Dec. 5 marks the 75th anniversary of repeal day, the day the 18th amendment banning the production, transport and consumption of intoxicating beverages was repealed. Bars across the country and around the area are holding parties and events to celebrate this historic event. Why not celebrate with a cocktail made with local liquor?
Barely audible over the droning buzz of a distiller boiling a mixture of molasses and water, Chris Weld and Collin Coan sounded more like a pair of chemists trying to determine the correct temperature for a very large science experiment than the sole full-time employees of the first legal liquor distiller in Berkshire County in 75 years.
"It's coming out at 163," said Coan from atop an 8-foot mobile staircase aimed toward one of three steel columns, which make up the heart of Berkshire Mountain Distillers' production line housed on the 75-acre Soda Springs Farm on Home Road in Sheffield.
"It's totally flooded up here, how hot is it down there?" replied Weld, who was standing above Coan on the catwalk of the retrofitted barn, staring into a circular viewing window on the large column. "You want to turn it down a bit?"
The process may seem complicated, but Weld and Coan acted like seasoned bootleggers of the Prohibition era, making moonshine in a clandestine operation that resembles the set of a science-fiction movie from the 1950s.
But this booze is legal.
Inside the steel tanks, pipes, boilers and stills, flows, in various states of completion, a new batch of BMD's next offering of Ragged Mountain Rum.
"Our rum is triple distilled, which means it goes through this process three times," Weld explained. "Then the rum has to age."
The eight barrels of rum Weld and Coan were in the process of producing with this batch have to age for three days before they can be diluted with spring water and bottled. The water comes from a spring located on the 75-acre farm that Weld and his wife, Tyler, the architect who designed the conversion of the barn, bought four years ago
"Where the barn is now in the 1800s used to be a historical hotel that burned down, and they used to bring people here from the city to be purified by the waters from the spring," Weld said. "An article in the 1920s in a Pittsfield newspaper appeared saying that it could cure everything under the sun."
Weld makes no such claim, but he does believe his rum will stand up to well-known brands.
"We did a blind taste test with two commercial rums recently, and ours was much smoother than both of them," he said.
The rum, along with Ice Glen Vodka and Greylock Gin, can be found on liquor store shelves and behind bars throughout Berkshire County and beyond. They are the first line of what Weld hopes to be a wide variety of liquors BMD produces.
'Everything I love'
Weld had a chemistry set when he was younger, he said, but the beakers, thermometers and retorts found in his barn now are much more sophisticated.
When Weld was in eighth grade, he had the idea to produce liquor. It was only when his mom found out that it was illegal to distill at home that his dream was put on the back burner. Instead, he took his passion for science, in particular biochemistry, into the medical field and worked for 17 years in various roles, 14 years of which were spent in the emergency rooms of New York, California and elsewhere.
But the desire to distill kept creeping back, and he knew he would not be satisfied until he started his own business. When he and his wife returned to the East Coast, the time was right.
"Operating Berkshire Mountain Distillers is an amalgamation of everything I love," Weld said from the quiet of his kitchen, just a few steps from the loud barn. "I love the agricultural aspect, but also the biochemistry, marketing, and I get to work with my hands.
"Best of all, it's completely in line with the Berkshires thing," he added. "What we have is a local cache, and most of who we work with are local people. Our products are local, but it's not moonshine."
While parts of the production line were purchased in Kentucky, BMD acquired the rest of the machinery locally. It also contracted with Studio Two Gallery in Lenox to design the logo and labels, which feature a stylized image of the refurbished barn.
BMD gets most of its grain and corn from local farmers. For the eau de vie, they use apples from the orchard located on the property, in order to keep it viable. And everyone from the lawyers to the electricians, plumbers, drivers and consultants BMD employs are from the area.
Weld said that, besides providing for himself and his family, he also wants to give local farmers and businesses another outlet for their products and services.
"I want to provide a line to the community," he said.
'It's just fantastic'
The community seems to be responding.
"I usually drink Grey Goose (vodka) in my martinis," said Elaine Hartwell recently from a barstool at Allium restaurant in Great Barrington. "But if Berkshire Mountain vodka is available, I will order that. I like the taste, and I like to support a local business."
Weld hopes this will catch on outside of South County.
"We have South County pretty much covered, but we are hoping to break into the North County market a little more," he said.
With the recent economic downturn, BMD has seen a slight drop in sales. Weld acknowledges that people are going out less and therefore drinking fewer cocktails. But they are still buying his products from liquor stores, he said. Soon he will be expanding, not only offering more products, but also adding a building on the farm to house aging barrels and other parts of his operation.
By next spring and summer, Weld expects to have two new whiskeys to offer and to have perfected a new line of aperitifs.
As he begins to focus more on the business side of BMD's operations, Weld knows that it's important to stay enamored with what got him into the business in the first place: the smells, tastes and science behind making liquor.
"I love what I do, and I love doing it here," he said. "In the summer, when the air is more humid, the aroma of the seven botanicals that make the gin just wafts out of the barn. It's just fantastic."
Berkshire Mountain Distillers is located at Home Road in Sheffield, on the site of an ancient spring (Soda Springs Farm) and old hotel that used to cater to New York City folks. Info: berkshiremountaindistillers. com or 413-229-0219.