Vermonters don’t know how good they have it when it comes to crafting the aqua vitae. Perhaps no greater proof of this was demonstrated at the 2017 edition of The Sun in a Glass beer festival in Pilsen, Czech Republic — a beer chakra thanks to the invention of the pilsner beer there in 1842.
Wandering the maze of European craft brewers distributing more than 150 styles of beer, I noticed a curious thing: many a menu included “Vermont IPA.” These were not actually beers from Vermont, but inspired by Vermont — an impressive testament to the global fame of the state’s brewers.
Local distillers have not been far behind, with Montpelier-made Barr Hill Gin in particular finding a place among the top shelf at Ritz Carlton hotels as far away as San Francisco. Even wine — which admittedly not everyone quickly associates with Vermont — is raising eyebrows along with glasses thanks to flavorful, cold-hardy grapes like Frontenac, Marquette, and La Crescent, not to mention blueberries, rhubarb, apples, and raspberries.
Montpelier, smack dab in the center of Vermont, may benefit most, with several of these stellar producers within easy reach, if not right in their backyard.
Lawson’s Finest Liquids
The legends of Lawson’s beer began creeping out of the Mad River Valley soon after Sean and Karen Lawson started a 1-bbl nano-brewery in 2008 after 20 years of homebrewing. But it was the Sip of Sunshine IPA and its juicy, tropical-fruit character that turned Lawson’s legend into fame, winning a cult following far beyond Vermont. Perhaps no greater sign of the couple’s success can be found than their lofty, bright, and woody taproom, which opened in Waitsfield in 2018, complete with a spacious outdoor beer garden. lawsonsfinest.com
However you may feel about the super hoppy double IPAs, tribute is due to The Alchemist and its world-renowned brew, Heady Topper, which blew open the doors of beer perception and put Vermont on the global beer map alongside Bavaria or Belgium. The family has since expanded to include Irish-style red ales, barrel-aged imperial stouts, saisons, Kölsch, and more. It’s all more admirable when you remember Tropical Storm Irene demolished their original home in Waterbury. In 2016, the Alchemist opened its new brewery in Stowe and the cash registers have been singing since. alchemistbeer.com
von Trapp Brewing
Considering the legendary von Trapp family’s Austrian heritage, set so exquisitely to music in The Sound of Music, it’s no surprise that beer making quickly caught the attention of Johannes von Trapp, the youngest son of Maria and the Baron, during the first wave of the craft brewing revolution in the 1990s. He noticed a distinct lack of crisp, clean lagers among the new team of IPAs, wheats, and whatnot. The first humble brewery on-site produced 2,000 barrels per year but soon could not meet the demand, inspiring a new bierhall in 2015, now stocked with pilsners, amber lagers, weisse, and maple rauchbier, not to mention a menu of beer-friendly bratwurst, schnitzel, sauerkraut mashed potatoes, and more. vontrappbrewing.com
Vermont beer aficionados owe much to Scott Kerner, who co-owns Montpelier’s famed Three Penny Taproom and Winooski’s Mule Bar, as he’s a prime mover in the scene. He added to his already prodigious recipe in 2016 by opening Good Measure Brewing Co. in Northfield with Andrew Leichthammer, the former general manager of Mule Bar. The mission is to produce smooth session beers low in alcohol but high in flavor, like the American Cream Ale, English-style bitter, “French Toast” brown ale, and dry stouts. goodmeasurebrewing.com
Barr Hill is to spirits what Heady Topper was to beer, putting Vermont on the map with its honey-infused gin — 4 pounds to make each 750-mL bottle — that makes perhaps the best Bee’s Knees cocktail in existence. The vodka is not too shabby either. Moving from Hardwick to Montpelier 2019 and opening a brand new distillery, bar, and gift shop, Caledonia Spirits serves as a social hub of the Central Vermont community as well as home to some of the state’s best mixologists. caledoniaspirits.com
Hooker Mountain Farm
The distillers at this small-scale, diversified farm in Cabot, Vermont believe honesty and simplicity are at the heart of our spirits. They also walk the walk, sourcing 100 percent of the ingredients from their 65-acre farm — the first distiller in Vermont to do so. Fresh farm-raised grains and potatoes form the base of their whiskies, gin, maple cream liqueur; hardwoods from their forests bring the color, character, and aromas; while fruit from the orchards and maple syrup sweeten the lot. facebook.com/HookerMountainFarm
Green Mountain Distillers
Certified organic by Vermont Organic Farmers, this small batch distiller in Morrisville creates a clean product free of GMOs, synthetic pesticides, or chemical fertilizers and full of pure Vermont spring water, drawn from a source located close to Mount Mansfield. The result is easily tasted in bottles of straight, orange, and lemon vodkas; gin; and Maple Liqueur — the first and only organic maple liqueur to be produced worldwide. greendistillers.com
Mad River Distillers
In 2011, Maura Connolly was contemplating starting a vineyard on the farm, when friends turned her attention to something more indigenous and suitable for the climate. Husband John, a life-long fan of apple brandy, began the research and soon after, the distillery was born, and along with it Mad Apple, a European-style dry apple brandy distilled from 100 percent Vermont apples. The years and experience have added bourbon, rye, and rum to the menu — all crafted in a Mueller still from Germany designed for brandies, rums, and whiskies. madriverdistillers.com
Fresh Tracks Farm
Vermont’s “beautiful yet challenging climate” didn’t stand in the way of owner and winemaker Christina Castegren, who opened Fresh Tracks Farm in 2002 along Vermont Rt. 12 in Berlin. The past 18 years have been spent honing her winemaking skills. Of the 17 original varieties of grapes planted, six remain, and these were joined by three new varieties in 2017. All find their greatest expression in bottles of La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, Marquette Rosé, Freerider Red — made from 100 percent St. Croix grapes and aged in oak barrels. Apple and maple wines round out the menu. freshtracksfarm.com
Wine runs in the Becker family, who started making it in 1992 on their small backyard organic vineyard in Port Huron, Michigan, the first grapes being crushed by then infant son Christopher. The wine making tradition continued after their move to Vermont in 1997, and they continue to produce small-batch organically farmed wines just off Elm Street north of Montpelier. Today the vineyard grows 11 varieties of cold-hardy wine grapes that turn into red, white, and rosé sparkling, bottled and racked according to the biodynamic calendar. Mead, cider, and co-ferments are also on tap. montpeliervineyards.com
As the world’s greatest apples come from Vermont, it’s no surprise cider makers started taking to the hard version, with cideries popping up all across the state. Producers like Stowe Cider are taking the craft to the next level with eye-popping varietals infused with cranberry, orange, strawberry, gooseberry, grapefruit, basil, honey, rhubarb, and more. stowecider.com
Please check the websites for delivery and pick-up instructions amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.