It takes a blend of creativity and perseverance to make quality craft wines and spirits. It's what's kept Patrick Barrelet, the head distiller and winemaker at Snow Farm Vineyard & Distillery, going during the two-year period leading up to the launch of Snow Farm's distillery in South Hero, Vermont. The Vermont distillery, which launched in October, is an expansion of Snow Farm's successful winery, tasting room, and 12+ acre vineyard.
From building a new distillery facility to recipe creation, label design, and legal approval, every step along the way led to a successful grand opening with a ribbon cutting, distillery tours, live music, wagon rides, and three new spirits available for tasting, along with fortified port-style wine.
Barrelet said of the distillery opening, "So many people have been asking for the products, and now they can try them. It's been great to hear a lot of positive reactions."
Patrick Barrelet cutting the ribbon to the new distillery alongside co-owners Dave and Julie Lane.
A True Taste of Place
Barrelet and his fellow co-owners Dave and Julie Lane and the staff at Snow Farm welcomed friends and family from near and far to experience a one-of-a-kind taste of place at the distillery opening.
Their advice to those who toured the distillery? Enjoy the spirits at the distillery because making spirits is different from wine in that, they require more time, grapes, and other botanicals to make. This means, at this time, they can only be made in micro-batches and sold at the distillery tasting room, with pre-orders available online.
Carefully handwritten on each bottle are the batch and bottle numbers. Barrelet says the first batch of gin, grappa, and maple liqueur totaled about 260 bottles.
As he mixed a new batch of crushed stems and grape skins in two 240-gallon containers to be made into grappa, Barrelet estimated the mash would produce about five gallons of grappa.
The mash material is made up of leftover grape skins and stems from winemaking that normally would be composted immediately after the wine is made. Instead, it's given a second life at the distillery, though it requires much more material to make spirits than wine.
"If I instead had just pressed grapes in these containers, I would be able to make about 2,000 bottles of wine. With this grappa, it's a fraction of the product with the same amount of material," Barrelet said.
Barrelet stirring grape mash for grappa as guests tour the distillery.
He says it's what makes the spirits so special. Making spirits also requires the distiller to have a more watchful eye over the fermentation process to ensure the liquid from the mash is distilled while it is sweet smelling.
"The liquid goes in the still to extract all the flavors, aromas, and alcohol from the mash. The secret is to have really clean grapes," Barrelet said. "If the grapes are really healthy, we do grappa, and if there is rot, we aren't going to do it. It's a lot of work to get a little bit of alcohol, but it's worth it because we really get everything out of those grapes. Once the grapes are done, they are really ready for the compost pile."
Barrelet says spirits don't take as long to make as wine does, and that means he can have a new batch of spirits made in as soon as six weeks, with the grappa only needing to age about four months and the gin and maple liqueur ready to drink within a month.
"It's a niche product, an add-on to the vineyard, and a treat," Barrelet said.
Every Batch is a New Experience
The grapes used for each new batch of spirits from Snow Farm Distillery will likely change every year because the quality of the harvest from the vineyard depends on the growing season. This year, the base alcohol for the gin was made with a healthy batch of Baco Noir grapes, and the maple liqueur and grappa were made from an abundance of sweet Frontenac White and Cayuga grapes.
"What I'm making right now might be a base alcohol, or it could be a grappa next year," Barrelet said. "You taste the grapes in the field and say, 'Okay, I think it's going to be a good year to do this or that,' and when it comes to harvest, things can change, and you modify your recipes based on the flavors you get from the vineyard. Winemaking is the same way."
Barrelet learned from his father and grandfather in Quebec, where he lives and grew up, how to taste fruit and decide on the ideal wine or spirits to make with it. He remembers being a young boy making Kirsch, a clear spirit made from sour cherries, and apple eau-de-vie, French for “water for life." It's a category of brandy that is unaged and distilled from any fruit other than grapes.
Patrick studied winemaking in Burgundy, France, a hub for wine connoisseurs. After making wine for over 30 years, he recently developed a palate for spirits.
"I first started with drinking whiskey and brandy and then to gins. After that, your palate adapts to the higher alcohol, so if you're not used to it, you might say, 'This is too strong,' but when you start developing your palate, you'll discover the sweeter notes and really enjoy it," Barrelet said.
David Belanger, who participated in the distillery opening and tour, enjoys collecting and tasting gins from all over the world. Belanger, who has a lakehouse in Alburgh and lives in Montpelier, plans to keep Snow Farm Distillery gin in his regular rotation.
"I need a bottle for the lakehouse and one for the house," Belanger chuckled, "The first time we came to Snow Farm was for our 30th anniversary last year, and we took our picture in the vines," Belanger said. "Today, we took the scenic route coming down on South Shore. What a little gem here. It's awesome."
Learn more about what's new at Snow Farm Distillery and plan a visit.