Connecticut became the birthplace of American vodka after a Russian immigrant named Rudolph Kunett purchased the rights to the Smirnoff brand in the 1930s and set up shop in Bethel.
A few years later, Hartford businessman John Martin purchased Smirnoff and successfully marketed vodka to a national audience, helping to invent the Moscow Mule cocktail along the way. So, it’s fitting that Connecticut is flexing its distilling muscles. In recent years several distilleries have opened and several more are on the way.
A sure sign of the industry’s maturity came last fall when the Craft Spirits Trail was launched (ctspiritstrail.com). The trail provides information about various producers, and participating distilleries provide guests a “passport” that is stamped after each distillery visit. Guests who stop at every business on the trail will have the chance to win assorted prizes.
The trail is the brainchild of Tom Dubay, CEO of Hartford Flavor Co., a Hartford-based spirits producer. Dubay says, “I saw how successful the Wine Trail and the Beer Trail have become and thought that we could do the same with spirits.” When he reached out to other spirits producers in the state, the idea “was greeted with similar interest and passion.”
The recent success of the spirits industry in Connecticut has been fueled in part by changing laws. Prior to 2014, state distilleries and spirits producers could not offer guests samples, and prior to 2015 these businesses could not sell bottles of their products directly to customers.
Despite these updates to state law, there is more work to do, say Connecticut spirits producers.
“Distilleries are still not at an equal level when compared to what wineries and breweries are allowed to do, but we are beginning to move in the right direction,” says Peter Kowalczyk, co-owner of East Hartford’s Onyx Spirits Co. The next step, Kowalczyk and other producers say, is to change laws to allow distilleries to offer guests mixed drinks, so they can enjoy a Connecticut spirit as part of their favorite cocktails. “This year we’ll be appealing to the legislature to allow distillery tasting rooms to offer full-size cocktails on an equal level to what breweries and wineries do,” Kowalczyk says. “Of course, we always emphasize responsible consumption of alcohol and our staff is well trained in that regard.”
The trail currently has 10 members, though a few are not yet accepting visitors. Here we take a closer look at the state’s spirit producers.
569 Bantam Road, Litchfield
Since opening in the summer of 2014, this distillery has impressed drinkers with its bourbons, gins and vodkas and become one of the more visible Connecticut spirit brands. “[We use] locally grown grains to produce world-class spirits in very small batches,” says Jack Baker, one of the distillery’s co-founders. This practice has earned Litchfield Distillery multiple medals from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. While you can’t go wrong with any Litchfield products, the distillery’s bourbons are a personal favorite. The standard bourbon and double-barreled variety are both excellent, as is the coffee bourbon. Made with coffee from Windsor-based roaster Baronet Coffee, this is one of the only — if not the only— coffee bourbon in existence.
Visiting: Litchfield has a large and impressive tasting room located in the rolling hills of Litchfield (it’s a great area for a daytrip). The distillery is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., “or by chance or appointment,” says Baker.
Hartford Flavor Co.
30 Arbor St., Suites 107-108, Hartford
Opened in 2015, Hartford Flavor Co. produces the Wild Moon liqueurs line, which are botanically infused, and free of chemicals and gluten. Flavors include cucumber, rose, cranberry, lavender, birch and chai spice, with lime launching this spring. “We have reduced the sugars within the liqueur and use all-natural flavoring ingredients — such as Connecticut-grown cucumbers and Cape Cod cranberries. Doing so lets the flavors prevail so they make amazing mixed drinks and cocktails,” says Dubay, who owns the business with his wife Lelaneia. The line of liqueurs has won multiple medals at the World Spirits Competition in New York. Last summer writer Kate Hartman praised the Wild Moon cucumber liqueur in this magazine: “crisp like a real cucumber, this locally crafted and bottled product slashes through the sweat of August with cool revitalization.”
Visiting: The Hartford Flavor Co. has a bright and open tasting room where tours and tastings are offered, Friday 4 to 7 p.m., Saturday 1 to 6 p.m. and Sunday 2 to 5 p.m., as well as by appointment and for private events.
Westford Hill Distillers
196 Chatey Road, Ashford
Licensed as a distillery in 1997, Westford Hill Distillers is not just an elder statesman of distilling in Connecticut, it is also one of the country’s oldest small distilleries. “We were in the initial group of six U.S. distilleries and first east of the Rockies to open after federal legislation was passed that allowed for craft distillation,” says Louis Chatey, who owns the distillery with his wife Margaret. Westford Hill’s signature spirit is a New World aged apple brandy, which is aged 14 years in full-size French oak barrels. “Apple brandy was the first spirit of the American colonies, but production techniques were lost as the result of Prohibition,” Chatey says. “Westford Hill Distillers’ work in resurrecting this spirit was recognized by the Smithsonian Institution in 2015 when we were selected to represent craft distillation as part of their History of Food series.” It is one of many honors and accolades the distillery has received over the years; others include being featured in Saveur magazine’s Top 100, named to Bon Appetit magazine’s “Best of the U.S.” and features in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The New York Times.
In addition to its apple brandy, Westford Hill produces vodka, whiskey, rum, gin, cordials and botanical specialties. Its Poire Prisonniere, an eau-de-vie (clear, colorless fruit brandy) comes in an eye-catching, heart-shaped bottle with a real pear inside — the pear actually grows inside the bottle, which is tied to the tree before harvest when the pears are tiny enough to fit through the neck of the bottle.
Visiting: A visit here provides an immersion in the history of distilling in this country and beyond. Currently tours are by appointment only and there is no tasting room, but one is under construction and is scheduled to be opened this spring.
259 Asylum St., Bridgeport
Asylum Distillery, which opened in May 2016, is not yet officially a part of the Spirits Trail, but it’s well worth a detour. Located on Asylum Street in an out-of-the-way section of Bridgeport, the distillery offers a gin, unaged corn whiskey and vodka all made in small batches from 100 percent Connecticut-sourced corn. “We think you can taste the difference,” says owner and distiller Robert Schulten. “We work with Connecticut farmers to bring the best Connecticut-grown products forward, pushing the ‘farm to glass’ concept.” The most popular spirit so far has been the distillery’s gin, a statement-making product with a smooth flavor balanced by infused botanicals that has been known to impress even non-gin drinkers.
Visiting: Tours and tastings at the distillery are available by appointment only, Thursdays through Saturdays from 3 to 6 p.m. Schulten gives the tour himself.
410 Woodland Ave., Suite C, Bloomfield
Launched by three friends in the summer of 2015, Waypoint Spirits is a surefire waystation for liquor lovers. Products include gin, vodka, spiced rum and a specialty line of small-batch whiskeys that features unusual experiments in flavor, including a honey-habanero whiskey and — in a nod to the craft beer world — a hopped whiskey. Local agriculture products are often utilized in the recipes of the spirits, and the small-batch quality of the company is evident in the final product. As the official description for Waypoint’s Wintonbury Gin states: “Regal and refined. Balanced and botanical. Floral and fanciful. Oh hell, it’s just plain delicious!”
Visiting: Waypoint Spirits is open for tours and tastings Friday 4 to 7 p.m. and Saturday noon to 5 p.m. No appointments are necessary to participate.
Onyx Spirits Co.
64D Oakland Ave., East Hartford
The signature products of this distillery are its Secret Stash Reserve whiskey and Onyx Moonshine. The latter is an unaged whiskey that Kowalczyk says combines “the best elements of both vodka and traditional barrel-aged whiskey. It’s smoother and mixes better than vodka, but can be enjoyed on the rocks like a high-end whiskey.”
Since launching in 2011, the company has also begun offering seasonal moonshine infusions such as Onyx Moonshine Apple Honey, made with honeycrisp apples from Blue Hills Orchard in Wallingford, and Onyx Cape Cod Cranberry, made with cranberries from PJ’s Cranberries in Sandwich on Cape Cod. Kowalczyk says that when the company was formed, “We wanted to tell the story of moonshine in New England, since so many people associate moonshine with the South and don’t realize there is quite a rich history of moonshine right here as well.”
Visiting: The distillery has a speakeasy-style tasting room complete with Prohibition-era artifacts from Connecticut. Tasting room hours are Friday 5 to 8 p.m., Saturday noon to 6 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Free whiskey seminars and tours with the distiller are offered Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Hickory Ledges Farm and Distillery
183 Bahre Corner Road, Canton
Billed as a “smooth sip of American Heritage,” the Full Moonshine line features a variety of moonshines powered by flavors such as apple pie, cranberry and maple. According to the company, the secret to the flavors is the fact that each moonshine is handcrafted in small batches and features clear spring water that is then flavored with ingredients such as farm-made, fresh-pressed apple cider, local maple syrup, native cranberries and select corn. For those who don’t enjoy flavored spirits, Hickory Ledges also offers Full Moonshine Circa 1797, a traditional unflavored moonshine that is clear as water and strong as fire.
Visiting: Guests can stop by the farm for a tasting and to learn how the moonshine is made on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
Coming Soon to the Spirits Trail
Several companies are not yet accepting visitors at their facility or are not yet open:
Maple Lane Spirits in Preston produces the Foggy Harbor line of gin and vodka. The company’s products are currently being distributed, but its facilities won’t be open to visitors until later this spring. In the meantime, its spirits are worth seeking out. The Foggy Harbor gin is a standout. foggyharbor.com
Connecticut Valley Distillery in Ellington produces a small-batch silver rum. ctvalleydistillery.com
John Fitch Distilling Co. in South Windsor is expected to open this spring. johnfitchdistilling.com
Mine Hill Distillery in Roxbury is slated to open this spring.