Full Circle: The Transformation of Grain to Whiskey

There’s a giddiness in the air, I can see it in their eyes, their smiles, and their posture as they confer with one another.  This moment in the distillery is monumental; it’s the culmination of years of visioning, hard work, and collaborations with friends of local businesses.  This is the moment of alchemy and transformation resulting in smoky rye whiskey.

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Ryan Christiansen (President and Head Distiller), Todd Hardie (Distillery Founder turned Organic Farmer), and Scott Emery (Apprentice Distiller), are standing on wooden scaffolding surrounded by stills, condensers, and columns.  They are peering into the mash tun which is steaming and churning with winter rye from Todd’s Thornhill Farm and barley from the Meyer’s family North Hardwick Dairy.  The excitement in the air is palpable.

Ryan is in the zone, doing what he does best, merging science and art with grace and skill.  Todd is observing the magic taking place with serenity and contentment.  Scott has an air of focused excitement from being with his mentors and learning the craft of distilling whiskey for the first time. This is work, but it feels more like play; it’s very clear that this “Dream Team” loves what they do.

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As Ryan and Scott take measurements of the grain mash – testing pH, adding enzymes to turn carbohydrates present in the grain into digestible sugars for the yeast that will be added in due time – Todd fills me in on the story of how this all came to be.

Todd, now the steward of Thornhill Farm in Greensboro, originally founded Caledonia Spirits in 2011 with a mission to distill local raw ingredients into craft spirits as a way to add value to the crop and working landscape. Beekeeper by trade and at heart, Todd is devoted to the preservation of the land through organic agriculture, which supports healthy hives and rich soils; this is the reason behind Barr Hill’s line of honeyed gin and vodka.

Todd hired Ryan Christiansen in 2011 to operate the stills and make craft spirits.  Ryan, then a brewer, stepped into the position of distiller and impressed Todd with his quick aptitude for learning the art and science of distilling. The quality of the resulting spirits, Barr Hill Gin and Barr Hill Vodka, proved Ryan was a natural.

In 2015, Todd confided in Ryan a vision he had: turning his attention to farming in the neighboring town of Greensboro. Ryan and Todd discussed collaborations around Todd being the farmer and steward of growing grains and sourcing local ingredients, and Ryan distilling these ingredients into craft spirits. They struck a deal, and Todd sold the company to Ryan, who now carries on the company’s mission of supporting Vermont’s working landscape by craft distilling flawless spirits.

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Todd acquired acreage in Greensboro and literally built a farm from scratch, raising barns, erecting a silo, clearing land, and adding organic inputs to the existing open land.  In the fall of 2015, Todd planted 24 acres of winter rye.  This plant is aptly named because it winters over, reaching maturity the following growing season.  Despite the drought, and other unforeseen natural forces that influenced the 2016 growing season, Todd’s winter rye was exceptionally hardy. Once harvested, the rye was stored in Todd’s silo to dry.

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Meanwhile, Todd nurtured a partnership with the Meyer family of North Hardwick Dairy to grow barley, hands down the hardest grain to grow in Vermont.  In the Summer 2016 the Meyer’s planted barley, which Todd helped to harvest.

The barley, although only making up 15% of the whiskey grain blend, is the more flavorful of the two grains because once dried it is malted and smoked prior to milling. The winter rye, which makes up about 85% of the grain blend, is ready to be milled into flour once dried.

The barley is malted by Peterson Quality Malt, in Ferrisburgh, Vermont.  The malting process makes the starch present in barley fermentable.  To malt a grain means that it is sprouted, dried, and then smoked.  This gives a robust flavor to the grain which is present in the flavor profile of the resulting whiskey.  Todd smoked the barley in a smoker at Thornhill, building a fire with apple and cherry trimmings from his woodland.

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The barley and the winter rye were then transported to Elmore Mountain Bread, where owners Andrew Heyn and Blair Marvin have a bakery and mill.  The grains were milled individually into a coarse flour.  The time honored mill consists of two huge granite rock wheels that grind grain into flour.  The flour was then bagged and brought to Caledonia Spirits the very next day to start the process of distilling smoky rye whiskey.

The fermentation process takes about three days, the distilling happens in two days, and then of course there is the aging process which can take years.  This batch of Thornhill Whiskey will rest in Vermont white oak barrels made by Bob Hockert, Master Cooper.

“The spirit of our team and the land of Vermont will be expressed in this smoky rye whiskey.  My uncles started distilling in Scotland in 1888. This is how we have made the farm work for generations.” Todd Hardie

Local collaborations abound in our community where centuries-old agricultural and manufacturing techniques are part of our culture.  Collaborations like this result in the highest quality products, while enriching our region with new jobs and opportunities.  From start to finish, this smoky rye whiskey is the perfect example of what it means to be Landcrafted in the heart of Vermont.