fool ourselves. Plus, Keith takes incredible notes and measurements. He can always recreate everything he does.”
With a “staff” of only five (Keith, Constance, and their three children whose artwork appears on many bottles), Sweetgrass produces an impressive array of products including six kinds of wine, cranberry apple being the most popular. They also make Three Crow Rum (named after an antique spice brand from Rockland), apple brandy, vermouth, cranberry, peach, and blueberry smashes (or ports), blueberry bitters, and homemade vanilla.
But their gin, which also comes in a cranberry flavor, is what sets Sweetgrass apart. The secret to the spirit’s success, according to the Bodines: “It tastes like Maine.”
“We’ve worked all over the country and the world, and we really wanted to be in Maine,” explains Constance. “To start every day knowing this is where we want to be, to start with that much happiness, is such a joyous life.”
If You Go: Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery is located at 347 Carroll Road in Union. 207-785-3024. www.sweetgrasswinery.com