Time is an ingredient,” Elliott Davis says as he takes me on a tour of Mine Hill Distillery in Roxbury. The venture capitalist turned sheep farmer turned distillery owner is speaking literally. He’s referring to the way the rye, bourbon and other styles of whiskey produced at his distillery will be flavored by the passage of time as they sit aging for months and years in barrels. But he could also be speaking figuratively. Each drop of liquid produced at his distillery, which opened this fall, is inspired by the past.
Roxbury used to be one of Connecticut’s last remaining “dry towns” where the sale of alcohol was prohibited. That changed in 2011 when a resolution allowed for the sale of alcohol. (Neighboring Bridgewater was the state’s last dry town and didn’t end its prohibition until 2014.) A few years later, Davis, who lives in the area, began to look for a property to open a distillery in Litchfield County. He was approached by Roxbury’s first selectman, Barbara Henry, who urged him to look at the Roxbury Station property. Davis was looking for a farm, but that changed when he saw this property. It was almost four acres with four buildings including an 1872 train station and 1860 cigar factory. Most of the buildings were in terrible shape, but the site called to Davis. “It really was a piece of history,” he says.
Just up the road is the Mine Hill Preserve, a former steel-making facility that still is home to a towering blast furnace. “They were mining silver around the American Revolution,” Davis says. “Then in the 19th century, they found high-grade iron ore and were mining iron ore to make steel for the Civil War.” He adds that granite taken from Mine Hill was used in the Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central Station, and there are still active quarries.
Davis bought the property in 2015 and has spent the past four years painstakingly restoring the buildings to their former glory with modern touches inside. These efforts earned Davis a 2017 Award of Merit from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. They have also turned the place into a true destination, with a great view that overlooks a waterfall on the Shepaug River. The distillery and tasting room are housed in the old cigar factory, while the old train station serves as an event space and an additional tasting room complete with the original freight scale, which was built into the building’s floor and is still functioning.
But as Davis himself points out, all this can only go so far if the liquid being produced is subpar. To that end, Davis recruited Canadian distiller Charisse Woods. A chemist by training, Woods first became interested in distilling as she searched for ways to put her chemistry degree to good use. “The standard paths for chemistry degrees are continue your studies, become a doctor, go into teaching, or be a lab tech,” she says. “None of those four were what I really wanted to do.”
After a family friend suggested making spirits, she started working at Endless Summer Distillery in Vancouver before being recruited by beverage giant Diageo, first making Crown Royal in Canada and then Bulleit Bourbon in Kentucky.
The two initial spirits produced by Mine Hill are a gin and vodka. Both are excellent and made with Connecticut ingredients sourced to local farms including Thrall Family Malt in Windsor. Soon, Woods will start making rye and bourbon at the distillery, but they won’t be ready until next year, as that final ingredient Davis spoke about, time, works its magic on the aging liquid.
Mine Hill Distillery
5 Mine Hill Road, Roxbury
Hours: Currently by appointment only, but Davis plans to open weekends noon-5 p.m. shortly.