WARREN — Mad River Distillers is calling the release of its latest whiskey, Burnt Rock Bourbon, “super limited.” That means if you don’t live in Vermont or parts of Massachusetts, you probably won’t have much of an opportunity to try it.
At least not yet. If this whiskey, which producers describe as having a smokey flavor due to its mash profile of corn, rye wheat and maplewood-smoked barley, proves popular, they’ll make more. Then they can distribute it throughout New England and parts of New York and California with their other spirits — bourbon and rye whiskeys, brandy and several aged rums. For now, they’ve produced 400 cases, and brought it to market in the past week.
That flexibility comes from being a small producer in a hot market. For company President Mimi Buttenheim, of Waitsfield, that also lets them focus on quality.
“The beauty of being a craft distiller is you’re working in batches,” she said. “… We start testing our whiskeys from 12 months, 13 months, 14 months, and we don’t get them ready to bottle unless they’re ready. And that’s great that we can do that.”
Mad River Distillers, located in a converted barn on a fairly remote Warren property, got its start in 2011, but didn’t get products to market until 2013, due to a considerable learning curve and the relatively long production time. Most of their products are aged in oak barrels for at least a year. They started out releasing a corn whiskey and an aged sugar rum. The following year, they brought out their flagship bourbon and rye whiskeys.
Buttenheim, who was working as a distiller in a vodka company, was eager to make the switch to brown spirits, and this company was a good fit. She joined in 2015.
“I wanted to pursue brown spirits … the hottest segment of the spirits market right now. Vodkas still are at about 34 percent, but brown spirits have been increasing rapidly,” she said.
She attributes that to the rise in popularity of classic cocktails, as well as a broadening in taste for whiskey aficionados. Bourbon, she said, has joined the ranks of Scotch whisky at tastings.
“Bourbon is America’s whiskey, and it’s been on the rise in consumption levels for at least 15 years,” she said.
Mad River’s products seem to have found a niche. They doubled production last year, she said, and thanks to new equipment, are looking to triple production this year. Originally, they bottled in the Warren barn, but have since set up that operation in the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield to free up space.
The company began, curiously enough, with the thought of making wine from homegrown grapes. Couple Maura Connolly and John Egan, who owned the property, were warned about growing grapes in Vermont’s climate, however, and began pursuing the idea of a distillery whose ingredients would be easier to source locally. They were joined by friend Brett Little, who had a background in chemistry and developed many of the early recipes.
Alex Hilton, a Mad River Valley native and building contractor, was hired to renovate the barn. He stayed on, and is now the company’s general manager and distiller.
“Amongst the three or four of us who started Mad River Distillers, there was very little knowledge or experience of distilling,” he said.
They all had a love of various whiskeys, however, and their passion has grown with their knowledge of production and business, said Hilton. The company employs about six people year-round, taking on extra people in the busy months. Last year, they put about 3,000 cases (18,000 bottles) on the market, while producing the equivalent of 5,000 cases.
Spirits begin by adding yeast to corn and various grains and — in the case of rums — a semi-refined cane sugar called demerara. This mash, after fermenting, is moved into one of their beautiful copper, German-built stills, which concentrate the alcohol in the solution to the proper level. When all is correct, the whiskey is stored in a charred oak barrel and allowed to age.
The processes that separate a fine spirit from something more pedestrian, he said, happen at different stages. The temperatures of fermentation and distillation must be very carefully monitored. They store the whiskey for the right amount of time, and they also work hard to find the right ingredients — nearby and organic, if possible.
“Just high-quality raw ingredients, in the belief that the better the starting products, the better the finishing product,” said Hilton.
He believes this is a hard business to break into due to the time to refine recipes, expense of equipment and difficulty of sourcing the right ingredients, but he finds the climate among Vermont’s other distillers — there are about 20 — to be positive and supportive.
“We’re all pretty friendly,” said Hilton. “We try to give each other help and hints and tips. Anything we can kind of do to further the group cause.”
Mad River Distillers’ whiskeys cost about $50 per bottle, with the Burnt Rock Bourbon available for $40 for a 375-ml bottle. You can try their spirits at the company’s new tasting room on St. Paul Street, in Burlington, or at the Mad River Taste Place in Waitsfield. Learn more at madriverdistillers.com.