I recently chatted with Lars Hubbard from the Appalachian Gap Distillery, located in Vermont.
Starting as homebrewers of beer they took a class on distilling one weekend in Geneva, NY. What began as fun became a mild obsession, and now has become a business to make the best spirits they possibly can. The images have been supplied by the distillery.
Q.You worked as a chef, tell me what that was like and did you have an interest in whisky back then?
A. Being a chef means interest in food, as well as wine and spirits. I love wine, beer, all ‘adult’ beverages. I became obsessed with good Scotch in my early 20’s — my wife gave me a MacAllan 17 for my 24th birthday, for instance — and it all expanded from there.
Q. You started out a home brewer. How long did it take you to create a beer you could really be proud of?
A. I made some decent beers early on. By the time I got good at it, I was in my early 30’s, and was doing all-grain brewing. I recreated Guinness stout by using lactobacillus from a yogurt I really liked; I (nearly) recreated Samuel Smith’s Old Pale Ale. It was fun.
Q. What made you want to start Appalachian Gap Distillery?
A. An outgrowth of the above, I suppose. In food, winemaking, brewing, and distilling, there is a moment of magic when what you do somehow transcends the mundane process you are following, and something stellar happens. I’m always looking for that moment of magic.
Q. You make a range of spirits including gin, rum, whisky and Kaffekask. I believe that Kaffekask has divided opinion. What is a typical lover of this like?
A. I admit that, because it is utterly unique, most people don’t get it, which is fine. As much as people blather on about refined palates, etc., most consumers want something identifiable and familiar — I have finally learned this after years of making truly different stuff. So, the typical lover of this is someone who can taste the complexities, the nuance, of the flavors. It is now available as a 4+ year aged spirit called August, which people are raving about.
Q. You have a pretty unique employee perk at Appalachian Gap Distillery – you give them energy credits which is a wonderful thing. Tell me about your sustainability.
A. Kind of a huge question. It is a commitment I’ve made in my home and in my businesses: To use as little as possible, to use renewable resources as much as possible, and to be careful in everything we do to minimize our impact. I suppose it is mildly silly — we are, after all, turning perfectly good grains into booze by burning gas and then throwing away the grain — but it is a personal and company ethos. One change from what is currently on our Sustainability page on our website: all of our waste grain and waste alcohol (heads and tails) now go to a biodigester to be turned into energy.
Q. You use 3 types of barrel to age your whisky and then been them. How hard was it to decided which type of barrels to choose?
A. I wanted to have a range of flavors to work with when we made batches up. I don’t have hundreds of barrels to select from to make a consistent blend (or, as large distilleries do, a series of consistent blends); instead, we use the varietal character from each of the barrel types to make a balanced spirit that is broadly consistent between batches. NAO because of its vanilla and toast; used bourbon for a bit of solera effect; and port wine barrels for the dark, earthy, leathery notes. It is becoming more and more common to do this (Slade from Ireland is similar, though they use sherry casks).
Q. Do you aim to release any single cask editions of your whiskies?
A. Yes. We have, in fact, released two: our 5th and 6th anniversary editions. We just bottled the 6th anniversary edition: only 107 bottles, barrel strength at 130.1 proof (interesting side note: we put our whiskey into the barrels at around 115 proof, and the proof invariably climbs as it ages. This is not the case at all distilleries)
Q. What is the most challenging aspect of running a whisky distillery.
A. Getting it sold! There are a lot of small distilleries out there chasing that small group of consumers who are looking for something unique, and getting noticed is difficult and expensive.
There are no mistakes, just challenges.
Q. How important is whisky tourism to you and do you offer anything unique?
A. A fair bit of our business is from our tasting room. We are part of the Middlebury Tasting Trail (https://www.middtastingtrail.com/) and do a lot of cross-promotion with the other members, like aging our beer in Otter Creek barrels, making a whiskey out of Drop-In Brewing beer, and so on. We also do a lot of craft shows and the like. As a small distillery, a lot of what we do is hand selling.
Q. What do you consider a underrated whisky and why (not one of your own)
A. I would suggest that there are a lot more overrated whiskies than underrated ones. Take bourbon: if you make it reasonably well, and age it for around 8 years, you’ll have a bourbon that would compete easily with some very expensive boutique bourbons. Try a blind taste test between something like Very Old Barton or Benchmark and one of the pricy ones out there. It is an amusing thing to do. Same for rye. Those astronomical prices for fancy whiskies are a function of marketing and hype, more than what is in the bottle.
Q. Do you believe water makes a difference or not to whisky?
A. No. It matters a bit in the mash, as you need to have the right mineral content to make the yeast and enzymes happy. Beyond there, just about everyone uses RO water to proof down for barreling and bottling, in order to prevent sedimentation and the like. This is, again, marketing hype. We could claim all of our water is thousands of years old from an artesian well — which is true — but that doesn’t actually mean very much in the final product.
Q. What is your favourite cocktail?
A. I’m kind of old school. I generally drink our spirits neat or with a shard of ice. If I am going to go for a cocktail, it tends to be something pretty complicated and bitter, like a Negroni or Boulevardier.