Distilleries Using Local Ingredients to Bring Out Homegrown Flavor

Collaboration spirits
Illustration by Victoria Skovran

You know the saying, “Teamwork makes the dream work”? That’s the attitude that a growing number of distilleries have adopted. They’ve cross-pollinated spirits through collaborations with breweries, wineries, farmers and other entities in their areas.

Some seek to spotlight homegrown flavors or the impact of terroir; others want to support local businesses; and still others just can’t resist experimenting with whatever materials are at hand, even recently emptied barrels. The following projects illustrate how playing well with others can lead to some boundary-pushing bottlings.

A collaboration between Trail Distilling and J.Christopher Wines
Illustration by Victoria Skovran

Trail Distilling and J. Christopher Wines

Trillium Pink Pinot Gin and Trillium Barrel Reserved Gin

At first, Oregon City’s Trail Distilling just wanted to see what would happen.

“We wanted to experiment with our gin,” says Co-owner Sara Brennan. “We believe in supporting local businesses.”

While breweries or coffee roasters were briefly considered as collaborators, they didn’t seem like the right match with a floral, citrus-forward gin. It was a winery, specifically, Willamette Valley’s J. Christopher, that ultimately hit the sweet spot.

Oregon Pinot Noir is recognized as some of the best Pinot in the world, so why not blend a local gin and wine together?” says Brennan.

Trail makes two bottlings that use emptied casks from J. Christopher. The Trillium Barrel Reserved gin spends six months in a former wine barrel toasted by ReWine Barrels, another Oregon business. The other, Trillium Pink Pinot Gin, ages for two months in a freshly emptied barrel, which imparts a delicate blush.

Manifest Citrus Vodka
Manifest Citrus Flavored Vodka / Illustration by Victoria Skovran

Manifest Distilling and local citrus growers

Manifest Citrus Flavored Vodka

The original plan was to make gin, recalls Tom Johnson, partner and sales director at Manifest Distilling in Jacksonville, Florida. The idea was never to be a flavored vodka, a category Johnson dismissed as “an abomination.”

But as Manifest tested citrus peels as gin botanicals, “we knew right then we had the potential to make something incredible,” he says. “Living in Florida, fruit is our No. 1 agricultural product, and we wanted to pay homage to that.”

Two years later, Manifest macerated its potato vodka with a blend of 60% orange, 20% lemon and 20% grapefruit peels, all sourced from local groves. The first batches used fruit from North Florida farmer Cecil Nelson. When he passed away in 2018, Manifest began to work with Sun Harvest Citrus, a grower and juicing facility.  While the percentage stays constant, the varieties change throughout the year, depending on what’s ripe. Familiar navel or Valencia oranges may figure into the mix, as could sweet-tart Temples or Honeybell tangelos, which result in nuanced variations in each batch.

Westland Distillery Black Raven Brewing Co.
Beer cask-finished whiskey / Illustration by Victoria Skovran

Westland Distillery and Black Raven Brewing Co.

Beer cask-finished whiskey

Seattle craft distillery Westland is already noted for its emphasis on terroir in its whiskey, achieved by local grains and even peat harvested from a Washington state bog.

But the distillery’s new cask-exchange program with breweries, a huge part of the creative landscape in the Pacific Northwest, “is yet another way Westland is working to express a sense of place in our whiskies,” says Scott Sell, the distillery’s director of operations.

The project began in response to requests from local producers for emptied whiskey casks, he says. Rather than sell them, Westland loans casks to brewers on one condition: Send them back when you’re done.

What returns is “all sorts of fantastic and weird casks to finish our whiskey in,” Sell notes. Black Raven Brewing fills one set of casks with Feather Weather Coffee Stout and another with a kriek style Cherry Sour. Upon their return, Westland filled both sets with whiskey, then later married the two together into a robust spirit that roars with chocolate-covered cherry and toffee.

Amaro Pazzp
Amaro Pazzo / Illustration by Victoria Skovran

Long Road Distillers and Madcap Coffee

Amaro Pazzo

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Long Road Distillers wanted to make a coffee-spiked spirit. It turned to Madcap, a well-known local coffee roaster beloved for seasonal coffees.

“Coffee and distilled spirits go so well together,” says Jon O’Connor, Long Road’s owner/cofounder. “For some time, we have really wanted to utilize coffee in one of our products.”

During about a year of research and development, the two entities quickly ruled out a “boring” coffee liqueur, focusing instead on a shared love of amaro. Their version would utilize coffee to coax bitter, floral, smoky or herbaceous notes, depending on the beans’ origin and roasting technique.

Ultimately, they selected Reko, an Ethiopian coffee with citrusy acidity and stone fruit flavors. It’s blended with a neutral spirit macerated with botanicals that include orange and chicory, flavors that are traditional to pair with coffee.

 Cider barrel matured Virginia Highland malt whisky
Cider Barrel Matured Virginia Highland Malt Whisky / Illustration by Victoria Skovran

Virginia Distillery Co. and local cideries

Cider Barrel Matured Virginia Highland Malt Whisky

Virginia Distillery in Lovingston has teamed up with wineries and breweries, so it seemed natural to collaborate with cider makers in one of the nation’s largest apple-producing states.

“It made a lot of sense in terms of the flavor profile and what we were trying to achieve,” says Distillery Director Ian Thomas. He reached out to Potter’s Craft Cider and Buskey Cider, both in Central Virginia and known for experimental releases like hopped ciders and a jalapeño-lime infusion. A cask-exchange program was arranged to circulate used vessels between the whiskey and cider producers. Layers of flavor would evolve with each round-trip.

From the first experiment in 2016, “we knew we were on to something very unique and different,” says Thomas. The dry, tart apple flavors melded with the mellow butterscotch of the malt whiskey.

“We were surprised by the simplicity and balance, but also the depth of character we got out of it,” he says.

Wigle Maple Liqueur
Wigle Maple Liqueur / Illustration by Victoria Skovran

Wigle Whiskey and Rivendale Farms Sugarhouse maple syrup

Wigle Maple Liqueur

Pittsburgh-based Wigle has been prolific in terms of collaborative bottlings over the years. Offerings have ranged from an aquavit-like Eau de Pickle (yes, a pickle-flavored spirit) to a partnership with a local chocolatier that yielded whiskey-infused truffles.

But the road to its maple liqueur is of particular interest, involving “barrel trades and outrageous amounts of maple syrup,” says Michael Foglia, Wigle’s manager of product development and innovation.

The liqueur starts with maple syrup, which is fermented and then aged for five months in barrels that previously held the sweet stuff. Finally, the finished spirit is sweetened with another addition of dark and robust maple syrup.

“It took about a year to line up everything for the first batch,” says Foglia. The distillery worked with Bissell Maple Farm and Rivendale Farms.

Why maple? It’s an extension of Wigle’s “engagement in local terroir,” says Foglia. “While we are not as ‘maple-crazy’ as Vermont, it is still a major part of our agricultural heritage,” with Pennsylvania producing the seventh most syrup of all states in the country.

Published on October 15, 2019
Topics: Spirits


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