Romantic, agrarian, the hard-working Yankee way—back-to-the landers came together to build a community. This is how Luke Davidson spoke of his youth, and how his agricultural background influenced Maine Craft Distilling.
The Love of Labor and Community
During the 60’s and 70’s in Maine, a movement emerged. Like-minded families came together, drawn from all over to create a farming community based on the principles of living off the land and enjoying the hard work of self-sufficiency. Most farms had only a single line of cold running water, but everyone worked together to make sure none of the neighbors ever went without. The Davidsons were one of those families. “It was really a neat range of types of people… it was quite a nice thing,” exclaims Luke Davidson. “It was a lot of fun growing up in that place!”
Davidson chuckles a bit and sighs as he recalls changing times. As fast food and television took over, their idyllic community culture began to disappear. People came to rely less on their own initiative and more on modern conveniences.
Fast Forward To Now
Support for local, natural and seasonal products has returned to Maine communities. Portland is busy putting itself on the map as a foodie city, truly applying these ideals to revive a sense of unity in the region.
“What’s happening is really exciting in this area,” said Davidson. “The younger generation is coming back to that. A new version, a sort of local food movement; it’s high quality foods, locally grown, [and] notions of terroir brought up again.”
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOGFA) is a tight-knit farming community made up of like-minded workers of the earth with varied backgrounds and expertise. They are creating a stronghold of agricultural sustainability, and bringing a healthy lifestyle to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Let’s Talk Luke
Davidson was a carpenter for many years in New England who remained true to his roots by owning a hobby farm, which his wife affectionately refers to as Davidsonville. With their family of cows, the Davidsons ran a small milk delivery business that thrived until the recession hit and the demand for the luxury of fresh, local milk delivery faded.
Davidsonville remains their home, with a bounty of livestock and food for a family to enjoy. After returning to carpentry, and as the recession began to subside, he noticed the emergence of the craft brewing industry in Maine. And given his passion for Scotch, he couldn’t help but notice striking similarities between Maine and Scotland. Both are coastal regions, made up of small communities with abundant barley. A burgeoning agricultural and culinary renaissance underway—one that included craft brewing and distilling—it was time to commit to the only idea that made sense to him—to open a distillery. Combining resources with co-founder Fred Farbera (a local entrepreneur in the market for a new project), the dream began to unfold. They signed a lease in the big city of Portland, half an hour away from Davidsonville. Then the magic happened—Maine Craft Distilling opened.
“We did it on a wing and a prayer,” said Davidson, “and about seven pennies and a bent up dollar bill.”
Oh Maine Craft Distillery, How I Love Thee
Drawing on his carpentry skills, Luke began by banging out a still made from a repurposed tomato vat, lovingly known as Frankenstill. The constantly evolving space is a menagerie of Davidson’s improvised and handmade creations. Visitors will find a hybrid bicycle powered partly by methanol, rowboat oars for stirring mashes, and a home-built floor-malting system. And of course there’s the bathroom—housed in an antique red telephone booth.
The Spirits World
The desire to create a Scotch-style whiskey soon led to the first distillate, a single malt. Northern Maine has a prosperous potato industry, and the rotational crop is barley—ideal for making whiskey. Once the potato farmers realized the value of their barley to the local spirits industry, they started growing varieties of the highest quality and yield, specifically suited for distilling. Davidson partnered with a local grower with a 6,000-acre farm to provide his barley, which he then malts in-house. In the traditional Scottish style, the barley grains are sprouted and carefully raked to ensure correct development for flavor and quality. The sprouted grain is then smoked in the highland style, using local peat and seaweed. Davidson then ferments his mashes in open wooden fermenters to draw out the unique flavors of Maine. He claims, “If you give me 10 years, I will give you an 11-year old whiskey.” We can all look forward to that.
As we wait for those 10 years to pass, what spirits can be made to enjoy now to help keep the lights on at MCD? Davidson is focused on choosing what to distill while staying consistent with his ideals of sustainability. The farm-to-flask movement offers wonderful opportunities to use interesting ingredients. For instance, Blueshine is made from fresh Maine blueberries, maple syrup and barley, and is the first spirit in Davidson’s line of unaged products. A great summer spirit, it captures a bit of the surrounding land and its flavors.
Early one morning, as Davidson sipped on a glass of carrot juice with his son, he got to thinking: Chesuncook is the native Abenaki word for “the meeting place.” And now, Chesuncook Gin aims to be exactly that. Drawing on the surrounding terroir, this spirit is a meeting place for carrots, juniper, coriander, mint, and the soil of Maine. Another gin, named Alchemy, is a floral dry gin reputed for its “perky” character.
Two rums stand out in the portfolio. Queequeg Rum, named after the harpooner in Melville’s Moby Dick, is said to be a mix of spices, flavored rum and sunshine. And Ration Rum, an expedition-style rum, is distilled from local molasses and aged in new, charred oak barrels.
Finally, true to Davidson’s ultimate vision, is Black Cap Barley Spirit, named after the Maine state bird, the Black Capped Chickadee. It is distilled from Maine barley and filtered through Maine maple charcoal.
Take that from the farm and put it in your flask!