The drink scene in the greater Portland area has expanded exponentially in the past few years with a number of breweries and a handful of distilleries opening to add a beautiful compliment to our top notch food. Maine Craft Distilling is one of those that is leading the charge. Look around at local restaurants and liquor stores and you’ll spot their liquid loveliness at every turn. I had been to their tasting room briefly once before, but had the opportunity to go again and really sit down to enjoy the “Farm to Flask” spirits they produce. With nine bottles currently offered, tasting all of them will keep you occupied for a while and, if you’re coming in from out of town as many patrons seem to be, they’re a great stop on your boozy tours of Portland.
I was really excited to see what was in store at MCD so I immediately grabbed one of the available bar seats on a Saturday afternoon and got ready to try some of what was in front of me. I reviewed the list of sprits I had been given and decided I definitely wanted to taste all the available options. The bartender noted that the ingredients the distillery used were essentially all from Maine which only added to my enthusiasm. I settled on starting my tasting with their whiskey – Fifty Stone Single Malt. A sip of the small pour revealed the oak from the barrels in which it’s aged and a background of the flavor of grains smoked in peat and seaweed, though there wasn’t enough smoke to be confused with a scotch. I found it to be a solid, smooth whiskey that would fit well on my liquor shelf.
My next tastings were three from the gin family – Alchemy Dry Gin, Chesuncook Botanical Spirit, and Sprigge Barrel Rested Gin. I’m picky about my gin, and while I suppose true gin connoisseurs generally relish the heavy juniper that makes that typical gin flavor, I like it more laid-back which seems to be unusual in the gin world. I felt the Alchemy was along the lines of what one might consider a traditional gin. Though there were a number of botanicals used in its creation, I still got a lot of the juniper which made it difficult for me to catch the other elements of the spirit. I’m confident that anyone who is generally a fan of gin would enjoy the Alchemy.
Chesuncook presented a much more complex flavor than Alchemy. Not technically a gin due to its lack of grain or potato, the Chesuncook is distilled from carrots with a number of flavors added during its creation. I quickly got a spicy bite from chilis followed by the juniper. I then made my way to the Sprigge. Aged 8 months in used whiskey barrels, I had a feeling that might be the gin for me. I was right. The moderate barrel flavor gave a balance to the juniper that I wasn’t used to. I’m not sure if anyone else ages gin in used whiskey barrels, but it worked really well, taking the Alchemy and making it perfect for the whiskey drinker wanting a different palate placement.
Three rums and a near vodka were up next. I started with Queequeg Spiced Rum. It was unaged and had strong notes of star anise and vanilla with secondary orange and other, less obvious sip sensations. The Ration Expedition Style Rum was a more traditional tasting rum distilled from molasses and exhibiting the sweetness expected of it. The Tashtego White Rum followed suit with what I felt was a straight, mixable taste appropriate for cocktails. The Black Cap Barley Spirit was among the most basic of the tastes. The not-quite-vodka elicited a smooth, unaltered barley that was pleasant and mild. This was another one I felt would act as a perfect mixer.
Saving the one I was most excited about for last, I had an opportunity to try the Blueshine Blueberry Moonshine. With wild blueberries and maple syrup – both from Maine, of course – the very blue liquid proved to have just the right amount of sweetness and a very ready blueberry taste. I was thoroughly impressed. It was undoubtedly a flavor I would add to pretty much anything, and surmised that it would work really with other berry flavors, some citrus, or possibly even some candied additions like chocolate or caramel. It was also good enough to be perfect on ice too.
After surviving the full tasting, I had the opportunity to also try the house made ginger beer. Although it’s not normally something I drink, it was hard not to notice the mild, well balanced taste that didn’t have that angry fire some people find to be a turnoff. Once I experienced that, I set my sights on one of the mixed drinks offered by Maine Craft. They had a variety available and also offered one additional chalkboard special. It’s particularly difficult not to take advantage of them since they’re bargain priced for this area at only seven bucks each. Seeing as it was February, I wanted something tropical and the special Tropic of Tego – Tashtego, pineapple, lime, OJ syrup – fit the bill.
When my drink came, it was housed in a ceramic tiki-style glass. A swig elicited some warm weather thoughts as the fruit flavors beautifully complimented the relatively simple rum. It was a drink fit for sun and sand. I enjoyed it and contemplated a potential second concoction as I neared the bottom of my first. Feeling a bit of the buzz already and needing to make it to dinner, I stopped short of ordering a Blueshine and lemonade, but I certainly will have one on my next visit.
Maine Craft Distilling is a really stellar part of Portland’s drink scene. Their variety, obsessive use of local ingredients, and really cool tasting room are more than enough reason to visit. However, I think patrons will find in their time there that MCD’s biggest asset is their ability to suit any taste in spirits. From the relatively simple rums and near vodka – always with a touch of Maine Craft’s own style – to the complex botanical spirit and one-of-a-kind gin aged in whiskey barrels, you can drive down the highway or stumble down the path less traveled. It’s all up to you. Either way, they put so much work and so many flavors into their processes, you might find yourself with new tasting notes every time you try a sip. I certainly will. Adding to the fun are the exceptionally knowledgeable bartenders who can teach you about the unique distilling process of every spirit. Just be careful about driving afterward; though a couple of the spirits are fruity, all the booze ranges from 80-90 proof, so it’s easy to get a little wobbly without intending to.
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