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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New England Farmers Turning to Vodka

FRYEBURG, Maine -- As Don Thibodeau drove across his potato field, juggling a cell phone, walkie-talkie and the steering wheel of his pickup truck, he dispelled the illusion of bucolic farm life.

His packers were behind schedule on a big order and a new sprayer wasn't working quite right. But what Thibodeau wanted to talk about was his latest venture, a vodka distillery.

Thibodeau is one of a handful of New England farmers who have turned to vodka distilling as a more profitable outlet for their crops, from potatoes to maple sap to apples.

"It's a lot more effort, but you're more apt to control your own destiny," Thibodeau said, driving across his 4,452 hectare Green Thumb Farms in the southern Maine town of Fryeburg, about 240 kilometers north of Boston.

"It's a matter of trying to squeeze everything you can out of your production," said Thibodeau, who started selling Cold River Vodka, distilled in Freeport, with three partners in November. "We have to keep looking for other avenues, other ways to make a living, other ways to extract income off of this farm."

While vodka was traditionally made from potatoes in Russia and Eastern Europe, today most vodka distilled in the United States is made from grain.

Vodka is the most popular liquor among Americans, who last year spent about $10.8 billion on it, according to data from the Distilled Spirits Council, an industry trade group. Super-premium vodkas selling for $24 or more per bottle, like Cold River, made up about $1.6 billion of that total and represented the fastest-growing segment of the market.

About 70 percent of the vodka consumed in the United States is distilled in the country, though in the high-end market brands like Cold River face primarily imported competitors, such as Grey Goose and Ketel One, as well as domestic rival Skyy.

Growing demand for high-end niche vodkas has helped attract niche farmers into the business, and almost any fruit, vegetable or grain containing sugar can be distilled into ethanol, which is at the heart of the fiery spirit.

The distillation process converts the raw material to almost pure alcohol, with water added in the final step to reduce the vodka's potency to about 40 percent. Because the liquor's main characteristic is its nothingness -- ideally it has no flavor, color or smell -- specialty vodka makers said one of their biggest challenges was explaining to people why their products did not taste like the raw materials.

That's one of the common questions posed to Duncan Holaday, who in 1999 bought a Barnet, Vermont maple tree farm and started selling maple vodka under the Vermont Spirits name in 2001.

"It doesn't taste like maple, it doesn't smell like maple, but maple fermentation has a unique quality that comes through the vodka," said Holaday. "There is a fullness, a smoothness and what some people might think of as a slight sweetness. But the first impression you get is vodka."

All the sap tapped at Holaday's 80-hectare spread is headed to his distilling operation, while Thibodeau said about 5 percent of his crop -- mostly irregular potatoes -- goes into vodka.

But whether vodka is a farm's prime thrust or a sideline, it's a way to make more money from farm produce. About seven kilograms of potatoes go into a $31.99 bottle of Cold River Vodka, two to three times what they might sell for in a grocery store.

Richard Pelletier, owner of Nashoboa Valley Spirits, which operates a fruit winery and vodka distillery in Bolton, Massachusetts, said he didn't believe he could keep his 12-hectare orchard in operation purely by selling fruit.