Last Updated on August 3, 2023 by nicole
Ryan Christiansen, President, and Head Distiller at Barr Hill by Caledonia Spirits, discovered his passion for fermentation through brewing beer at home. This fascination led him to open a home brewing store, but fate intervened when he met beekeeper, Todd Hardie. Their shared vision of infusing spirits with the essence of honey inspired Ryan to venture into distillation. A decade later, his dedication to working with bees and raw honey has yielded exceptional spirits, enriching cocktail culture and redefining the connection between agriculture and mixology.
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:
- Ryan shares his journey into the spirits industry
- The state of the bee population in Vermont and the distillery’s efforts to support pollinator habitats
- Ryan discusses the technical aspects of distilling gin and vodka from honey
- The unique approach that differentiates them from traditional honey producers and distilleries
- A spotlight on Barr Hill Vodka, its production process, and the mission connecting cocktail culture to agriculture
- The flavor profile sought in honeys used for Barr Hill Gin and how they choose the correct honey for the distillation process
- The Bee’s Knees Week and Bee the Change and their efforts to promote pollinator habitat in visible locations
- Insights into Barr Hill’s barrel cooperage and the aging process of barrel gin
- Understanding where honey comes into play during the gin-making process
- The journey from beekeeping to rye farming and the process of crafting whiskey
- Reflections on the growth of Barr Hill and Caledonia Spirits, and lessons learned along the way
- A glimpse into the unique Kingdom Strength Tom Cat
In this episode with Ryan Christiansen
We sit down with Ryan Christiansen of Barr Hill, a Vermont distillery known for crafting exceptional spirits from honey. Ryan takes us on a journey into the spirits industry and shares his passion for beekeeping and sustainable practices. We delve into the technical aspects of distilling their unique gin and vodka, exploring how honey plays a central role in the process.
In today’s episode of the Legends Behind the Craft podcast, Drew Thomas Hendricks and Bianca Harmon are joined by Ryan Christiansen, the President & Head Distiller of Barr Hill by Caledonia Spirits. Discover the flavor profiles they seek in their spirits and how they differentiate themselves from other distilleries and honey producers. We also explore their dedication to supporting the bee population in Vermont and their partnership with “Bee the Change” to promote pollinator habitats. From their acclaimed Barr Hill Vodka to the intriguing Tom Cat Gin, learn about the innovative approach and meticulous craft behind Barr Hill’s offerings. We’ll also gain insights into the journey from beekeeping to rye farming, witnessing the growth of Barr Hill and Caledonia Spirits, and Ryan’s reflections on the path taken.
Resources Mentioned in this episode
- Drew Thomas Hendricks on LinkedIn
- Barrels Ahead
- Ryan Christiansen on LinkedIn
- Barr Hill Distillery
- Caledonia Spirits
- Todd Hardie on LinkedIn
- Barr Hill Vodka
- Barr Hill Gin
- Bee’s Knees Week
- Bee the Change
- Mike Kiernan on LinkedIn
- Kingdom Strength Tom Cat
- Tom Cat Gin
Sponsor for this episode…
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At Barrels Ahead, we know that your business is unique. That’s why we work with you to create a one-of-a-kind marketing strategy that highlights your authenticity, tells your story, and makes your business stand out from your competitors.
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[00:00:00] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Drew Thomas Hendricks here. I’m the host of the Legends Behind the Craft podcast. On the show, I talk with leaders in the wine and craft beverage industry. Before we get on the show, a little short sponsor message. Today’s episode is sponsored by Barrels Ahead. At Barrels Ahead, we help the wine and craft industry scale their business through authentic content.
Go to barrelshead.com today to learn more. Bianca Harmon is joining us today. She’s our digital audio channel director. How’s it going, Bianca?
[00:00:28] Bianca Harmon: It’s going great, Drew, super stoked to talk with our guests today.
[00:00:32] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Yes. Today we have Ryan Christiansen. Ryan is the president and head distiller at Caledonia Spirits makers of Barr Hill, Barr Hill’s of Vermont, or Caledonia Spirits is a Vermont distillery that makes spirits from honey. Welcome to the show, Ryan.
[00:00:45] Ryan Christiansen: Thanks, Drew. Great to be here.
[00:00:49] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh, excited to talk to you about this. The spirits from honey. How, before we talk about that, let’s talk about you and how you got into the spirits industry.
[00:00:58] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah, you bet. So I came into beverage by way of really just fascination for fermentation, which started with beer for me.
I was pretty interested in, in, in making beer at home as a home brewer. That slowly evolved into making kombucha and kimchi and, and all sorts of various fermentation explorations in food and beverage. And then eventually realizing that I couldn’t find a lot of supplies to support that hobby.
And so I opened up a small home brewing store and my, my goal at that time was to open a brewery, go from the home brewing store. Develop my own recipes and then scale up into a community pub-like model. But that plan while in process I met a beekeeper named Todd Hardie who was completely passionate about you know, the wellbeing of the hives and bees.
And the importance of, of bees within agricultural systems and how we feed people, and Todd’s just a lifelong farmer. He grew up keeping bees as a child and that evolved into, he at one time opened a commercial winery and making mead. And so anyway when I, when I met Todd, he still had the meadery and he wanted to build a distillery.
And I saw this opportunity to get into distilling is. I tend to be kind of a lifelong learner, and I was really excited about beer and everything I was learning. But suddenly there was this whole new set of variables, like working with a distill. Same fermentation principles, but now I’m playing with a distill and cooking spirits.
And that seemed like an incredible learning opportunity and a challenge. But the really exciting part was Todd’s connection to the bees and how do we bring that agricultural product of raw honey. You know into, into the distillery and more importantly into cocktail culture.
So that, that’s the journey I’ve been on and that’s led to, about a decade and a little over a decade now, working with the bees and and distilling.
[00:02:51] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That’s fantastic. Talking about the bees, we’ve seen the documentaries of, you know, how is the bee population in Vermont? Is it suffering the same sort of difficulties that we hear in like on the west coast here with bee’s population dying?
[00:03:05] Ryan Christiansen: Yes, absolutely. And bees I don’t think there’s a healthy place on planet earth for bees right now. And that you know is, is a problem for all of us. We all bees that, I tend to think bees are kind of the canary in the coal mines. And you know, we need to support bees.
They’re really these invisible creatures and we think of bees and we think of wasps and hornets and bee stings and all these, you know, terrible associations. But the reality is honeybees and pollinators for the most part are just fuzzy little creatures that wanna support, or their actions support our agricultural systems, which is how we feed people. So when you think about California, one of the major issues California’s facing is there’s so much cropland. So few pollinators, so little water. And that dynamic is really tough. So we’re seeing a lot of things with bees traveling around the country to make sure we have pollinators rather than supporting how do we bring back the actual, native pollinators so that we don’t need to commercialize this.
So you know I think generally speaking here in Vermont we have, we have a lot of really small beekeepers. We source honey from a 250-mile radius, so we extend beyond Vermont. We pull in a lot of honey from New York, which is a really rich agricultural region. And we also work with Vermont beekeepers and there’s a couple of beekeepers we, we’re very close to the Canadian border. So we actually crossed that Canadian border and pull in some Canadian honey as well.
All of it is just really interesting honey. Honey is a wildly rich source of botanicals. And it’s also a source of sugar. So both of those things work really well in an, in the distilling environment.
[00:04:38] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Absolutely. In the, I guess jumping right into the technical aspect of distilling towards the gin and towards the vodka, do you start with a, do you start with a mead or is it the initial fermentation different than starting?
[00:04:49] Ryan Christiansen: Our vodka is starting from a mead, 100% pure raw honey. We’ve sourced honey, we bring it in 650-pound drums.
We never heat it, we bring it into the distillery. It’s thick, it’s -, it’s flavorful. There’s a big difference between the honey you’re gonna find at the supermarket versus, you know, honey fresh out of the hives. Unfortunately, a lot of what you find at the supermarket has been pasteurized and heated, and filtered and it’s gone through all these, these processes that have taken so much flavor and botanical depth out of the honey.
So we often think of it as sugar. When we’re making our vodka, we’re taking pure, raw honey. Putting it straight into the drum. So that means bees, waxed, pollen, propolis, I mean, just all this really terroir. The bees are out there collecting nectar, essentially scraping the earth off its botanicals.
Our job as distillers is to make sure that we keep that intact as we take it through fermentation. So once we ferment that to dry, we effectively make a dry mead. Then we send it over to our column still where we’re doing two distillations and only two distillations. You don’t want to distill it any more than that.
You, you’d lose that sort of subtle characteristic. Vodka
[00:05:57] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Distill out the personality. I always,
[00:06:00] Ryan Christiansen: Well, exactly. It’s a tricky balance. Vodka by definition is flavorless odorless, neutral. So we’re trying to hold on to just the subtle characteristic that reminds you of where this came from while also.
Making sure vodka is fitting in the vodka aisle.
[00:06:14] Bianca Harmon: How would you say that you differentiate yourself from other distilleries and honey producers? Using bees and honey to distill their spirits versus, how would you differentiate yourself?
[00:06:25] Ryan Christiansen: I don’t taste a lot of honey spirits from other folks, so there, there could be some really great ones out there.
I, I don’t know. There’s not a lot of folks doing this. I think what’s really different about us is, and this a lot of this came from Todd and what Todd taught me and other bee keepers have taught me is how flavorful honey can be. It’s also incredibly difficult sugar to work with from a predictability and fermentation.
Nutritional values are all over the map. Filtration issues are you know, prevalent we’ll say. There’s you just never really know, like the wax content in one honey is gonna be totally different than another, and that’s gonna work very differently when it’s going through your system.
There’s all sorts of challenges, but that’s the nature of working with real raw materials. I mean, if anybody comes to the distillery and I encourage anybody that to come in. We love guests. But we like to open up these drums of honey and 650-pound drums of honey or hand you a 40-pound block of beeswax and see like, this is really raw material. This is flavorful, this is from the farm and that’s how it comes to us.
And so that, that creates some real challenges. It’d be a lot easier if we just brought in filtered honey and ran it through the process. It’d be really predictable. But yeah, we’re, we’re, we’re up for the challenge.
[00:07:37] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Absolutely. Now, you’re, we have some samples here today, so I’d like to actually kind of experience what you’re talking about.
The first one we’ve got here is the Barr Hill Vodka, and this is what we’re talking about here right now. So it’s a hundred percent from honey, twice distilled. I’m gonna I, is there anything else? I got it even hand-signed or hand numbered.
[00:07:59] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. And you know this. This vodka it’s, you’re not gonna find, well I haven’t found yet in any other vodka, anything with the botanical depth.
We talked about that, but also the creamy viscosity. Honey is really special. We’ve got a column still. You can probably almost see it right behind me, behind my head. But we’ve produced vodka from, all sorts of carbohydrates. Everything from rye grain to maple syrup. And all produce really nice vodkas, but it’s only honey that brings this body and this mouthfeel and this creamy texture.
[00:08:32] Drew Thomas Hendricks: It’s like a – quality to it.
[00:08:36] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah, absolutely. And hopefully, on the nose, you’re getting just subtle. Again, it should taste like a vodka, but there should be just the kind of floral and what you’re getting there, the honey, right? When you open up the 650-pound rum of honey to it.
And then you taste it and you get such an overwhelming amount of sweetness. Mm-hmm. You lose a lot of that botanical, that sugar out, and then you distill it into vodka. You’ve removed so much beautiful character that you know in taste, but more in aromatics.
[00:09:03] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Absolutely. There’s, and the finish is dry.
I mean, it’s a dry finish. It’s almost, it’s got a glycerol feel to it but it’s got a very just a great nose to it. I mean, it definitely still.
[00:09:14] Bianca Harmon: It’s so amazing.
[00:09:15] Drew Thomas Hendricks: It’s like a vodka. You know, It’s in that vodka category, but there’s something special there for sure.
[00:09:20] Ryan Christiansen: There’s no added honey distillation so that’s you know, commonly people.
From honey, it must be honey sweetened. There’s no, there’s actually very little actual sugar, no sugar. Even though you taste just a subtle, something with that body.
[00:09:34] Bianca Harmon: And is that all through the fermentation process? It’s cutting out all of the sugars, or,
[00:09:39] Ryan Christiansen: Process you know converts into alcohol. There’s still some residual sugar, but that’s not gonna travel through the column distillation.
[00:09:46] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Tasting good these vodkas so glycerol, so good. And then the fact that you’re using this raw unfiltered honey in big big 500, 600-gallon containers. What’s the production look like on this? How much do you produce every year of this vodka?
[00:10:02] Ryan Christiansen: We don’t make a lot of vodka.
We make probably about 4,000 cases total. You know, that’s the full production throughout, throughout the whole year. So yeah, it’s pretty, pretty small. The price point’s fairly expensive, it’s over $60 a bottle. Which is a pretty, pretty serious investment for folks you know, buying a bottle of vodka.
[00:10:20] Drew Thomas Hendricks: But when you look at the cost of honey, That’s what I ask, how much?
[00:10:25] Ryan Christiansen: It takes us over three pounds of raw honey. Just to make a seven 50 milliliter bottle vodka.
[00:10:32] Bianca Harmon: Wow.
[00:10:33] Drew Thomas Hendricks: I mean, I mean, just going to the store, I see how much honey costs and to get the good stuff, it’s gonna be even more so econo it sounds like. It’s actually a pretty good deal. It’s $60 a bottle.
[00:10:44] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah, we’re probably not making any margin on it, but it’s you know, it works well for us. We have a mission and our mission is to connect cocktail culture to agriculture. And make sure that we’re driving conversations that go all the way back to the farm.
And the farm includes bees. And what vodka does for us? We’re very focused on gin. That’s the majority of our business. That’s almost everything that we focus on. But what vodka does is it allows us to take, like I mentioned earlier, we’re taking a lot of honey from a lot of different beekeepers.
There’s a fair amount of variation, so there’s a lot of different barrels of honey coming into this distillery. Part of the way that we sort those and make sure that we’re delivering a fairly consistent quality gin to market is by taking all the outlying honey and putting it to our vodka program.
Cuz I believe the vodka aisle needs character. Right?
[00:11:32] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Absolutely.
[00:11:33] Ryan Christiansen: So if we can bring just a little bit of, you know, like if, if you’ve got a late-season honey that tastes a little bit different than everything that’s been coming, outta the hives all summer long. Great. That’s gonna make a really interesting nuance in vodka because you distill it to 190 proof.
A big amount of flavor differential doesn’t lead to a big swing in the vodka flavor. It’s just subtle cues. So vodka’s become this really nice sort of catch-all for all of the on barrels, which produces a small amount of vodka but uses a lot of honey.
[00:12:03] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Sure. No that, that, that’s really interesting.
So you, so gin’s your, gin’s your wheelhouse now.
[00:12:09] Ryan Christiansen: Absolutely.
[00:12:10] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Let’s talk about the gin then for a second here. So we have another gin. We have the juniper and raw honey gin, the unaged one. Now is this your mainstay with at the distillery?
[00:12:23] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. Yeah. So Barr Hill Gin, that’s what we’re best known for.
That’s really the product that’s you know really, really kind of the driving engine of this facility. It’s very juniper forward. We aren’t trying to stray from the gin category with a lot of super contemporary, unexpected botanicals.
We’re saying really focused on juniper. Juniper’s got this great drying kind of resonance character. And like I mentioned before, honey has a big bold sweetness to it, but it also has tremendous botanical depth. So we use juniper and our distillation process is extracting the juniper oils, which work really well to dry out that honey a little bit.
And they make a great balance. Very similar to. What a brewer’s doing with hops and malts, right? Really drying out the palette to set you up for a big, bold, malt character or sort of you know, honey is our malt and juniper is our hop so to speak as we create this big bold flavor.
But by balancing those two, you reveal the complexity within the honey. So hopefully as you’re tasting this, you’re not just getting juniper, honey, you’re probably getting sort of a field of wildflowers.
[00:13:32] Drew Thomas Hendricks: For sure and still has that, it has that same glycerol kind of quality to it, like mouth-coating texture that I don’t often get from gin.
And you’re right. Now the gin landscape is so across the board right now. You really don’t know what you’re gonna get if you just go grab a bottle of gin at the store. Especially if it’s in that higher tier. Specialize in it could be, it could smell like cucumbers. I some of the gins you taste, it’s almost doesn’t even seem like they’d be gin. This is,
[00:14:01] Bianca Harmon: this gin.
[00:14:02] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Really elegant juniper nose to it with some.
[00:14:05] Bianca Harmon: Where are you sourcing your juniper?
[00:14:08] Ryan Christiansen: The juniper’s coming out of Eastern Europe. You know we’re, Juniper grows all over here. We haven’t figured out a way to economically harvest, and bring in local junipers. But that’s we, we have a small research.
We have a small lab here on site, and we’re doing explorations all the time. So hopefully at some point, we’ll begin to introduce local juniper as well. That’s undoubtedly a goal. But we’ve spent most of our time in the lab on this product really focusing on what’s within the honey. That’s been the real challenge for us is, when you taste Barr Hill Gin and you taste you know the honey, there’s actual botanical contributions in there.
And we want to know better what they are. I joke, or maybe I’m not even joking but you know, I’ve been doing this for a decade now, over a decade. And I feel like we’re just starting to learn how to ask the right questions to answer. Like the bees don’t tell you much. They’ve just got these beautiful boxes of honey and we bring that into the distillery and then we go through all sorts of sensory explorations. Where we go, wow, this one has really something special to it. Well, what is that?
You can answer that by looking at, where was the hive geographically located. If it’s next to an apple orchard, you’re, you’re probably gonna have some pretty obvious cues there.
But there’s also microscopically, we’re working with an outside lab. We don’t do this in our lab, but we ship the honey out and they’re looking at the shape of the pollens that they’re finding and trying to help us sort of understand, hey, we found, astro pollens that’s gonna give us a good sense of what you might be tasting. But none of that’s really revealing anything with if you don’t tie that to sensory, right?
So we’ve got these three components, geography, microscopic, research, it’s called pollen analysis and then sensory. And we’re always leaning on all three of those tools to help us understand our own product. But I think right now, as a company, we’re right on the verge of really, I don’t know, the next decade or two we might actually figure this out.
[00:15:58] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Really? Right now what’s the, what’s the flavor profile that you’re looking for in your honeys or what’s the correct honey that makes it to the gin versus the vodka?
[00:16:07] Ryan Christiansen: It’s many things. Color is a big component too. If you look at the color of our gin, it probably doesn’t come through the zoom screen, but there’s kind of this just subtle straw yellow.
[00:16:16] Bianca Harmon: You have a yellow tint.
[00:16:18] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. And that’s a big part of it. So color is a big, a big characteristic that we’re monitoring for sugar content, general flavor. But as all these drums come in, they’re all numbered numerically. So we know at what time they came off out of the honey production.
And usually, you find similarities. You go through, the earlier honeys in the year stand out. Usually, it’s more kind of simpler flavors early in the year, a lot of clover. Things like that. And then you get into the late season, you start getting into like golden rod and a lot of these sort of bigger earthier things that start to take you down.
These like deeper flavors that we just. Be sort of overbearing in the gin, but it’s that really rich summer season botanical wide array of wildflowers that we’re after. So it’s, that’s that kind of center point that we’re trying to manage to and those at our edges. They all go down to path of vodka.
[00:17:09] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Kind of the gingerly sweet spot.
[00:17:11] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
[00:17:12] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Now it, it’s interesting to think of honey almost like grape varieties. If you took honey from the different regions and growing next to different vineyards and you, or not vineyards, but different orchards, different types of floral concepts, and you got it to the mead state, would you see that sort of almost varietal characteristic between the different meads.
[00:17:33] Ryan Christiansen: If you can control the inputs, yes. It’s particularly hard to, particularly I mean when we here in Vermont, we don’t have a lot of beekeepers we work with from Vermont, mostly because they’re all such small beekeepers, they don’t have a lot of honey. So we do have a few that we work with.
And there’s a lot of like special projects work that we do. We did a gin called the Montpelier Gin, and we opened up this distillery, the grand opening. We already had a distillery up in Hardwick, but we opened up our bigger distillery. We partnered with I think six or seven different beekeepers from all the surrounding towns around the area.
And we blended all those honeys together and we did that intentionally because we wanted to really kind of get a variety of the land around us. But also because none of those beekeepers could supply enough honey to produce the single batch, which speaks to how small these are. These are backyard hobbyist beekeepers.
But just, just in that project, the honey that came right up the street in Northfield to the honey down the, the same street in the other way in Worcester, wildly different honeys. And we, there’s a Japanese knotweed honey beekeeper who keeps his bees next to Japanese knotweed, which is known as an invasive species and kind of a, a wrestling match for us here, but it produces incredible honey.
So we brought the knotweed honey into the mix and we created this really totally unique spirit by embracing six or seven different apiaries. All in a pretty small, maybe a 15-mile radius.
[00:19:01] Bianca Harmon: What is the average amount of honey? You know, these are all small farms that you’re getting these from. What is the a, like on average, how many gallons of honey are you getting from these beekeepers?
[00:19:13] Ryan Christiansen: Well, those are all the special projects beekeepers I just mentioned. So those are super small. 30, 40 pounds. At a time, tiny releases. Our mainstay is you know, we have three, now four, more commercial apiaries we’re working with, which are producing much larger volume.
And a lot of those folks are keeping bees in, like I said, upstate New York, near a lot of the agricultural regions where they need pollination.
[00:19:35] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Talking about the cocktail culture meeting the agriculture, what is your recommended serving cocktail for this that preserves all these like nuances we’re tasting right now?
[00:19:45] Ryan Christiansen: So Barr Hill Gin, I mean there’s a classic cocktail called the Bee’s Knees. Which is known for the best. It’s gin, honey, lemon. So naturally Barr Hill’s a pretty good fit for that cocktail. That over the years has become a cocktail that a lot of our customers, they buy Barr Hill to go make a Bee’s Knees.
More recently we, we realized, one, what a great cocktail that is and the whole world should know about it. And it’s very simple to make as well. But two, not a lot of people understand how important spreading the awareness of the threats of the pollinators really is.
And so we saw that as an opportunity for something that our brand can do. Obviously, we’re on a mission to support bees and support pollinators. But if we can tie that conversation specifically to one cocktail, I think it’s gonna spread a lot faster. So we started an effort called Bee’s Knees Week in 2017.
[00:20:37] Bianca Harmon: I was just getting ready to ask you about that. That’s so funny.
[00:20:40] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. Yeah. So that was, that, that was actually a project that, it was born in just a, a neighborhood conversation in Asbury Park. We were at a cocktail bar and a bartender who happened to be a beekeeper as well in, in a fairly pointed way, said, “What are you guys doing for the bees?”
I answered and didn’t really think about it. I said, “Well, we pay really good prices to our farmers. We’ve got great partnerships. We’re taking really good care of our.” And he said, “You’re just talking about beekeepers, you’re not talking about bees.” And it was such a like, put me on my heels and really had me and everybody in the room self-reflective of what are we doing for the actual bees other than just being good stewards of the bees.
Like what is our brand doing for the bees? So it became this opportunity to start this. We brainstormed on it. We came up with Bee’s Knees Week and, and then we said, “Hey, this is much bigger than one neighborhood. This is an idea that could catch on anywhere.” So anyway, it’s grown every year and now we partner with bartenders and restaurant owners and retail store owners.
And Bee’s Knees Week is the last week in September. And all you have to do to participate is make a Bee’s Knees cocktail. And or order one at a restaurant and take a photo put it on social media, use the hashtag Bee’s Knees Week, and we plant 10 square feet of pollinator habitat for every photo shared.
And this started as kind of a neighborhood, hey what if we did this kind of idea? And it’s now grown to, I think we have 3000 participating accounts. Last year we had 3000 participating accounts all around the nation. And so it, it’s really just been a huge activation for our brand. But more importantly, it’s just had a huge impact.
I think we’ve planted, I think last year alone we planted over 250,000 square feet of pollinator habitat.
[00:22:21] Bianca Harmon: And where are you planting this?
[00:22:23] Ryan Christiansen: So we partner with this great group here in Vermont, a guy named Mike Kiernan. It’s called Bee the Change, and Mike is focused on putting pollinator habitat in highly visible places.
His company’s goal is to get, get pollinator habitat in every town in Vermont. But we see this growing way outside of here. Rooftops in New York need some pollinator habitat. Houston, Texas needs pollinator habitat. California needs it. And what would, so we see this something gonna,
[00:22:49] Drew Thomas Hendricks: What does a habitat look like?
[00:22:51] Ryan Christiansen: Well it’s, and Mike’s got a very methodical approach to this. He’s done this for a very long time. So he’s the expert and I’m definitely the student. Our whole team, we just, when Mike speaks, we all just kind of gather around and listen. He’s like the wise man of the pollinators. But he is got this, I think it takes him, I think it’s a five-year plan going through, the right seedings, the right way that you, you handle it.
He and I did a tour of pollenary habitat’s planted in Moretown, Vermont, last fall. And that one’s on year three. And it’s just beautiful. It doesn’t happen in one year. You’ve gotta sort of get started in year one. Plant something else in year two, let these things rise and slowly. If you go tour any of his established. He’s got one in Richmond, which is just so beautiful. He does a lot of these plantings under solar panels.
[00:23:38] Drew Thomas Hendricks: It’s more than just planting flowers. I mean, they’re, give the listeners an idea of the plant structure and why it’s a multi-year thing.
[00:23:44] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. It’s about building an ecosystem.
It’s really, I mean if you walk into Mike’s fields, I mean, he measures. He measures and I forget exactly how he conducts this measurement, but he can tell you how many pollinators per minute you’re seeing. And there’s nothing like it standing in these fields. It’s just, it’s like a, it’s traffic, you know?
There’s just so many different species and they’re just buzzing around. It’s you know, bees and butterflies and moths. And Mike will stand there and he’ll point ’em out and he’ll say, “Oh, look at that one over there. Look at that hummingbird.” And he’ll tell you about the connection between a hummingbird and jewelweed and how it’s evolved over just with such an incredible amount of time.
But we all take it for granted. We drive by a field that’s been mowed just for the sake of mowing it, you know, or like the monarch butterflies are now on the endangered species list. We’re sort of just ignoring human act impact on the environment around us. Cause it looks green.
That’s probably good enough. But the reality is, is that we’re doing harm.
[00:24:41] Bianca Harmon: So could it be something similar to like, for example, here in the Bay Area we have the California Academy of Science and the whole roof is like a living roof, right? And so it’s a two-and-a-half acre roof that’s home to a wildlife.
It’s got greenery, it’s got all flowers, I mean, kind of something like along those lines. But for pollinators or?
[00:25:05] Ryan Christiansen: Absolutely. I mean, Mike does a program, this is his core business. Anybody can offset their own home. You can say, I mean, this distillery, we had to offset this distillery.
To build this distillery, we had to take away pollinator habitat right before there was a distillery here, there is an open field. You know, once we built this distillery that, that it might be small in the grand scheme of things, but these things add up. Slowly one house at a time. We build New York City and that’s a lot of space that is no longer supportive of pollinators.
So Bianca, what you mentioned is, is so important. How do we take these urban environments and make it a place where pollinators can thrive as well? I think that’s the kind of coexistence we all need to be thinking about.
[00:25:45] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh, for sure.
[00:25:45] Bianca Harmon: Yeah.
[00:25:46] Drew Thomas Hendricks: In these pollinator habitats are, is the honey harvested or are they just allowed to kind of do their own thing?
[00:25:52] Ryan Christiansen: No, these are all native pollinators. So there’s no commercial production whatsoever. And that’s important to us. We depend on commercial pollinators to produce honey. But the reality is that the Barr Hill brand stands for much more than just supporting commercial apiaries.
If we can support native pollinators, that’s even better.
[00:26:11] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. So on your website, you have a picture of a cooperage. Do you do your own barrel cooperage at Barr Hill?
[00:26:20] Ryan Christiansen: We don’t, we’ve done quite a bit of work in that arena over the years, but I’ll tell you a quick funny story. I think it’s, it’s like 2013, no, I think it was 2014.
It was right after we came out with our barrel-aged gin which is called Tom Cat. We developed Tom Cat really by accident. It was, we were scaling up our 15-gallon still. We started with a little 15-gallon still. And had to get that into a bigger still cuz the demand was, we were trying to keep up and working around the clock to, to run enough gin.
And so I’m trying to dial in this 300-gallon still and I’m getting closer and closer and closer to gin that could go out under the Barr Hill label, but we could still, in a blind tasting, we could still detect it. And meanwhile, I had a whiskey still that I had wanted to be running. We wanted to make whiskey as well.
But we were a small company. We had really, you know, no resources to speak of and had to get this gin still running and couldn’t possibly keep not releasing gin. But we’re, we’re stubborn. We’re not gonna put the Barr Hill label on a product that clearly wasn’t Barr Hill.
Anyway, long story short, I had purchased a bunch of brand new oak barrels, American Oak barrels that I had intended to make bourbon. And these barrels were gonna shrivel up. They weren’t gonna hold anything up. I didn’t put some liquid in there, so I had this pretty darn good gin and these barrels and I said, “Hey, let’s just put the gin in the barrel and see how it tastes.”
And that brand new American oak with that juniper characteristic and the raw honey, it just created this beautiful flavor. Anyway, that we, I’m telling quite a few stories here in a quick great fashion, but we released that product. It took us 18 months to get the TTB to allow us to release that product.
And initially, we couldn’t even put gin on the label. They said, that’s, you can’t age a gin. That’s not a gin. And we said, well, we did. And It is a gin. So it was just, just a bit of a wrestling match with the federal government.
[00:28:13] Bianca Harmon: You can’t age a gin, huh?
[00:28:15] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah, that’s a whole thing. But we eventually released it.
We thought we had way too much inventory. We were worried nobody was gonna like it, like we liked it and it sold out immediately. And at the same time, there was this national barrel shortage and we suddenly said, wow, we just hit a home run. Everybody loves it. This is really great. And then we couldn’t get barrels.
And so that’s how those, those photos came to be because we, we found a sustainably harvested stand of white oak, which is quite rare here in the northeast. And we said, hey, this, these trees are coming down anyway. They’re coming down for the good of the forest, which was you know, in line with our own values.
And we said, let’s take it and let’s find the cooperage and this will be easy. And we did find the cooperage who found a guy named Bob Hockert up in Wilmington, New York, who had a small cooperage. And he said, “Yeah, I can. Make barrels, but I don’t buy trees.” He said, you know, he said, “I buy mill lumber, like ready to go for me.”
So anyway, we had to connect all the dots in between. It was give
[00:29:17] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Can I give you a tree, make a barrel from it.
[00:29:18] Ryan Christiansen: Exactly. So it was, you know, finding a mill that could quarters saw and the trucking and, and negotiating with the landowners. How you buy trees and you know, the whole, whole,
[00:29:29] Bianca Harmon: So at the end of the day, there was no profit made on this, but it’s a really good story. Right?
[00:29:33] Ryan Christiansen: Not even close. We learned a lot about barrels. We got some really cool photos and we’ve, we’ve, and now we have old spirits aging in the today, but we aged the wood for three years before we ever put spirits in it. So educational journey.
[00:29:48] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That is, That is incredible. Talk about a handcrafted journey.
[00:29:50] Bianca Harmon: That’s so cool.
[00:29:52] Drew Thomas Hendricks: So I have to say, this is my second barrel-aged gin that I’ve ever had. The first one was a few months.
[00:29:57] Ryan Christiansen: Oh, great.
[00:29:57] Drew Thomas Hendricks: The first one was a few months ago. It was at Woods Distillery up in Salida, Colorado.
[00:30:03] Ryan Christiansen: P.T?
[00:30:04] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Yep.
[00:30:04] Ryan Christiansen: My good friend P.T.
[00:30:06] Drew Thomas Hendricks: They’re two very different. I didn’t meet P.T. That day, but I did taste through the things on the way down to a conference. But I have to say, this is, this is mind-blowing.
[00:30:15] Bianca Harmon: This gin is my favorite liquor, and so I was super stoked. But this is what you guys specialized in because, and for it to come from honey is just incredible.
[00:30:30] Drew Thomas Hendricks: How long is this aged? Talk to us about it.
[00:30:33] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah, so it’s the same distillation process as Barr Hill Gin.
Comes off the same stills, but then we’re aging in a brand-new American oak barrel. And when you produce a bourbon, one of the rules of bourbon is brand new American oak. You don’t see brand-new American oak used in not gin production. Not really, you know, many, many other spirits at all. Brand new American oak is fairly expensive.
It’s also very flavorful. So it works really well in bourbon. I particularly love bourbon. I enjoy drinking bourbon and rye. So that new American oak characteristic is something that I’m really fond of. But like I, I told you the story of how we came up with this. Yeah, there’s probably a little bit of envy.
We wanted to be producing more whiskey than we were. But when we tasted this, we said, wow, this brings all of that, you know, bourbon kind of characteristic But in a gin profile, which, which we thought was really cool. But what you’re getting here, you’re getting that balance between honey and juniper, but that juniper’s playing with the oak in a really interesting way.
Oak is very dense, you know, hardwood. You know, these are brand new freshly charred barrels, so there’s a real robustness to, to oak and the juniper kind of softens it and brings it more into this sort of coniferous quality. I like to think of like hiking in the woods around – and, you know, cedar.
You’re getting a little of that, because of that relationship with the juniper.
[00:31:56] Drew Thomas Hendricks: I do get that pine, it reminds me of a Clear Creek did a pine distilled – that had a real pine taste and you didn’t hit the nail on the head. That juniper kind of goes over almost into that pine quality when it’s combined with oak.
[00:32:11] Bianca Harmon: It’s fascinating to me. It’s something I didn’t even, which is silly I did ever think about, but just the color difference between the one that’s aged. In the barrel versus the one that’s not. I mean, I never considered that. Just because you put wine in a barrel doesn’t turn that color right. So it’s fascinating to me that it adds this beautiful maple color to it.
[00:32:35] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. And that’s only six to eight months in the barrel.
[00:32:37] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Really? So what size –
[00:32:39] Ryan Christiansen: These are? These are a mix of thirties and 50 -.
[00:32:42] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Okay. Just enough to give it that little bit of an oak kiss.
[00:32:46] Ryan Christiansen: Yep. We’re really getting a lot of, surface, characteristic. There’s a fair amount of wood sugar that’s coming out there as well.
But it really, it, it does a nice thing for the, for the gin. Another quick story about this time where we were working on this product. There was so many craft distilling, you know, 2013, 2014. I mean, we got started in 2011. But around 2013, 2014, there was just so much coming out to market and there was a lot of gin on the market, but not a lot of gin that distillers seemed to be proud of.
And, you know, we were super proud of our gin. We wanted to be making whiskey. But it felt like, every time I was on market, I’d hear what I call the gin apology. You know, like, hey, buy my gin. Cuz someday I’ll have whiskey for you. And we realize that there’s no need to apologize for gin.
And so when we came out with Tom Cat we said, you know, the gin apology is never happening. We really just stopped talk. We do make a whiskey. We can talk about that as well if you want to. But we don’t sell it. We haven’t sold any whiskey yet. We’ve said, hey, let’s be very patient with whiskey.
Whiskey needs patients. But let’s play in gin, and bring gin to market with no apologies whatsoever.
[00:33:52] Drew Thomas Hendricks: This is, I noticed on the label it’s made with grain neutral spirits. Where does the honey come in during the process?
[00:34:01] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. So with the gin process, it’s a grain neutral spirit distillation, and that’s what we’re using to extract the juniper oils.
And then the honey’s coming in post distillation. Okay. So I mentioned with the vodka, there’s no sweetening of the vodka, there’s no honey added after distillation. With the gin there is. So you’re probably actually, and again, because we’re looking for that sweetness. We’re actually trying to bring in some of that sweetness to play well with the, with that resonance trying character of the juniper.
So there’s actually more honey going into the production of the vodka, but there’s probably morehoney that you’re actually tasting and experiencing on the palette in the gin.
[00:34:34] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Where the honey is actually treated as a botanical of the final composite.
[00:34:39] Ryan Christiansen: Exactly.
[00:34:40] Bianca Harmon: And is there specific honey you’re using for the Tom Cat Gin versus the Barr Hill Gin?
[00:34:47] Ryan Christiansen: Same goals. You know, obviously, there’s a lot of variation in all the barrels we ring in here, but we’re striving for very similar well, more than similar. We’re striving for the same targets there.
[00:34:58] Bianca Harmon: I like what you said about the whiskey though. You said that you’re making it. A lot of, you think of where a lot of whiskey goes wrong is people don’t, they wanna rush and get the whiskey out and whiskey can’t be rushed or it’s not good.
So the fact that you guys are doing whiskey now and sitting on it is awesome.
[00:35:19] Ryan Christiansen: We’ve actually taken a very long approach. It’s probably the worst business plan in the world, but so Todd, Todd actually, well, in 2015, Todd actually sold the company to me with a goal of getting back to his agricultural roots.
You know, I was, pretty new to distilling and had really committed you know quite, quite a lot of my future life to distilling and thinking about not distilling wasn’t really a part of my, my, my thought process cuz we were just starting to fill barrels. We weren’t emptying them. Whereas Todd wanted to get back to agriculture, he sold the company to me.
And he bought a farm. He bought, actually didn’t even buy a farm. He bought farmland. And had to build a farm. So he bought a hundred acres in Greensboro, Vermont and started growing rye grain. And that’s, rye is an incredible grain for this area. It’s we’re in you know, the northeast, you know, very hardy cold climate up here.
You plant rye in the fall it over winters. And then it comes up in the spring and that process allows it to establish better root system. The relatively unpredictable springs of the Northeast, you know, it just, it just gives a, a better shop than it would with a product like corn or barley.
So Todd really fell in love. He grew up as a beekeeper and now he’s full-on rye farming. And then we take all the rye that he grows and, or most of the rye that he grows, and we bring it into the distillery. We make a rye whiskey. So that whole project started in 2016 was his first harvest, and we’ve produced just a very small amount of barrels every year since.
And I think we’ll make 60 or 70 barrels this year total. But we’ve got some barrels that just turned six years old and they’re tasting great. I think we’ll probably release a few barrels this year. But for the most part, probably 2024 2025 we’ll have, we’ll have probably more, more of the age stuff. The first year we only produce 12 barrels total.
[00:37:11] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Where does honey play a role in this or does it?
[00:37:14] Ryan Christiansen: It doesn’t at this point. We might start to kind of commingle those two worlds, but for right now we’re really trying to explore rye with the same kind of curiosity that we’ve brought to, to, to honey.
[00:37:25] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Absolutely.
Yeah. There’s this one distillery by me in Malahat. Malahat did a collab with a hotel down in San Diego. They’ve got a bee apiarie. They got a beehive on the roof, so they ended up doing a honey whiskey but it’s bone dry. But finished with it has a little honey finish on it.
Kind of reminded me of when we were talking, kind of, kind of reminded me a little of the Tom Cat gin with its finish.
[00:37:48] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. Very cool. I’ll have, check that out.
[00:37:51] Drew Thomas Hendricks: I’ll have to send you, send you a sample of it. I think I have a, they had a, I don’t think they have any more for sale, but there’s a bottle sitting on by bar somewhere.
[00:38:00] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah, sounds great.
[00:38:03] Drew Thomas Hendricks: So you got the rye. Let’s talk about like your growth in the growth of Barr Hill and Caledonia Spirits. As you’ve grown is there anything you kind of in hindsight would’ve done differently?
[00:38:15] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah. I mean, probably a lot. But it’s, I don’t know. I mean, we have by business standards. We have not done this the right way. I mean, most, and I don’t know how much listeners you know sort of pay attention to the spirits industry. And I, I don’t want to knock anyone, you know, I think there’s a lot of fantastic brands that have all been built different ways.
But for the most part in the spirits industry, You can run a pretty low overhead operation. Sort of, we call it the kind of the conference room model where you come up with a concept and a story and then source some juice that fits the story whether it’s you know, fiction or nonfiction, and then take it out to market.
And if the product’s successful, you might someday build the distillery. And that’s just not the way that we knew how to operate or would’ve operated. We really started with Todd was literally a beekeeper. It was a hobby that led to a commercial operation and then a fascination for supporting pollinators.
I fell in love with fermentation and wanted to create and explore flavor and then Todd and I built a distillery before there was even products to sell. You know and, and same thing with this Montpelier facility. It’s a 27,000-square-foot facility that can produce quite a lot of rye whiskey someday.
So we’ve sort of been building sort of brick and mortar and putting our roots in the ground long before there’s been brand success. And that’s probably foolish from a business level. But it’s really part of our ethos, it’s part of our core, it’s part of what motivates our team every day.
So you know, if you come here to Montpelier, we have an onsite cocktail bar. We have two, two bars. One is more focused on education and making sure that folks block away knowing how to make the best knees or martini or old fashioned or whatever gin cocktail you wanna want to consume.
And the other one’s open to the public all the time. But we wanna make sure that everybody that comes in these walls seize our stills, meets our people, experiences raw honey in its most beautiful form, and hopefully walks away knowing that we need bees. And that’s just central to our core and what motivates us.
It’s, it makes a tough business model. But I think it has led to, we haven’t had explosive growth. We’re not you know, we’re not the celebrity back brand that will be three times this size tomorrow. That’s just not part of our business model. We’ve just had this steady, consistent growth for a decade and we’ve built a pretty strong business out of it with a really passionate following of consumers that have fallen in love with the cocktails that our gin pairs well with.
[00:40:45] Drew Thomas Hendricks: It’s hard in hindsight. I mean, cuz if you didn’t have that attention to detail and you didn’t have those ambitious drive, you mean you probably wouldn’t have the quality level that you are today?
[00:40:55] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah, I mean I learned how to be a distiller by trying to build a distillery and quite frankly making a lot of mistakes and saying, hey, this isn’t working.
And then shut it down, take it apart, find another welder to help you put it back together, and try it again. And you know, it’s that you know kind of trial and error that had really has, has taken us to this place of really appreciating and understanding. You know what it is that we do.
[00:41:20] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh, for sure.
[00:41:20] Bianca Harmon: And do you have a cocktail bar at your facility?
[00:41:23] Ryan Christiansen: Yep. Yep, we do. And we have plenty of space. You know, we also host a lot of events here, so, you know it’s a it’s, I said 27,000 square feet. Only about 18,000 of that. Part of the production. And then we have our office space, and then we have a very spacious bar.
And it’s a pretty, pretty happening scene. Montpelier, Vermont is a very small town. It’s the capital of Vermont.
[00:41:44] Bianca Harmon: That’s what I was gonna lead into.
[00:41:46] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah, there, there’s about 9,000 people in this town. But we get a lot of folks that come up to go skiing in Vermont and they stop by the Barr Hill Distillery.
[00:41:54] Drew Thomas Hendricks: For someone visiting Vermont in Montpelier, they’ve got skiing. Is there other craft distilleries or anything else that you would partner with or you’re the game in town?
[00:42:05] Ryan Christiansen: Well, I mean there’s some great restaurants. Montpelier’s just like a beautiful town, it’s a really small town, but it’s got a nice actual downtown.
I go there every weekend with my kids and you just kinda let people run free. It’s a pretty relaxed lifestyle around here. But you know Vermont has more breweries per capita than any other state in the nation. We’re essentially drowning in beer. Come visit and help us, help us drink all the great beverages here.
But no, there’s some great breweries, incredible cheese makers. Jasper Hill? Oh, gosh, that’s such a loaded question. I could really,
[00:42:36] Drew Thomas Hendricks: And know who, who am I gonna offend?
[00:42:40] Ryan Christiansen: Well, I mean, Lawson’s Finest Liquids is right over in Waitsfield. John and Jen at The Alchemist, they’re over in Stowe.
Shaun Hill is up in Greensboro, so Hill Farmstead. So those are kind of three of the most popular breweries, I think kind of rockstar status for all of those folks. They probably wouldn’t even return my phone call. They’re so cool. But no, they just all make incredible beer, and they, they, they really set a beverage standard that we all you know, have to try to keep up with.
So for months, it’s a place where a lot of things are made. There’s a lot of, I mean I don’t know if you guys know Jasper Hill. But they’re some of the most incredible cheese makers in the country. And they’re you know, you could drive by their farm and not know you ever drove by this pretty sizable operation at this point.
But it’s all dug into the hillside and they’ve got these cheese caves on a dirt road in rural Vermont, and they’re making some of the most insanely delicious cheese you’ve ever tasted. And it’s shipping to California. You can find Jasper Hill all around the country and they have never strayed from. their attention to detail and the quality.
[00:43:43] Bianca Harmon: It’s fantastic cheese.
[00:43:45] Ryan Christiansen: Yes. Good stuff so.
[00:43:47] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That’s fantastic. So, Ryan, as we’re kind of wrapping down here, is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to bring up?
[00:43:54] Ryan Christiansen: No. One, one more exciting thing we just released a barrel-age version of,a barrel strength version of Tom Cat which is the, the Kingdom Strength.
[00:44:03] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh, yeah.
[00:44:04] Ryan Christiansen: Which is, is not, we haven’t taken it out to distribution yet. But it’s 113 proof. We’re kind of playing on, on Navy strength. There’s actually a little bit less honey. So you’re getting you know a little bit more juniper, a little bit more oak. At a higher strength. But it’s a really fantastic product.
And yeah, the teams worked really hard on it. This was actually, you know, Andrew and Mallory spent a lot of time in the barrel room and they really kind of pioneered this, this flavor. But pulled back on the honey a little bit and it’s, it’s produced a really brilliant castran product.
[00:44:34] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That sounds fantastic. So it comes out of the barrel at a hundred, 113 proof?
[00:44:39] Ryan Christiansen: Yep. Yeah, it actually comes out a little bit higher than that. And then we’re, we’re adding honey post, post barrel, and that brings the proof down just a touch.
[00:44:46] Drew Thomas Hendricks: What does it come out of the still?
[00:44:49] Ryan Christiansen: About 160 proof give or day.
[00:44:52] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Okay. And it just, through evaporation and through the aging, it cuts down a bit.
[00:44:56] Ryan Christiansen: We take it off the still at a high proof, and then we’re adding reverse osmosis to water, mineral free water, essentially to bring it down to barrel strength. And then for our normal Tom Cat, not the cast strength, we use RO water again to bring it down. One more step to the 86 group.
[00:45:14] Drew Thomas Hendricks: All right.
[00:45:15] Bianca Harmon: When do you plan to release that one? I don’t see it on the website yet, so.
[00:45:19] Ryan Christiansen: It is available. We just released the second batch, so we did the first batch. It sold out very quickly, and we just released batch two of Kingdom Strength.
[00:45:27] Bianca Harmon: Awesome.
[00:45:28] Drew Thomas Hendricks: That’s fantastic. So Ryan, where can people find out about, more about you, Caledonia Spirits Spirits, and Barr Hill?
[00:45:35] Ryan Christiansen: Yeah, we’re on social media.Instagram @barrhillgin. We have a website, barrhill.com or caledoniaspirits.com. And then I’m on social, you know, personally, you can see sort of behind-the-scenes distillery stuff from me. You might also get some, you know, terrible dad jokes and whatever else comes with that.
ButDistill Vermont distill_vermont.
[00:45:54] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Oh, cool. Cool. Check it out and follow. Well, Ryan, thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:46:00] Bianca Harmon: Thanks, Ryan.
[00:46:00] Ryan Christiansen: Thanks for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.
[00:46:03] Drew Thomas Hendricks: Talk to you later. Bye-bye.
[00:46:05] Ryan Christiansen: All right, cheers.