How Barr Hill Distillery is trying to make the world a better place

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When Barr Hill head distiller Ryan Christiansen met beekeeper Todd Hardie back in 2011, Todd was making wines from fruit and honey, and Ryan was a fermentation enthusiast who owned a nearby homebrew store. They decided to work together to experiment using raw honey in distillation. Since honey is heavy and sticky, it can be a challenge to distill with, but the pair felt that the botanical complexity, depth, and balance that honey can lend to craft spirits would make the endeavor well worth it and to proving their point, today Barr Hill is an eco-friendly distillery that produces spirits using raw honey in Montpelier, Vermont.

Protecting the Bees

Vermont beekeeping photo credit Joey Jones

Naturally, since bees are responsible for creating an important raw material for the distillery, the Barr Hill team is passionate about protecting them. For several years, they have been celebrating Bee’s Knees Week: an initiative focused on saving bees and highlighting the cocktail by the same name. “During the week, thousands of bars and restaurants around the country offer a Bee’s Knees,” explains Sam Nelis, Barr Hill’s Landcrafted Educator. “People are encouraged to enjoy a Bee’s Knees cocktail at their favorite bars or restaurants, or they can make one at home, and share a photo of it on social media with the hashtag #beeskneesweek and tagging us at @barrhillgin.” Then, Barr Hill partners with one of several non-profit organizations located throughout the U.S. to plant 10 square feet of pollinator habitat, for each image posted. In the last three years alone, Barr Hill has created over half a million square feet of new pollinator habitat.

The planting is a multi-step process that takes a couple years. “First they have to till and prep the soil, then cover crop it for the first season,” Sam explains. It can take between two and three years to see the full benefits, but in the habitats that have had time to mature, the team has seen upwards of a 10x increase in pollinator activities. “Not just bees, but all native pollinators which are essential to biodiversity and ecological health.”

Crafting award winning spirits

Barr Hill currently produces three spirits – Barr Hill Gin, Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat Gin, and Barr Hill Vodka. The vodka, which won a gold medal in this year’s New York International Spirits Competition, is distilled entirely from honey, and it takes about four pounds to make every bottle. It is distilled just twice and undergoes minimal filtration. The gins are finished with a touch of raw honey. “Leaving the honey raw before bottling captures the full flavor of the countless botanicals foraged by the bees along their pollination journey,” Sam says. “It adds a full-bodied mouthfeel and provides a beautiful balance and harmony to the dry, resinous juniper which turns some people away from gin.” Still, the juniper is bold enough to please those who prefer the London-dry styles.

Built on sustainability

Mixing a cocktail photo credit Joey Jones

In 2019, the Barr Hill team moved into a new home. “Designing and building our new distillery from the ground up allowed us to implement sustainability into every facet of our operation,” Sam says. They installed solar panels and use a thermal banking system to repurpose hot water from the distillation process. Plus, distillery waste is transformed into a biofuel that can generate yet more energy. “Raw waste from the distillery and bar are composted at a local farm and we send spent stillage to a nearby biodigester which converts it into renewable methane to power our town,” says Sam.

At the core of Barr Hill’s mission is to use the still as a tool to reconnect cocktail culture to agriculture. “Transparency and paying a fair price for raw ingredients for distillation from responsible farmers lifts up our hardworking landscape and helps break harmful cycles of monoculture and intense pesticide use found in the majority of raw ingredients in the spirits industry,” Sam says. “It’s not enough to try to minimize our environmental impact, we must seek to leave the landscape, the rivers and forests, better than we’ve inherited them.”

This article originally appeared on Alcohol Professor and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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