Bridport pair bring spirit to venture

MIDDLEBURY — Sivan Cotel and Sas Stewart were honeymooning in Portland, Ore., last year, sampling the occasional cocktail at various restaurants and bars, when they had an epiphany that would change the course of their professional lives.
“We were having some pretty decent cocktails with some pretty unremarkable spirits,” Stewart said. “We were thinking, ‘What kind of cocktails could we create if we were using truly remarkable spirits.’ That’s where Stonecutter Spirits was born.”
Stewart and Cotel decided to make their own spirits — specifically gin — at their new business taking shape in a 12,000-square-foot space at 1197 Exchange St. in Middlebury, near the Vermont Coffee headquarters.
“It’s exciting,” Stewart said. “Our two-dimensional plans are becoming 3-D.”
And those plans call for Stonecutter to deviate from conventional, clear gin that delivers relatively few flavor notes. The husband-wife team will make a barrel-aged gin that that Cotel said will “create a remarkable spirit,” something they would order themselves as an ideal mixer or to enjoy on the rocks.
 “That’s what we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about,” Cotel said. “If you’re a writer, you should write the book you most want to read. Whatever product you would most want yourself, that’s what you should go out and find. So for us, it’s really exciting to create something we would want ourselves. That’s the whole idea.”
The Bridport couple brings appreciation and some experience to their new endeavor.
Cotel worked almost two years as chief operating officer of WhistlePig Whiskey, the Shoreham operation that recently won permission to establish its own rye whiskey distillery. Since leaving WhistlePig last November, Cotel has done consulting work for start-up spirits companies.
Stewart has specialized in helping companies define their brand strategies, largely with food and community organizations. She has also worked for environmental organizations and organic farms.
Stewart and Cotel are currently monitoring renovations to their new space and devising a recipe for their gin, which they hope to introduce into the Vermont, New York and Boston markets beginning next summer.
Most gins, Stewart explained, and released within three to six months after coming off the still. Stonecutter gin will be aged for six to 12 months in repurposed bourbon barrels that will impart additional character and flavor to the end product, she noted. The company will source its barrels from whiskey distilleries throughout the country, but primarily from Kentucky.
Barrel aging will give the Stonecutter variety a light amber hue, something that will also set it apart from most other brands.
“Barrel aging is fun, because it does two different things: It filters (the spirit) and takes out a lot of impurities,” Stewart explained of the process, which she said creates a smoother product. “It also infuses the spirit with whatever the barrel is.”
Cotel and Stewart have signed an agreement with a Vermont-based farm to grow the juniper berries that will be used in making the gin and a distiller to produce the base gin that will be barreled and stored at Stonecutters’ Middlebury headquarters. The bourbon barrels will impart to the gin a hint of the wood of which they are made, along with additional flavor layers — such as what used to be stored in the barrels, along with what is added through the Stonecutter recipe. A sip could therefore produce a complex taste of botanicals, citrus, caramel, vanilla and hints of bourbon.
“The results are frankly really delicious,” Stewart said of barrel-aged gin.
Cotel added the complexity of the flavor notes will make the gin more versatile for various cocktail recipes.
“That’s the part that’s really fun,” he said. “You can experiment.”
In fact, the sky is practically the limit on what you can use to spice up a cocktail made from barrel-aged gin, he said — including Vermont maple syrup. The dramatic temperature deviations in Vermont will create ideal aging conditions for the gin as the wooden barrels expand and contract, according to Cotel.
Stonecutter will likely produce 30 to 50 barrels of gin in its first year, to be sold in the standard 750-milliliter bottles. The company will begin as a two-person affair, but Cotel and Stewart hope to add around seven additional workers by year three, with the possibility of additional hires after that. They have committed to a 10-year lease at their Exchange Street location.
“We want to keep it small enough so that it is manageable,” Cotel said.
Stonecutter is the latest entry into a growing cadre of potent potable producers who have chosen to lay down roots in Middlebury and other communities in Addison County. There’s the Appalachian Gap Distillery, Vermont Hard Cider and Otter Creek Brewing, all based in Middlebury’s industrial park. Drop-in Brewing has settled off Route 7 South outside of Middlebury village. WhistlePig and Shacksbury Cider are in Shoreham, and Lincoln Peak Vineyard is thriving in New Haven.
“There is certainly a local surge of activity around brewing, distillation and fermentation here in Middlebury,” said Jamie Gaucher, director of the Middlebury Office of Business Development & Innovation. “I think this trend is a modern expression of our agricultural history, and if we include coffee and milk, our community is almost a sort of beverage hub.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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