Twitter: @jstrelitz

The Hearts, Heads and Tails of Maine Spirits

In 2010, I wrote this piece for Maine Food & Lifestyle. But they delayed publication so long that after a year or two (yes, you read that right), I gave up on it going to print or being paid for it, apologized to my sources and moved on.  It was one of two writing casualties for me as that publication slowly stopped publishing, but as I mentioned before, it happens to all freelancers. 

The industry in Maine has exploded since 2010. I wanted the work of the many distillers who took time to speak with me and share their recipes for this piece to finally see some light. Thankfully all three of the distilleries I highlighted are thriving and I included links so you can see what they are focused on today.  

The Hearts, Heads and Tails of Maine Spirits (original intended date of publication, Fall 2010)

Like many small agriculture-based businesses in Maine, the state’s microdistilleries share a common thread of sourcing products close to home and engaging family work power. While at least one venture -- Penobscot Bay Distillery, which was intended to be part of Winterport Winery – folded before its still was licensed, others have received widespread industry recognition despite limited distribution. If the success of Sweetgrass Distillery, Spirits of Maine and Northern Maine Distilling are indicative of the future, the booming Maine micro-brew and burgeoning wine markets both have competition to keep an eye on.

Taste of Maine
Keith Bodine has the touch and his wife Connie has the taste. As a team, they have developed 18 products from light rum, brandy, port and award-winning gin to the vermouth and bitters that enhance them. Their Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery in Union is open every day from mid- May to late December and offers tastings and education, as well as beautiful views of the surrounding Medomak River Valley.

If you're a gin drinker, you'll leave happy with a bottle of Back River gin. And if you're not a gin drinker, you will be after tasting it. Constance describes it as Maine in a glass, evoking the spirit of her hometown of Boothbay: the citrusy, ginger tang of the sea, juniper and pine aromas mellow into a warm (local) blueberry finish. Spirits distribution is limited to in-state and production levels are small. If you taste something and you like it, unfortunately can’t enjoy a full glass on site, so Connie encourages customers to buy new favorites before they become only a taste-memory.

Old hand, new tastes
People whisper about the giant, beautiful German-made alembic still that yields potent elixirs at Spirits of Maine distillery in Gouldsboro. How did it get there? An artist brought it, of course. Bob Bartlett, who moved to Maine in 1975 and whose glass work has been displayed in the Smithsonian, has already gained notoriety as one of the best fruit winemakers in the country. But the well- traveled Bartlett has always been fascinated by European eaux de vie, distilled fruit brandies, and in 2003 decided to try making some of his own.

Success found Bartlett again when only a few years later, his Spirits of Maine products were featured in the regarded text "The Art Of Distilling Whiskey And Other Spirits" by Bill Owens and Alan Dikty. Bartlett’s apple brandy received accolades from International Review of Spirits and his ghostly pear eaux de vie -- in its elegant bottle -- is a lush sipper that garnered gold 92 points from the Beverage Testing Institute, noting its “pear and cream” aromas. Bartlett has limited production of both to less than 500 cases total, compared with the 7,000 cases of fruit wine he produces each year, and distribution outside of the estate is limited. But the shiny, copper still remains busy: light and dark rums are now aging in oak barrels, peach and raspberry eau-de- vies will be available this coming summer and he’s “playing” with some other liqueurs too. The spirits world is excitedly waiting to see what comes next.

Gathering a following
When Scott Galbiati and his wife Jessica started Houlton's Northern Maine Distilling Company, they wanted to build around the Maine potato vodka "experience." After three years of planning and navigating red tape, in March 2009 the couple received their license to begin using the distillery's equipment, but soon shifted away from a potato-distilled product to grain. The spirit, which they named Twenty 2, is distilled in 50 gallon batches using kettles they build themselves and were built locally, blended with water from the region and then chill- filtered four times through charcoal, resulting in a very clean taste. The entire process is done by hand, from bottling to inscribing the batch numbers on each label.
The state’s newest distillery distributes its vodka statewide, and can also be found in major wholesalers and several restaurants in Aroostook County, Portland and Bangor. This year Northern Maine Distilling expanded its reach to New Jersey and Wyoming, the later by special order, and is eyeing a handful of mid-Atlantic states and New Hampshire next.

“It’s been a long journey and a lot of learning to get to this point, but Jess and I are incredibly proud of the final product,” Scott said. Twenty 2 won recognition from the World Spirits Competition during its first year of production and has also attracted more than 3,500 fans on Facebook – where every Friday afternoon a unique drink recipe is unveiled. Among the favorites, the Dude's Caucasian, was inspired by Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridge's character in “The Big Lebowski” and features Allen’s Coffee Brandy and Houlton Farm’s Dairy Heavy Cream to complete the local flavor triumvirate. Good Friday, or any day, after 3 p.m., of course.

The Dude’s Caucasian, made with Twenty 2 vodka 
Rocks glass with ice:
2 oz Twenty 2 vodka
1 oz. Allen’s Coffee Brandy
2 ½ oz Houlton Farm’s Daily Heavy Cream
Stir and serve.

The Spiced Apple Fritter Martini, made with Twenty 2 vodka

The Galbiatis served more than 500 samples of this cocktail at October’s Harvest on the Harbor Grand
Tasting in Portland.
1 ½ oz. Twenty 2 Vodka
2 oz. Maine apple cider
½ oz. Triple Sec
½ oz. Butterscotch Schnapps
1 tsp. Domaine De Canton (ginger liqueur)
Shake hard to mix and chill.
Strain into a glass with a cinnamon-and- powered-sugar- rim.

Jeff Smith Sidecar, made with Spirits of Maine brandy
2 oz of Spirits of Maine apple brandy
1 ½ oz. of sweet and sour mix – made with limes, lemon and agave nectar
¾ oz. of Cointreau (or another orange liqouer)
Lime/sugar rim

The Farm that Twitter Built

In 2011, I wrote a piece on a homestead farm in Maine. It was an assignment for a Maine magazine I had already done several pieces for and respected. I filed. And waited. And waited. And waited. Though I was given several reassurances of publication -- and payment -- the magazine just seemed to stop publishing. It sucks, but it happens. And this story continued to live only on my hard drive.

It's been three years, and I think the piece is worth sharing -- especially now as homestead farming in Maine is experiencing a huge resurgence. Neal is a fascinating guy, a social media early adopter and he works hard to make the best life for his family and to give back to his community. I was proud to tell his story -- and share some of his delicious recipes.

Neal Foley is building his agro-tourism dream at Montville’s Claddagh Farms

By Jessica Strelitz

There is Bach playing in the barn. Neal Foley tells me that the soothing music stimulates milk production, as his daughter Sola prepares her veal calf to go out to pasture. He is her cow. Neal refers to the pre- teen as the barn’s manager, and he means it. There are no employees at the Foley family’s Montville homestead Claddagh Farms -- halfway between Augusta and Belfast. Canning. Gardening. Animal husbandry. It’s all done in-house.

Neal and his wife Kathy were living in Washington’s remote San Juan Islands when the opportunity for a location change arose. Neal looked at 35 farms in 7 days, and in March 2010 his family of seven moved across the country into a 150-year-old farmhouse and got to work.

A view on the farm.There was plenty to do. The farm had been in the community for generations but hadn’t been maintained for years. There was a foundation to bolster, a new perimeter fence to stake and a 150- tree apple orchard to rehabilitate – just for starters.

“Ive been picking fruits and vegetables since before I could ride a bike,” Neal said as we toured the farm.

As a professionally trained chef and experienced farmer, he worked to connect the two linked-but-separate worlds during his time on the West Coast. He catered, taught nose-to-tail butchery and shared his experiences online via Twitter, Facebook and a weekly podcast. But while the restaurant-farmer movement is growing in Maine, the local market was already crowded with options for fresh eggs, milk and meat by the time the family arrived in Montville.

“One of the things which attracted us to Maine was the support and encouragement there is here for small farms. I am happy to see farmers markets proliferating and that farmers here tend to try to work together,” Foley said. He needed a way to stand out.

Turkeys, ducks, chickens and other birds at Claddagh Farms.Neal struggled to find quality meat for his clients when he was catering in Washington, so he began raising his own animals. People wanted to learn more about the process, so he began teaching butchery workshops. When they wanted to learn how to prepare the meat and other dishes, the farm-cooking school was born.

I have the most magic kitchen matter where I put them, they're never there....they seem to walk the house on their own & hide.

In Washington, Neal hosted a weekly podcast focused on farm life, food and politics that attracted a global following. It spawned a cookbook, which he self-published, and proved an effective way to teach from a geographically challenging location. But podcasts take a lot of time to produce, and with an unending task list at Claddagh Farms, Twitter soon became his preferred method of connecting with the food universe.

It must be autumn.....I'm braising rabbit in ale for dinner.

Photos are effective viral tools. By using the popular short messaging system, Neal can hold multiple conversations with his network of 3,000 followers while feeding the sheep, and include a picture of the field as they graze. He sold his last three workshops, and all of last year’s syrup, via social media channels.

RECIPES: Berry Cobbler + Braised Pork with Apples a la Bonne Femmes

Another bull calf... Christmas veal here we come!

Herding sheep at Claddagh Farms. The most successful homesteaders have voracious curiosity, Logging. Cheesemaking. Carpentry. Organic farming. If it interested him, Neal learned all he could about it. One of his first inroads to his new community was joining the volunteer fire department. He was the only one who showed up and already knew how to drive the truck and operate the pump.

“Neal is fascinated with the origin of things, how it is broken down and how it travels to the plate. He’s a chef, so he gets it and helps to connect the dots on the whole picture,” said food writer and chef Annie Mahle.

She has been cooking professionally for 25 years, but it was only after taking one of Neal’s workshops that she felt confident speaking with her guests about how her meat got to the plate.

“I really know what a tenderloin is now. I totally get why it’s a terrific piece of meat, I have seen and touched it.”

What a day.... truck broke down. Milking done late. Emergency tuna melts in oven, brownies instead of
cake...happy Birthday 2 Me!

Neal began raising ducks a few years ago: Rouen, Pekin and Muscovy. Pigs too, large black tomworts and Glouchester old spots. He hosts a multi-day duck workshop each winter and tweets duckling pictures to drum up interest. He convinced chef-author Kate Hill, whom he’d met via Twitter, to travel from her home in France and work with him on the duck workshops – first in Washington, then in Maine. This year he will have 30 ducks to break down, as well as 25 geese and 20 turkeys for the holidays.

“I suggested if he grew [the ducks], I’d come from France to teach him how to confit, and the rest is history in 140 characters,” Kate wrote in an e-mail exchange. “Neal keeps his learning curve on a very high arc by continually seeking out new and old ways.”
Moving the sheep at Claddagh Farms.
Finishing chores & heading out soon to pick up some more sheep....I must be insane.....

Foley loves duck, rabbit and pork, but says lamb is the future. He is slowly adding to his flock of Fresians, Leicester Longwools and North Country Cheviots. Not the most common breeds, but they fascinate him and their uniqueness is worth the extra effort to get them to the farm.

Rainy AM. Researching history of our farm. Feeling close ties to former farmers Stillman & Grace White of the 40's

“I am reminded by Neal that the energy we put into making our food is our most precious commodity,” Kate added. “Whether it’s milking cows on a blizzardy morning, or mixing up dough for homemade bagels the night before, putting time into our own food is essential and should come first.”

Coffee and blueberry cake after a farm tour and chat.Agrotourism is the next step for Claddagh Farms. The only way for a farm to be sustainable is for people to be interested enough to travel there, buy products, understand how to use them and return for more.

Neal wants to turn his cooking school in the red farmhouse into a destination, but there are challenges -- regulatory burdens that make it tough for farms to connect with restaurant kitchens, a lack of places to process meat for commercial use and encouraging more chefs to be flexible with their cooking and their menus. He’s ready. But first there is the matter of that new hay loft ...


10 NoVa wineries warming up wine this winter

At my holiday/birthday party each year the first thing I put on the stove is a warmer full of wine and spices.  It's always gone in the first two hours. So, this year I am going to try three new recipes with local wine.

Here are 10 Northern Vrginia wineries serving mulled wine during the chily months so you can take a few bottles for a test drive before they hit the crock pot:

The Barns at Hamilton Station Vineyards, Hamilton – Mulled wine available on Saturdays for $7/glass

Sunset Hills Vineyard, Purcellville -- Serving a blend of Cabernet Franc, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, orange, lemon and sugar to warm up your holiday spirit. Mulling spice packets are also available for purchase.

Quattro Goomba’s Winery, Aldie - Enjoy mulled wine in the tasting room, or purchase spices on site to make it at home.

The Vineyards & Winery at Lost Creek, Leesburg -  Grab a glass by the fireplace.

Loudoun Valley Vineyards, Waterford - Traditional-style gluhwein available starting in December.

North Gate Vineyards, Purcellville - Pair a glass with truffles from Maryland chocolate from Perfect Truffles

Corcoran Vineyards, Waterford– Mulled wine available every Saturday.

Hunter’s Run Wine Barn, Hamilton – Mulled wine made with Chambourcin or Merlot.

Hidden Brook Winery, Leesburg – Mulled wine make with apple cider and wine available on site, and mulling spice -- made in Gaithersburg, Md., -- are available to bring home.

Hiddencroft Vineyards, Lovettsville- "Grandma's Love Potion" (blueberry wine with 2% residual sugar and 12% alcohol) is mulled and spiced with cinnamon, cloves, allspice and lemon or orange peel. Northern VA Magazine has details from last winter's brew.


Report: More consumers follow chef pins, bring home (Nueske) bacon 

It’s not just affluent retirees buying fresh pasta, specialty mustards and artisan honeys. Nearly 3/4 of all Americans buy specialty food prodCheeses -- like this selection from Iowa's Milton Creamery - lead the pack for specialty food purchasesucts, led by consumers aged 18-24, according to the 2013 Specialty Food Association report. No surprises here: chocolate, coffee, cheese and oils, as well as Italian, Mexican and Chinese food are the top selling categories – while items like quinoa and Greek food are gaining ground.

Good news: Consumers are increasingly bringing home specialty food items for everyday use versus special occasions such as dinner parties, and (thanks Food Network and PBS) they consider themselves better educated about those choices -- as well as what to do when they get their groceries home.

Savoring social: Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter were all noted by more than 50% of those polled as the top social media channels to engage with retailers and restaurants. I follow (and discuss) hundreds of chefs and restaurants on Twitter, but mainly use Pinterest for home menu inspirations and recipes. Are your favorite restaurants using Pinterest to entice you to come in on a Tuesday night?

Going mobile + local: More than 40% of percent of specialty food consumers are buying food on their mobile devices, and nearly half purchase foods with locally-grown ingredients.


Aerating: Every time, all of the time


If there is one wine tool you buy this year, consider a wine aerator. Many wine professionals encourage you to use them when drinking reds, and a growing number that I know also recommend aeration before drinking whites too.

There are many ways to aerate wine, or let it breathe. When wine is exposed to air, the processes of oxidation and evaporation begin, allowing less desirable compounds that are often found in wine – such as sulfites -- to start to dissipate and revealing more pleasant components.

The best known, and cheapest, way to aerate is simply swirling your wine in a glass, or the act of pouring it from a bottle into a glass itself. The hard part is letting it sit and not drinking it right away.

Another option is to use a decanter, a wide vessel that allows the wine to have have maximum surface contact with air. It doesn't have to be a fancy, blown glass showpiece – even a mixing bowl will do – but an actual decanter does make it easier to transfer the vino back to serving glasses.

Aerating tools, both ones you place in the bottle's neck and ones that you place over your wine glass, utilize the Bernoulli's Principle, which states that as the speed of a moving fluid increases, the pressure inside the fluid decreases. Can you tell I'm married to a mechanical engineer?

Products from companies like Vinturi claim that they mix the “right” amount of air into the wine with a single pour, allowing the wine to open up faster then simple decanting, which can take up to an hour or more. New products, such as the TWIST adjustable aerator, let users control how much air is incorporated to “bring out the best in any wine.”

Try it out at home. Serve glasses from the same bottle, decanted, aerated and straight from the bottle. Ask guests to give you feedback on taste. The results may surprise you.