Liquor for Locavores: The Berkshires Own Booze
You might assume (as I did) that Berkshire Mountain Distillers is a boutique brand dreamed up by a green-minded, martini-drinking MBA as as a thesis project. It has a smart slogan (“Think Globally • Drink Locally”) a product line whose evocative names have regional resonance (“Ice Glen Vodka,” “Greylock Gin,” “Ragged Mountain Rum”), and a logo that incorporates a rendering of an archetypal New England barn that looks as good on a T-shirt as on the side of an oak barrel. But Berkshire Mountain Distillers is actually the brainchild of a former emergency-room physician’s assistant who lives and works on the historic Soda Springs Farm in Sheffield, MA.
“The funny part is that I’m really a beer drinker,” says Chris Weld, Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ founder, who launched his line of hand-crafted liquors in the beginning of May. The other funny part is that he’s not a party guy but a biochemistry geek who treats making booze like a science project. “I’ve been wanting to build a distillery since I was in the 8th grade,” he says. “My mother was going to help me and then we found out it would be illegal.” Weld is clearly proud of mastering the various processes required to make top-shelf artisanal alcohol (he’s positioned Ice Glen vodka to compete with Grey Goose at $29 a bottle) and satisfying the standards set down by the federal government. (For example, molasses or sugarcane must be used to make rum by law even though sugar beets could theoretically be substituted.) He worked with the oldest still manufacturer in Kentucky to design his plant, but he used the venerable Balgen Machine Company in West Stockbridge to make all the pipes and other contraptions in the old hay barn that’s his headquarters. He has three silos filled with four tons of corn from George Beebe in Sheffield, and is looking for local farmers to grow wheat and rye for his bourbon.
Testing his recipes was less fun than you might imagine. “We had to taste fractions of the distilllates and some of it was awful,” he says. But over the past six month, he and his associate, Colin Coan (who has been brewing beer for a decade), have refined their formulas and techniques. Greylock Gin is made with botanicals like Angelica Root and Orange peel that give it a spunky, well-balanced floral character. “When we did our first tasting at Guido’s, gin was our surprise best seller,” Weld says. Ice Glen Vodka has a pure taste and clean finish. “We filter it for a long time, and our water comes from an old spring right here on the property that the Pittsfield Sun in 1901 said had ‘few equals and none superior’,” he says. “And vodka is primarily water. “The Ragged Mountain Rum tastes more like an easy to drink Armagnac than a traditional rum. “I tell bartenders that people who want Bacardi or Meyer’s are going to be surprised,” he says. “This is really a rum that you can sip plain on the rocks.”
But isn’t Berkshire rum an oxymoron? Isn’t it really a tropical drink? “No, ” says Weld, “they made rum in New England in colonial times, until the British started taxing molasses.” These days, Weld divides his time between the farm and the road, making sales calls and deliveries to more than 50 stores and bars in the Berkshires, who’ve enthusiastically received him. “Only two places have said no to me,” says Weld, who’s enjoying all aspects of his new career and has even invented a cocktail called the Grey Ghost. “This business is a great mix of art, design, biochemistry and agriculture.”