What is it about Vermont that inspires local producers to make some of the most sought-after food and drinks in the region?
From beer and cheese to cider and syrup, Vermont’s brand is synonymous with several agricultural products, despite being covered with snow, ice, and mud for much of the year.
Montpelier’s Barr Hill Gin is one of the latest Vermont companies to take inspiration from the land. Founded in 2011 in Hardwick, in the Northeast Kingdom, Barr Hill takes its name from a nature preserve in neighboring Greensboro. In 2019, after early success, Barr Hill opened up a 27,000-square-foot distillery, bar, and visitors’ center in Montpelier.
“We’re a little bit of a hometown hero of a brand,” says Sam Nelis, Barr Hill’s beverage director. “Vermonters will take a photo and tell us, ‘I saw your gin at this bar in D.C.’ We’re still independently owned, which I think is really important. People are looking for real products that are made by real people.”
To prove his point, Nelis FaceTimes me for a tour of the space, revealing gleaming stainless-steel stills, reclaimed wood in the bar area, and real Vermonters dipping the tops of already filled spirits bottles into beeswax. Barr Hill currently makes three products: a gin, a barrel-aged version of a gin, and a vodka.
One local ingredient is the key to much of this. Barr Hill was started by Todd Hardie, a beekeeper, and Ryan Christiansen, a former homebrew supply store owner. It’s the honey, sourced exclusively from apiaries within 250 miles of Montpelier, that makes the liquids unique.
“Todd was important in bringing back raw honey to this region,” says Nelis. “Unfiltered, unpasteurized, nothing filtered, nothing taken away.”
Barr Hill’s vodka is distilled entirely from raw honey, with each bottle containing three to four pounds of the stuff. In the gin, honey makes up about 2 percent of the final product, but its importance can’t be understated. As opposed to London Dry, Barr Hill Gin is an Old Tom style, sweetened afterward to add roundness and mouthfeel. In this case, besides juniper, honey is the only botanical.
“It’s the wildflowers in the honey that make this super special,” says Nelis. “It was 100, 150 wildflowers, so in a way we consider it countless botanicals.”
I’m usually a London Dry-style gin drinker, but I appreciated the fuller mouthfeel of Barr Hill Gin. Juniper tends to be a little resin-y (think hops, beer friends), and the honey makes a nice balance. Barr Hill recommends drinking its gin in a classic Bee’s Knees cocktail (recipe below), which is something they’re making constantly at the distillery in Montpelier. And of course you can’t go wrong with a gin and tonic.
Here’s the Bee’s Knees cocktail recipe from Barr Hill Gin: Take 2 ounces of Barr Hill Gin, .75 ounces of fresh lemon juice, and .75 ounces of raw honey syrup (2 parts honey to 1 part hot water. Let cool.). Combine the ingredients in a mixing tin, add ice, shake, then double strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add lemon twist for a garnish.