Given that the modern trend of small-batch craft distilling is still growing, Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery is something of a veteran in the young industry. Situated on a 66-acre farm in Union, Maine, the distillery opened its doors to the public in 2007 and has been producing wine, apple brandy, gin, and a host of other products (including lamb chops and woolen blankets).
But 10 years isn’t that long when you consider our country’s history of distillation, and Sweetgrass’s rural location recalls the relationship between intoxicating spirits and our agrarian past. Farmers made extra revenue selling whiskey made from their corn crop, famously rebelled against whiskey taxes, retreated to the woods to make moonshine, and so on.
While the Sweetgrass distillery is young by those standards, it is nonetheless steeped in centuries-old traditions. The farm itself dates back to 1807, and owners Keith and Constance Bodine still grow some of the fruits used in their products.
Today, we’ll focus on their flagship product – Back River gin.
The Rolling Hills of Maine
A family-run business on a farm in Maine might conjure images of a rustic, almost homespun simplicity. The gin’s minimalist bottle design would reinforce that – the relatively plain label was designed by the Bodines’ children. It almost makes the gin look like someone’s hobby as opposed to a commercial product.
But Sweetgrass is a thriving Maine business, and Back River gin has won awards from a number of international judging bodies. Further, owner Keith Bodine is no mere farmer; he has a master’s degree in food science enology from UC Davis and is a sought-after expert in sensory analysis.
Back River Gin
Back River is an American-style gin made with an unusual, Maine-inspired touch – blueberries. Not that it’s a flavored gin, mind you; the blueberries primarily add a little tartness and mild bitterness. Some people can taste the blueberry flavor, others don’t notice it.
I can’t say that I’m able to pick it out, but I can definitely detect a certain fruitiness in both the aroma and the taste. In the glass, there’s a slight oiliness or thickness to the body, indicative of big flavors. On the nose, the gin is juniper-forward but not juniper-heavy. It smells like a traditional but mild London dry gin, with some floral and fruity notes.
It’s also one of the most sip-worthy gins I’ve ever tried. The flavor is crisp and balanced, with notes of angelica, coriander, ginger, and a little lemon. There’s an herbal dryness in the aftertaste.
Back River gin shines in a Gin Gin Mule. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve encountered a better marriage of gin and ginger beer than I did with this particular combination. The soft, balanced botanical blend of the gin, with its subtle fruitiness, complemented the strong spices in the ginger beer. Mint added one more cool botanical note, making this a refreshing drink on a summer night.
Recipe (adapted from the drink’s originator, Audrey Saunders):
- ¾ ounce lime juice
- 1 ounce simple syrup
- 8 to 10 mint leaves, chopped,
- 2 ounces ginger beer
- 1½ ounces gin
Muddle the juice, syrup, and mint leaves in a shaker. Add ginger beer and gin. Shake well. Pour into a highball glass with ice. Top with ginger beer and mint sprig.
The gin also excelled in a Bee’s Knees. Combined with honey and lemon, the gin made for a bright, vibrant cocktail. I threw in a few dashes of lavender bitters to boost the botanical notes, and made a little blueberry/lemon garnish to echo the gin’s blueberry component (plus, if you squint, it sort of looks like a bumblebee).
- 2 ounces Back River gin
- ¾ ounce lemon juice
- ¾ ounce honey syrup
- A few drops of lavender bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into a coupe glass. Traditional garnishes are a cherry or lemon twist, but blueberries are a nice touch in this instance.
This is an excellent gin. It’s deceptive; at first, I thought it was good but not spectacular. But as I spent more time with it and tried it out in a few drinks, its special qualities revealed themselves.
Back River is smoother and less aggressive than a typical London dry gin, but it’s got enough juniper in the botanical blend that it contributes a proper herbal bite to any traditional gin drink.
The gin is highly versatile, and it’s worked well in every cocktail I’ve tried. It plays well with spicy mixers like ginger beer, but I’m sure it would excel in a truly gin-forward drink like a martini. I look forward to getting better acquainted with it.
Note: I received a complimentary sample of Back River gin with the understanding that I would use it in a product review. No one from, or associated with, Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery influenced this content.
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