July 14, 2006
Vodka-Making Lifts Spirits of New England Farmers
By Scott Malone
FRYEBURG, Maine - As Don Thibodeau drove across his potato field, juggling a cell phone, walkie-talkie and the steering wheel of his pickup truck, he dispelled the illusion of bucolic farm life.
His packers were behind schedule on a big order and a new sprayer wasn't working quite right. But what Thibodeau wanted to talk about was his latest venture, a vodka distillery.
Thibodeau is one of a handful of New England farmers who have turned to vodka distilling as a more profitable outlet for their crops, from potatoes to maple sap and apples.
"It's a lot more effort, but you're more apt to control your own destiny," Thibodeau said, driving across his 11,000 acre (4,452 hectare) Green Thumb Farms in the southern Maine town of Fryeburg, about 150 miles north of Boston.
"It's a matter of trying to squeeze everything you can out of your production," said Thibodeau, who started selling Cold River Vodka, distilled in Freeport, with three partners in November. "We have to keep looking for other avenues, other ways to make a living, other ways to extract income off of this farm."
While vodka was traditionally made from potatoes in Russia and Eastern Europe, today most vodka distilled in the United States is made from grain.
Vodka is the most popular liquor among Americans, who last year spent about $10.8 billion on it, according to data from the Distilled Spirits Council, an industry trade group. Super-premium vodkas selling for $24 or more a bottle, like Cold River, made up about $1.6 billion of that total and were the fastest-growing segment of the market.
About 70 percent of the vodka consumed in the United States is distilled here, though in the high-end market brands like Cold River face primarily imported competitors, such as Grey Goose and Ketel One, as well as domestic rival Skyy.
DIFFERENT ROOTS, SIMILAR TASTES
Growing demand for high-end niche vodkas has helped attract niche farmers into the business, and almost any fruit, vegetable or grain containing sugar can be distilled into the ethanol which is at the heart of the fiery spirit.
The distillation process converts the raw material to almost pure alcohol, with water added in the final step to reduce the vodka's potency to about 40 percent. Because the liquor's main characteristic is its nothingness -- ideally it has no flavor, color or smell -- specialty vodka makers said one of their biggest challenges is explaining to people why their products do not taste like the raw materials.
That's one of the common questions posed to Duncan Holaday, who in 1999 bought a Barnet, Vermont maple tree farm and started selling maple vodka under the Vermont Spirits name in 2001.
"It doesn't taste like maple, it doesn't smell like maple, but maple fermentation has a unique quality that comes through the vodka," said Holaday. "There is a fullness, a smoothness and what some people might think of as a slight sweetness. But the first impression you get is vodka."
All the sap tapped at Holaday's 200 acre spread is headed to his distilling operation, while Thibodeau said that about 5 percent of his crop -- mostly irregular potatoes -- go into vodka.
But whether vodka is a farm's prime thrust or a sideline, it's a way to make more money from farm produce. About 15 pounds of potatoes go into a $31.99 bottle of Cold River Vodka, two to three times what they might sell for in a grocery store.
Richard Pelletier, owner of Nashoboa Valley Spirits, which operates a fruit winery and vodka distillery in Bolton, Massachusetts, said he didn't believe he could keep his 30-acre (12-hectare) orchard in operation purely by selling fruit.
"If I'm going to sell apples at wholesale, I'm probably going to get about 7 cents per pound. It takes me 13 to 14 cents per pound to grow them. I'd be out of business pretty quickly," Pelletier said. "We couldn't survive without it, our orchard wouldn't survive without our distillery."