Would've paid more attention in high school science class if they taught about distilling!
During a day trip out to the Berkshires in southwestern Massachusetts, we took a break from visiting antique shops and museums to visit the Berkshire Mountain Distillers (BMD). Having read that was rated as having the best craft gin in the country, it seemed worth checking out.
A few years back, they grew and consolidated their operations to their current location. Their store is large, casual, with a diverse set of offerings between their large lineup of spirits, bitters, swag, and some added items from local businesses. The display’s theme of rustic wood and whiskey barrels remind you that this is a distillery in the mountains.
We found a decent-sized group sampling at the counter, along with other couples. We had signed up for a tour, and found that we were the only ones for that hour, so we headed out back with Michael to begin our personalized session.
Michael, one of the distillers, walked us through a progression of BMD’s spirits, from rum to vodka to gin to whiskey. He explained the science and terminology behind distilling. Since BMD also has an ever-evolving setoff infused gins, Michael discussed how they limit these to a single release and challenge themselves to constantly finding new options. Current examples include one with hibiscus, lime, and lavender; to one adding cubeb and allspice; to one aged over a year in whiskey barrels. The diversity of the ethereal gins allows any gin fan to find an unusual version for their own preference. Since these are routinely rotating, it further makes for a version to be savored and appreciated while it lasts.
Similarly, they use scotch barrels to diversify their rum and whiskey lineups as well. BMD’s bourbon also has several options using beer casks from craft brewers, to add an interesting twist on an already-high quality product.
After Michael had finished the tour, answering a number of our questions along the way about the science, the production process, and the growth of the business, we adjourned to the tasting room. This allowed us to consider which ethereal gin and which bourbon worked best for us. The woman helping us was as knowledgeable as Michael, and helpful in filling in some additional details; other than the rum that requires sugarcane from down south, they source all they can from local farmers and their own garden. We wound up choosing one of the ethereal gins along with their bourbon. Their regular bourbon was so deliciously smooth, with great vanilla, caramel, and rye notes, so we opted for it over their cask-flavored choices. Perhaps it was so great because it sources water from a protected granite spring that served as a health attraction to city dwellers a century ago. Or, maybe after a decade in business, they’ve perfected their craft. But we can honestly say that the combination of taste and cleanliness led to BMD’s bourbon passing a couple of other brands as our preferred bourbon. Coupled with their coffee bitters, we were walking out already looking forward to an Old Fashioned that night.
Berkshire Mountain Distillers is definitely a fun, interesting place to visit, and you’ll likely walk away with at least one souvenir. Some of their more standard products are available in larger liquor stores near us, so you may find an ability to re-stock, depending on what you’re looking for. Between the tour and sampling, our visit lasted about ninety minutes. So if you’re not local to that area, it may be best visited as part of a day filled with a few stops. However you choose to do it, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy your time there.
Berkshire Mountain Distillers
Hours: 12pm-5pm (Mondays close at 4pm, Saturdays open at 11am)
Tours: $10/person, plan for an hour
Happily chipping away at visiting the New England wineries
Sharpe Hill produces a number of wines, with a mix of whites and reds, as well as rose and dessert wine. There is also a mix of grapes, from more traditional Chardonnay and Riesling to less common St. Croix and Dornfelder. Offering some as blends allows for a more diverse lineup, and all grapes are estate except for what’s obtained in nearby Rhode Island.
The tastings can be done based on your choice of six wines, or you can try the entire suite of wines. The summaries of the wines helpfully lists how many awards each wine has garnered, as well as the food that pairs well. This very helpfully allows you to think about the wine in the context of broader meals that you might be creating.
Each wine was presented very knowledgeably, not just repeating the details on the write-ups, but with added information about the vineyard, grape, and winemaking process. Those conversations provided a deeper understanding of the wine and its unique production, and details on grapes with which we were less familiar were helpful in growing our knowledge.
Our favorites were the Ballet of Angels, an interesting white wine comprised of ten different grapes. It was light, but with a nice mix of citrus flavors that would be particularly delicious on a summer’s day, but was still great even in the dead of winter. While we also enjoyed the Cabernet Franc, a medium bodied wine more flavorful than many we’ve sampled in New England, our favorite red was the Red Syraph. We found this to be unusual and wonderful, building on the Cabernet Franc with Dornfelder and Gamay grapes for a complex wine. It was unlike most wines we’ve had, particularly for a New England red. While it would pair well with meats or Italian, it’s unique enough that we’d expect to savor it by itself.
It was impressive to see so many estate-grown offerings, and helpful to be served by such knowledgeable staff. With a quiet atmosphere and bucolic setting, Sharpe Hill was a delightful visit. This was a good winter alternative to skiing, given it was a rainy day. But in summer or during foliage season, with the beautiful surroundings, it would also be part of a wonderful day. Unless you’re fairly local, it’s probably best to incorporate this into a broader day trip, such as visiting the nearby Putnam Antiques District, and perhaps adding Taylor Brooke Farm’s wine tasting as well. The tasting room is only open Friday through Sunday, but as part of a (long) weekend, that won’t cause a problem for most people. Overall, this is definitely a local winery carving out a well-earned niche for itself.
Appreciating the local coffee and community
Coffee shops of all kinds have exploded nationwide, now estimated at over 50,000. A trade association estimated that almost half of all coffee was consumed outside the home, and over half of that was specialty coffee. The increase in people working from home, with more gourmet coffee being consumed by people under 30 years old than by other age groups, and with specialty drinkers averaging three cups per day now, and you have all the statistics that reinforce the business opportunity. However, that doesn’t work if you can’t develop and execute a business plan that appeals to customers.
Bolton Bean has joined this fray, as a family-run business nestled in the central Massachusetts town of Bolton, with a slew of apple orchards in the surrounding towns. Driving there from almost anywhere can be scenic and coupled with other pit stops along the way. Aside of apple picking and homemade ice cream, some ideas include lunch at Battle Road Brewing, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, intermittent activities at the Bolton Fairgrounds, and kayaking in Concord.
Bolton Bean sits in a newly renovated building, combining a new feeling with classic colonial style. It has a comfortable, fresh, and friendly feel. This is very much in keeping with the broader gourmet coffee movement.
We found the place happily packed when we entered on a rainy day. There were different zones, from leather seats to tables to pub seats lining the front windows, along with the expansive counter and an area with ready-to-go food and drinks. Despite the crowd size, the staff offered cheery smiles and kept the lines moving.
That trend about increasing coffee consumption and more people working from home means that these sorts of places become meaningful as interesting social hubs, part of the communities, or unique settings and producers of gourmet coffee. Bolton Bean certainly meets this need. The mix of couples, friends, and families, from high schoolers to senior citizens, created a diverse crowd. A woman played guitar and sang in the corner of the coffee shop, adding to the enjoyable ambiance.
Back to the foundation of Bolton Bean, they serve George Howell coffee, roasted locally in the nearby town of Acton. Whether drip, cappuccino, espresso, or however you wish to consume it, this small batch coffee will hit the spot. However, the selection of teas, chai, lemonade, iced tea, and smoothies round out their ability to meet the preferences of kids or others who seek to enjoy the vibe but with something aside of coffee.
The food creates further reason to linger: in addition to the baked goods and breakfast sandwiches to start your day, the lunch menu is nicely varied. We saw a variety of salads, such as creative kale or fall harvest options. A large array of paninis offered something for any palate (meatloaf with a jalapeno aioli is worth trying). Interestingly, you can also build your own poke bowl. These are traditional Hawaiian dishes served cold over brown and white rice and two examples include sweet chili chicken and raw Asian tuna along with other toppings such as sprouts, avocado, coconut, wasabi, pineapple, and more. Gluten free lunch options are appreciated, allowing those with dietary restrictions to still have choices.
The only critique is actually a compliment: it closes at 3:00 on Saturdays and isn’t open on Sundays. This precludes some afternoon or weekend opportunities to reinforce its community and social value, and, since I hadn’t looked ahead of time, is why it took a couple of attempts to visit.
That being said, the ambiance, gourmet coffee, quality food, and cheerful service are all reasons why Bolton Bean is establishing itself as a community hub. Those are all reasons for locals to frequent it, and others to visit when in the general area. As always, the disclaimer is that we aren’t getting paid or anything, so when saying that Bolton Bean will be worth your time and money, it’s solely because we very much felt that way from our own time there.
· Website: https://www.boltonbean.com/
· Free wifi
· Open Mon-Fri, 7:00-4:00, Sat 7:00-3:00
Enjoying the local revolution in craft brewing (see what I did there???)
Just based on the key ingredients, you almost don’t even need to keep reading to know Battle Road Brewpub (https://www.battleroadbeer.com/ ) is worth visiting: refurbished in an old mill, with a feeder pond abutting it; outdoor seating to enjoy the view, or indoors amongst old wood and exposed brick; comfort food and quality barbecue, and of course a quality beer lineup. But it’s worth reading on for the details.
Battle Road Brewing started off as a brewery in 2012 before expanding to add the brewpub along with a 15-barrel brewery in Maynard, a small mill city in central Massachusetts. The vibe is casual and fun, with different seating zones and some games such as darts and shuffleboard. It can be fun for an after-work drink, weekend fun, and can be enjoyable for both grown-ups and families.
The beers features a lineup of regulars, from the rich and malty 1775 Tavern Ale to the Stow’s Farms Session Ale, a light but flavorful and less alcoholic beer. Despite the proliferation of hops-intensive beers, the lineup is also nicely diverse. For example, the Sustenance Breakfast Stout features coffee from the local Hogan Brothers; the colonial era Midnight Porter includes molasses, maize, and hints of chocolate. But if it’s an IPA you’re after, the Lexington IPA features a mix of five hops, and the General Haze Double IPA is heavily hopped with Azacca, Calypso, Amarillo, and Columbus hops. With flights and growlers, any beer fan can certainly find something that will work for you.
The accompanying menu complements the beers. There’s classic pub fare such as chili, nachos, wings, burgers, and sandwiches. But Battle Road added unique offerings such as chicken fried pickles, street corn, and veggie burgers, as well as fantastic barbecued brisket, pulled pork, and dry ribs.
But along with the traditional beer and pub food, Battle Road is conscious of all potential customers. So those in your group who might prefer wine or cocktails have their own choices, and that extends to the menu with its salads, veggie burgers, flatbreads, and some vegetarian appetizers.
Given the success of Battle Road, along with being somewhat unique for the immediate area, it’s not a surprise that Battle Road is expanding to a second location at Patriot Place in 2019. Once again, it will fill a niche, despite Patriot Place’s already robust offerings. With the quality beers, food, and service, it’s well worth putting on your itinerary for either location and in any season.
Enjoying my reward for venturing off the beaten path!
With the explosion of craft breweries in recent years across the country and certainly in New England, it becomes a little more challenging for a place to distinguish itself. The recent opening of Rek-Lis Brewing’s tasting room is one example of a new business clearly getting it right, which is quickly creating its own challenge of maintaining what makes it special.
Rek-Lis moved a few months ago from a shed to a wonderfully renovated site on Main Street in the small and picturesque town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire. It feels spacious, offering different zones, from a bar to some tables, and an upstairs as well as the covered porch. In fact, it’s actually a small building, and we lucked out with one of the last tables when we checked it out recently.
Rek-lis is so named for the way of life the owners, Ian and Marlaina, embody on a daily basis. The general goal is to take a chance on a labor of love, and to brew beers as over-the-top great as the adventures they or others might have enjoyed before sitting down for a cold one.
Speaking of their beers, there’s a constantly evolving list. In part, it’s based on the mad scientist attempt to pursue perfection. And, in part, it’s because Rek-Lis quickly became enough of a hit to now need to hustle to keep up with demand. Our visit was an example, with six of the eight samples in our flight being Rek-Lis brews, with two guest taps rounding out our flight. There was a clear tilt towards IPAs, which provided a chance to compare styles, but limited our ability to go in other directions, such as porters and stouts.
As their website illustrates, they’re zealous in their pursuit of craft brewing. But they do have a small yet solid menu and now also offer wine, creating options for those in a group who might not be beer connoisseurs. This also allows people to linger longer, which is important because it ties to what distinguishes them from many others.
The upscale farmhouse ambiance was instantly inviting, with interesting lighting and flights served in reclaimed wood. The beers were tasty and well crafted. But what really jumped out at us was the cheery vibe and immediate sense of community. The table we snagged was next to one end of the bar. As we looked around, we observed people happily engaged in conversations: locals critiqued their beers alongside tourists; millennials fell into discussions with retirees; and the friendliness of staff and owners inevitably pulled us further into the scene. We wound up chatting happily with transplants from Massachusetts, laughing with several waitresses, and were introduced to the owners as well as members of a barbershop quartet serenading the crowd (one of whom was the father of an owner).
That, to us, ultimately represented the true test that Rek-Lis will face. Their beers were legit. But the immediate sense of belonging, of being sincerely welcomed in like long-lost friends is what made our visit truly fun and worth driving out of our way. We felt as if we temporarily but clearly belonged there, and if we returned with any sort of regularity that we’d be remembered and appreciated. It’s not easy to start up a business or to create a series of solid beers, and it’s extremely hard to so quickly create such a genuinely inviting community.
Rek-Lis is already outgrowing its footprint, and is now looking at an addition to the building. The challenge isn’t just scaling up beer production. It’s on being able to grow while maintaining what makes it special and unique. For now, at least, the best advice to anyone journeying anywhere near the Franconia Notch region would be to set aside a couple of hours to enjoy the beers, food, setting, and especially the friendly enthusiasm that Rek-Lis joyfully serves up.
The Good Life...
can't exist alone. Places form the setting for your memories. People around us allow experiences to be shared, enriched, and leave us feeling connected and loved.