Magazine

First Person

One sweet sip

David Howe, owner of Vermont’s Elm Brook Farm, believes he’s the first ever to make a barrel-aged spirit from maple sap, called Rail Dog.

Christopher Diegel

I am a chemical engineer by trade. We tap our own trees, spend lots of time checking our lines, collecting sap, and, of course, boiling it down into syrup. About five years ago, we were tinkering with the process of making grape wine. It was pretty mediocre, so we decided to go back to the drawing board. Because we are a maple producer, we started to explore using maple sap instead of grapes. We researched the chemistry of maple and decided it was the way to go.

Every sugar has a related spirit. Sugar cane has rum, agave has tequila, and corn has whiskey. Vodka can be made from just about any sugar. No barrel-aged spirit has ever been made with maple sap. Maple is the nectar of the gods.

After three years of research and experimentation, we finally found yeast that, we feel, brought out the flavor of the maple sap. Our cooking time is different, as is our distilling process. We had to invent or modify equipment as we went. Our aging process is also different.

Advertisement

After a lot of practice and failed experiments we discovered what we think is something new. We named it Rail Dog. It doesn’t fall under any existing category of spirits, so the state of Vermont has labeled it “Barrel-Aged Maple Spirit.” Vermont commerce secretary Lawrence Miller is really excited about this and is hoping to get the federal government to recognize it as an official Vermont spirit, sort of like Kentucky bourbon.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Rail Dog is complex and difficult not to like. Our first small batch will be bottled in mid-November and will be sold here at our [East Fairfield] farm, at the Burlington farmers’ market, and at Smugglers’ Notch resort. During the 2014 maple season we plan to have a grand unveiling event.   — As told to Dale and Darcy Cahill (Interview has been edited and condensed.)

GOOD SPIRITS Learn more about Rail Dog by visiting elmbrookfarm.com.