Where does great gin come from? I imagine most people would say Great Britain. Hell, most of my gin collection probably has the Union Jack somewhere on the bottles. While the U.K. produces some of the finest gins I have had the pleasure to sample, I can say with certainty that the finest sipping gin I have ever sampled comes from the USA… Hardwick, Vermont to be exact.
A friend of mine gifted a bottle of Barr Hill Gin after months of bragging how good it was. I drank it straight and didn’t suffer from any of the usual facial tics that follow a shot of pure gin. In fact, it was smooth and downright delightful. What makes this gin so smooth? Pure Raw Honey. Prior to establishing their distillery, the owners of Caledonia Spirits (the makers of Bar Hill Gin and Vodka) were beekeepers. I reached out to owner Todd Hardie, who has been working with honey bees for over 48 years, to learn more about Caledonia’s products and history.
DME: Your website tells a very nice story about your history, but for those that haven’t visited, tell me about the bees…
Todd: I began a relationship with honey bees when I was 12, on the top field of my parents’ farm. My brother Tom and I were intrigued on how everything they did was a blessing to our family and community: making raw honey, gathering pollen and propolis, and making wax from the honey as well.
DME: How much gin are you able to produce?
Todd: I do not keep track of the numbers. At Cornell Agriculture school, I realized I was more of a “poet scientist”. We are blessed that our head distiller Ryan Christiansen, files all the paperwork for the governments we report to. What is important to me is taking care of our people, making fine products that please people, paying our taxes and suppliers on time and in an honorable manner.
We have to have more distribution than we currently do, but we are growing things organically. I learned in the bee business to make a penny on everything that goes out the door. In other words, we have to get our volume up. We are looking for the right distributors and partnerships at the moment. But there is still plenty to do in the states that we are currently in.
DME: What markets are you currently selling Caledonia products?
Todd: Outside of Vermont, we are in the metro New York market and southern Hudson Valley. They are great markets, and we actually use New York honey in all of our products. We are also in Massachusetts, Long Island, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington, DC currently. We are looking to expand into Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine and California.
My great-grandfather said that the best fertilizer is the footprint of the farmer. We are putting our footprints in many places and that is what is allowing us to do what we do. Once people try our gin, vodka, or elderberrycordial they buy it, we just have to get it to them. Its been our pleasure, and a real necessity, to be out in the marketplace otherwise people aren’t going to find out what you are doing. You have to put the product in front of people and let them taste it, then it picks up a life of its own with momentum and time.
DME: You are getting honey from New York, so you aren’t using your own honey?
Todd: Our bees are in Hardwick where we live and work in Vermont. It is not an area where you can keep thousands of hives, which we would need for this production. I came here from the St. Saint Lawrence River Valley where we actually did have thousands of hives for years. We do have a few hives, but we get our honey from friends that we have had relationships with for over 30 years in order to produce the volume we need. You really can’t do both…running an apiary (bee farm) and a distillery. That is why we switched to distilling, because it is a hard managing thousands of hives. Its a tough business to be in, and my hat is off to anyone who does it successfully.
Over the years, we let groups of hundreds of hives go to our friends as we diversified and make honey-based plant medicine, honey wine/mead, and then spirits. We always want to work with honey and maintain our roots.
DME: Where did you get the idea to switch from beekeeping to making your own spirits?
Todd: It was about being farmers that make a value added product. Basically, if you are going to be a farmer and grow a field of grain, run an apple orchard, or manage bee hives you have to review your costs at the end of the season. Things like water management, pest control, accounting, and packaging all add up and it is a minor miracle to grow crops as a commodity and break even.
We followed the traditions of my family in Scotland that have been distillers for years and have always made spirits, or had a country store on our property, or went to farmers markets to get our product direct to the market place. We are located in Caledonia County which means “Scotland”, this area was settled by the Scots 200 years ago, its in our blood.
DME: What is the primary benefit to adding honey into spirits like gin or vodka?
Todd: It makes a really wonderful product, it tastes good. Our honey is raw, it is never heated or filtered.
DME: What is the benefit of unfiltered honey?
Todd: In spirits, it tastes better. Raw honey in a jar will have enzymes, carbohydrates, and minerals. The big part of raw honey in a jar is that the enzymes helps immune support and helps the body fight local floral allergies.
DME: I have interviewed owners of breweries for Drinking Made Easy over the last few years and I am amazed at how complicated the distribution laws are. What are some of the challenges you face getting your product into people’s hands?
Todd: The cost of goods for us is very high because we use natural raw materials. Be it honey, elderberry, or corn. So we have a high cost of raw material which makes it hard to have a price point that works for some people. Our gin is a little more expensive than the average gin and our vodka is way more expensive, but the good news is that people love it and they appreciate the taste.
We also pay a huge amount of taxes to the governments, and that is a formidable part of doing business. But everyone is essentially on the same playing field in that regard so we just have to deal with it. It is typical business, you have to get your volumes up while keeping the quality high to cover your cost of operations and purchase materials.
But we are doing well with everything and it was a good year.
DME: How did people even know about your product to buy it?
Todd: First, the people of Vermont are great and they really support local artisanal products. But what is so special about our product is it grew organically. We don’t have billboards in Time Square… we build relationships, we do tastings.
When I graduated from Cornell, I didn’t realize that all of the effort and care that goes into producing these goods… you can taste it in the jar. The good energy that goes into making a quality product spreads and people will start talking about it. I just came back from tastings in Princeton, NJ and Manhattan and people taste it and go home and tell their friends.
You have to go out there and let people taste the product, be nice, and appreciate them. People are good to us. We give samples, let them taste honey, explain our roots; our customers respect the hard work that goes into making the product, they appreciate farmers. We also have a mission to support farmers. The spirits business grew out of a means for allowing farmers to get more return on their crops and to store and ship it less expensively. We are following those traditions.
DME: Do you have any other information you want our readers to know?
Todd: We are one of the few distilleries making elderberry cordial in the United States (which uses organic elderberries). We love elderberries, the cordial is a nice after dinner drink. It goes great with gin to make a negroni. It has a beautiful purple color.
By using our products, you take care of the beekeepers and give them a good price for their honey. Our products are enjoyable so we hope people try them. We respect the honey and the bees; we treat the products with an integrity that is reflected in the product. We don’t cut any corners. We hit a homerun with this gin, we feel very blessed.
Caledonia Spirits are available in Vermont, Massachusetts, Metro NYC/Long Island/Southern Hudson Valley, New Jersey, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Check out their website for shipping to other states.
If you happen to be in the Northern Vermont area – you can visit Caledonia Monday through Saturday 9 AM – 5 PM (Todd suggests calling ahead):
46 Buffalo Mountain Commons Drive
Hardwick, Vermont 05843 (on Route 15, through Lamoille Valley Ford to the red building through the log yard)