Tamworth Distillery's Local Spirits
This farm-to-bottle distillery brings creative alchemy to a small town
The Village of Tamworth has a new visionary. Steven Grasse, a Don Draper-esque ad man from Pennsylvania, has come to town to distill the real thing — a spirit with integrity, a flavor born truly of its ingredients grown in the soils of the Granite State. The town fathers have given Grasse the green light, convinced his story is sound and his money is real. For Grasse, the Tamworth Distillery is truly a passion project that involved patience, persistence and the purchase of several properties on the bucolic town’s main street. It opened to the public in late May.
Grasse is the man behind the brand marketing of Sailor Jerry Rum and Hendrick’s Gin. Both spirits come with intriguing stories — stories woven simply to add personality and marketing prowess to the product. As the story goes, Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins was a hard-living tattoo artist in Honolulu during WW II. The story is true, but just attached to the product for its punch. Hendrick’s Gin is distilled in Scotland and the fanciful story is delightfully illustrated on the website. The stories are nice, but the products are better. Grasse believes a great liquor brand needs three ingredients — an interesting bottle, an interesting story and a great liquid. Hendrick’s resides on the top shelf of most respectable bars.
Grasse’s reckoning moment came when he saw birthday-cake-flavored vodkas at the liquor store. He was repelled by the cheap-shot marketing angle and even cheaper chemical mélange in the bottle. His “aha!” moment came as he thought to himself, “Why not get creative with real ingredients instead of industrial formulas. Maybe integrity is the new luxury.”
Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was Grasse’s first brand venture into artisanal spirits. That company name was a riff from the eponymous book by Walter Benjamin, who felt society lost something by mass reproduction of art. His liqueur products — Root, Rhubarb Tea, Sage and Snap are backed with historical footnotes linking the recipes to Lewis and Clark, Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Dutch lore and his own mother. More stories and more sales. The unlikely, somewhat pricey, liqueurs are a featured ingredient in cocktails in enlightened bars across the country.
Now, after twisting his ad empire with clever licensing agreements, Grasse is ready for his next great spirit adventure in the Granite State. Why here? He claims, “Well, you can’t frack in granite.” While his home state of Pennsylvania is threatened by the potential of its energy reserves, the Ossipee Aquifer is one of the purest on the East Coast. You need good water to make good spirits.
Tamworth also offers a great story line. Thoreau, one of the New England Transcendentalists in the mid-1800s, gave Grasse his wellspring. The Swift River and other stops in Tamworth are mentioned in Thoreau’s contemplative journals. As Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman railed against industrialization and the passing of agrarian life, Grasse is also championing local agriculture. He asks, “Distilling spirits is an extension of agriculture, correct?”
The tasting room will offer samples of all current spirits in addition to sale
of assorted cocktail-making merchandise and books.
The whole operation can be thought of as a DSA or Distiller Supported Agriculture when Grasse and team contract with local farmers to grow wheat and vegetables for fermenting and other flora to infuse flavors into gin and vodka. His first purchase in town was a farm, where vegetables, as possible spirit infusers and malt bases, are grown. Other ingredients come from local farmers when possible and even foragers searching the nearby woods for bark and moss. Grasse says, “The distillery will initiate a great circle: farm-to-bottle, then bottle-to-farm as spent grains are used for animal fodder, and then farm-to-table when the gastro pub focusing on local sourcing opens.” Even Walt Whitman might smile at the notion of bottling the essence of nature from a certain time and space since spirits don’t change flavors once they are bottled. Why not enjoy the leaves of grass in winter too?
The distillery is built on the site of the former Tamworth Inn, which Grasse bought several years ago. It took two years of town meetings to convince selectmen and townspeople that he was not an evil-doer — that the project, the distillery, the mission would be good for the village as a destination for eco-tourism and local employer.
The tower structure of the Tamworth Inn was salvaged for future use as a farm-to-table restaurant, while the distillery, a new structure, was designed to look like it had been there all along. Grasse intends for the distillery to be a “botanic test kitchen” for the next great spirit brand. He certainly has the chops to market a product to the world. Meanwhile, all production from the facility will only be available onsite.
Products ready to drink now include an Apiary Gin made with local honey, poplar buds and juniper; an eau de vie made with local apples; a White Mountain Vodka and, for now, a White Whiskey, as production has to age in the barrel house for a few more years before it mellows and takes on the colors of its casks. Art in the Age Garden Infusions from the last fall harvest captured the essence of sweet potatoes with clove while a roasted chicory with a touch of dandelion, cinnamon and maple syrup was developed into a Chicory Vodka. They seem to be having fun in the test kitchen.
An additional product, a 151-proof universal spirit, is a neutral base for customers to concoct their own botanical infusions. Tinctures, bitters and dried herbs will be on hand as potential ingredients.
Grasse does have a real story to tell. He summered in nearby Meredith as a boy and, when he returned to Tamworth, he marveled how it had not changed. He says, “It’s important not to ruin that.” Initially, he just wanted his children, ages 9 and 13, to enjoy summers in the country, like Dad did 40 years ago. Now he can be considered a major benefactor to the town. He also restored the general store, renaming it the Tamworth Lyceum and offering it up as a space for discussion and entertainment, in addition to wholesome grocery items and artful gifts.
The end of the story is not in sight. As Grasse says, he can afford to take it slowly. He came with a vision, but was resilient enough to let the town buffer and determine the final shape of his enterprise. He came for the pristine water, the historical lore and the natural beauty of the area, but the journey into New Hampshire heartland will put an indelible stamp on his products, be they small-batch infusions or the next great aged whiskey. Rest assured, the story on the label will sing the praises of its origin.