Appalachian Gap distills corn and barley into whiskey, rum, liqueurs

MIDDLEBURY — Chuck Burkins and Lars Hubbard met 17 years ago and began brewing beer together as a hobby. Next month, they hope to roll out their first barrel of whiskey at their new distillery in Middlebury.
“Distilling is something that’s fun, and we love things that taste good,” Hubbard said. “There’s chemistry involved. We had to do a lot of MacGyvering to make things work.”
The pair, who founded the Appalachian Gap Distillery in 2011, aren’t traditional distillers. And Appalachian Gap isn’t typical of the kind of Vermont businesses that add value to the fruits of the land.
Burkins, 50 and Hubbard, 52, met in 1997 and together founded the Friday Group, a consulting firm they run to this day. The name of the company, Hubbard said, sheds light on the pair’s desire to expand their breadth of knowledge.
“It’s called the Friday Group because the theory is on Friday afternoons, everyone would spend a few ours learning something that wasn’t their job,” Hubbard said.
By doing just that, Hubbard and Burkins set themselves on the course toward their new venture.
“For fun, we went and took a three-day artisanal distilling class at Cornell,” Hubbard said. “I’m a former chef, Chuck is a former biochemist — there are all these sorts of roads that crossed in stilling.”
Brewing beer had been a passion of both men before they met, and joining forces to try their hand at distilling liquor seemed like a natural course of action. After toying around with the idea, the pair realized it had potential.
“We starting playing around with the numbers and it actually seemed like a viable business,” Hubbard said. “So, we started exploring that further and decided to look for a building to build a distillery someday.”
That opportunity came in 2011, when the pair bought a 6,000-square-foot building and surrounding acres on Mainelli Road, off Exchange Street in Middlebury. Hubbard and Burkins purchased the building in foreclosure, and it was in rough shape.
“We bought this building at a fire sale price,” Hubbard said. “The basement was full of mold and walls were full of dead rodents, but it had a new roof.”
Hubbard and Burkins got the space cleaned out and divided the building into three suites. One houses the pair’s consulting company, another they rent to the Champlain Valley Creamery, an established cheesemaker operated by Carleton Yoder. The third suite houses the distillery, which was installed last summer.
The company’s initial product line will include two whiskey-infused coffee liqueurs, a collaboration with the nearby Vermont Coffee Company, as well as a rum and a white whiskey.
In addition, some of the white whiskey will be aged to soak up the flavor of oak barrels, and will be called Ridgeline Whiskey.
The pair is also exploring the production of gin, using an 18th-century recipe called Old Tom Gin. In contrast with London Dry Gin, a popular way of making gin today, Old Tom Gin is made in a pot still.
“The Old Tom Gin is slightly sweet, and is a different sort of beast,” Hubbard said.
Burkins explained that distilling alcohol is simply physical chemistry.
“If you’ve actually taken college chemistry, you’ve done a distillation, and it’s really as easy as it sounds,” Burkins said. “You basically just heat up one side, cool the other, and it works.”
The challenge, Burkins said, is distilling with such large volumes.
“The really hard part is doing it with 100 gallons and having a license for it,” Burkins said. “There’s no legal way of home distilling in the U.S.; you can make your own wine and beer, but you’re not allowed to make your own spirit.”
Hubbard and Burkins hope to start selling their spirits to the public in May, and open a tasting room at their Mainelli Road facility Memorial Day Weekend. Appalachian Gap distillery is still waiting on approval from the state Department of Liquor Control.
They’ve been fine-tuning the still and production process since the winter, and produced their first sellable batch this week.
“We’ve been distilling for a couple months now, but that batch is the first one for public consumption,” Hubbard said.
Initially, the pair plans to distribute their products only locally.
“We’re starting to distribute in Addison and Chittenden counties, then spread over towards Montpelier and Waitsfield and all of the ski areas,” Hubbard said. “Once we have a pretty good presence in Vermont, we’ll look to some of the bigger cities, like Boston and New York.
Burkins and Hubbard are also conscious of their environmental footprint. Solar panels on the property power everything at the distillery except the water boiler, which uses propane. Appalachian Gap also makes wise use of its used grain.
“We take in all of our waste products and ship them out as animal feed,” Burkins said.
Appalachian Gap Distillery makes a mash out of corn and barley, a process through which they are steeped in hot water. This activates the malt enzymes and converts the grain starches into fermentable sugars. That substance is then fermented, distilled, aged and bottled.
Currently, the company sources its grain from Country Malt in Plattsburgh, N.Y., but is in talks with a malt house in Ferrisburgh to purchase barley. Appalachian is also looking for other ways to make use of local agriculture.
“We’ve also talked to some farmers about growing corn for use,” Hubbard said, adding that the company is still in the process of figuring out how much grain it will need.
But what is certain is that they’ll need a lot of it — Burkins estimated that it takes 750 pounds of grain to produce 1,000 liters of wash, 10 percent of which is alcohol. Depening on the proof, each gallon of alcohol produces  about 2.5 bottles of whiskey. Burkins said the pair hope to eventually produce 60 cases per week, though the still can handle much more.
What lies ahead for Appalachian Gap as it gets off the ground is unknown, but Hubbard and Burkins have the resources to give their new project time to develop.
“We’re structured in such a way that we don’t need to be paid right away,” Hubbard said. “Someday it needs to make money, but for now it doesn’t.”
He noted that the alcoholic beverage industry continues to be robust even in hard economic times. A 2011 CNN Money report noted that the industry as a whole continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace, during the recent recession.
Hubbard and Burkins said they believe the recent surge in popularity of craft breweries in Vermont has fueled a similar renaissance of artisanal spirits. The Distilled Spirits Council of Vermont, which was founded in 2011, now has 14 members from across the state, including Shoreham’s WhistlePig Farm, which makes rye whiskey.
Even though another distillery seems to pop up in Vermont every couple months, Burkins said they’re not worried about competition.
“We’re 1 percent of WhistlePig, and WhistlePig is 1 percent of the big boys,” Burkins said. “When you talk about competition with Evan Williams or Jack Daniels, we’re so small that if competition was scaring us, we wouldn’t be in the business.”

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