What's a beer-loving city to do in whiskey trending times? Distill. And collaborate. With the current popularity of supporting local business and drinking whiskey in general, it is prime time for small-scale distilleries to follow the lead of the microbrew culture and create artisanal spirits. The beginning of this micro-distillery movement in Portland is evident with the work of New England Distilling and Maine Craft Distilling. As these local distillers work to perfect and define their craft, they are finding little or no competition from their distilling and brewing peers, but rather, endless opportunities for collaboration.
After all, the first step in the process of distilling whiskey is making beer, or wash, which is simply a fermented mixture of grains and hot water. For small-scale distilleries, microbreweries are often times the source of the spent yeast used in this fermentation process, as is the case in Portland. The interconnectedness of these industries is also apparent in the current incorporation of bourbon flavors into local beer, kombucha, hard cider, and mead.
Ned Wight offers the perfect example of the seemingly natural transition from brewing to distilling. Though the whiskey well runs deep in the Wight family tradition, six generations deep, in fact, Ned just recently began to try his hand at his great-great-great-grandfather's craft after working for years in the microbrew industry. In fact, Allagash Brewing cites Wight as its very first employee. Now, as the founder and owner of New England Distilling (est. 2011), he is relocating the family trade that existed in Maryland from the 1850s to the 1950s, to Portland, where he may very well become the first distiller to produce and sell whiskey in the state of Maine. Wight shares that his decision to take on this distilling endeavor in Portland has to do with a "mix of passion and the right audience," noting the city's eager and open reception of foodie operations and local business.
Located in the Riverside Industrial Park, New England Distilling is literally blocks away from Wight's former workplace at Allagash. New England Distilling and Allagash actively cooperate, with the exchange of used Jim Beam barrels that the brewery procures for its bourbon barrel-aged beers. Allagash uses some of the Beam barrels for its Curieux, the bourbon barrel-aged variety of the Allagash Triple, and the Bourbon Barrel Black — you guessed it, the product of aging the Allagash Black in bourbon casks. The distillery is using the remaining Jim Beam barrels to age its rum and whiskey and, in turn, gives its used rum casks back to Allagash where brewers are playing with an aged version of the Odyssey brew — to be released in late 2013 or early 2014.
Also in the neighborhood is Maine Beer Company. New England Distilling uses the spent yeast from MBC's Zoe and Mean Old Tom beers in the fermenting of the wash for its gin, rum, and whiskey.
MAKING THE GRADE The still setup at Ned Wight’s cleverly named New England DIstilling (check the acronym)
The trick to a good whiskey is time, with a minimum aging period of one year; although New England Distilling's Ingenium Dry Gin and Eight Bells Rum are already distributed and sold across the state, we still have a bit of time left to await the company's rye whiskey, which has been aging for about six months, and has an estimated release date sometime in the fall of 2013.