An invisible magic clings to Vermont in late winter. Weeks before spring arrives, when snow drifts can still swallow your shins as the days grow milder, maple trees begin to stir by running sap through their veins.
Once the sap starts flowing, usually in late February, clouds of steam billow from sugar houses that dot the hills. It’s a peaceful, picturesque time to see Vermont’s working landscape in action, but sugar on snow isn’t the only treat worth seeking.
For the last decade or so, Vermont has forged a parallel identity as a Shangri-La for singular beverages: Beer, certainly, but also Champagne-like ciders; spirits distilled from rye, maple and honey; dry-hopped meads; and wines made by intrepid savants carving out an improbable appellation with hybrid grapes sturdy enough for cold climates (Marquette, La Crescent and Frontenac Noir among them) and which express Vermont’s terroir in beguiling ways.
While some tasting rooms are closed for the season, there are still places across the state where you can sample the liquid landscape as you bounce from one syrup-slathered cone to another. Sometimes, the maple is actually in your drink.
Here, we break down our drinker’s guide to Vermont to enjoy the flavors of the season.
In the southwestern corner of the state, where Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys once drank and defended their ground, the stars of their flag still adorn the bottles of Village Garage Distillery, which occupies an airy, stylishly renovated former town garage in Bennington. The spirits here—vodka, bourbon and rye—are made from Vermont-grown grain, and future releases run from a copper Vendome still while the bar out front blends featherlight sours and other drinks.
Vermont Bonfire, a whiskey finished with a touch of smoked maple syrup, is a flagship. “Smoked maple whiskeys are becoming a category,” says co-owner Matt Cushman, who founded Village Garage Distillery with fellow Bennington native, Glen Sauer. “Ours is not too sweet.”
Further up Route 7, The Crooked Ram in Manchester is one of the few places where you can find Vermont-made wines by the glass, rather than just in the bottles — such as a glass of tart, bubbly sparkling Marquette from Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber of La Garagista.
Heekin is a pioneer who has paved the way for Alpine-style wines in Vermont. Her natural wines, as well as those of Camila Carrillo of La Montañuela, are sold in the elegant barroom alongside olives, white anchovies, oysters and local cheeses. Come May, a wood-fired pizza oven out back churns out Neapolitan-style pies alongside seasonal cocktails and tons of bonhomie.
About an hour east, in Brattleboro, the brick-lined taproom of Hermit Thrush Brewery is a cult destination for sour beers perfect for the transitional seasons fermented with wild yeasts and local fruit and herbs, from blackcurrants and Damson plums to coriander, thyme and spruce.
Further north, at the confluence of the White and Connecticut Rivers — and Interstates 89 and 91—is the beverage-rich ‘burg of White River Junction, a historic rail-depot town where tiny River Roost Brewery produces juicy New England-style IPAs essential for early spring.
Tucked a few blocks away, the lovable cocktail bar Wolf Tree blends local spirits (such as those from Waitsfield’s Mad River Distillers) into mixed drinks and sometimes pours Vermont wines by the glass. For the transitional season between winter and spring, owner Max Overstrom-Coleman loves barrel-aged Barr Hill Tom Cat Gin from Caledonia Spirits. “It reads a lot like whiskey, and the barrel-aging gives it robustness,” said Overstrom-Coleman, who subs it in a riff on a cold weather negroni.
In nearby Quechee, one of the longest-standing distilleries in the state, Vermont Spirits, samples a flagship vodka distilled from maple syrup.
Down the road, WhistlePig Rye Whiskey serves splashes of their complex, award-winning ryes in an elegant tasting room tucked onto the second floor of a 19th-century house. It’s the only place in Vermont to sample limited releases, such as rye aged in plum-wine barrels.
In Montpelier, gin lovers can land their own bottles of Barr Hill Tom Cat inside the gorgeous Caledonia Spirits Distillery, which also harbors a light-swept cocktail bar serving, perhaps, the ultimate Bees Knees in existence (made with their honey-based gin).
Off the beaten path but very much worth seeking out, Fox Market & Bar in East Montpelier is an eclectic place where you can pick up tamarind paste, a head of broccoli, hot rotisserie chicken and limited-production Vermont ciders and wines in one place. Couches and a small bar encourage lingering with a glass of pet-nat or a cocktail, plus you can snack on a flaky house-made hand pie or bacon-kimchi onigiri.
Stowe does not suffer from a shortage of places for fueling up. Still, skiers who first dip into Waterbury would do well to find Freak Folk Bier, a year-old nano-brewery where owners Lillian MacNamara and Ryan Miller pour barrel-fermented mixed-culture beers, plus IPAs, pales ales and the like, in a treasure box of a space.
Vermont has a humming network of mead makers, among them Alexandre Apfel of Golden Rule Mead, a brewer who produces delicate, unfiltered and carbonated meads, from dry-hopped versions to those infused with tea, dried flowers, herbs and roots. Each weekend, he pours them inside his Middlebury tasting room. “It’s styled like a living room,” he said. “And I go through them one by one.”
Burlington has no shortage of top-tier places to imbibe, from Dedalus Wine Shop, Market & Bar—a long-standing proponent of Vermont wines—to Foam Brewers, a waterfront brewery currently up for a James Beard Award.
It’s in Burlington’s outer ring where you’ll find Salt & Bubbles, where owner Kayla Silver rotates Vermont-made and other natural wines and ciders on an ever-changing glass list, such as sparkling Frontenac Noir from Cambridge’s Stella 14 Wines.
Stella 14’s David Keck and Lauren Droege took over one of Vermont’s oldest vineyards in 2020, one dense with hybrid grapes, and they’ve been gradually ramping up their own production.
In Jeffersonville, they sample their own wines alongside those from industry colleagues, such as Iapetus Wine and Ellison Estate Vineyard, in a 400-square-foot tasting room fitted with a copper bar and a handful of tables.
“What other people do with Marquette might be different from what we might do with Marquette,” said Keck, explaining the ethos of serving different producers in tandem. “[Vermont] is still kind of a Wild West, and as a pioneering wine region it’s an exciting and pivotal time.”
Hill Farmstead Brewery draws legions of beer tourists to the Northeast Kingdom. In its top reaches, just shy of the Canadian border, Newport has its own bustling food and drinks scene. It is the home for the tasting room of Eden Specialty Ciders, which has long forged new ground for dry, bottle-fermented sparkling and still ciders, ice ciders and apple-based aperitifs.
After Vermont’s recent canned-cider tsunami, “it feels like there’s a lot more attention on wine-style ciders,” said Eleanor Leger, who co-founded Eden Ciders with her husband, Albert Leger, in 2005. At Eden, co-ferments, collaborations and experiments keep the tasting room rotation fresh and echo the region’s pioneering spirit.