Within a sprawling, three-greenhouse site in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a bounty of botanicals, flowers, and vegetables are grown. Clustered on one table is angelica root, joined by sprays of sunflower stalks nearby. In another corner, green peppers spill over their pots, alongside plots of lemon verbena and lemongrass. Outside the greenhouses, in rich soil beds lining a gravel drive, even more grows: Blue Hubbard squash, lavender, licorice, and other flora. At some point, much of it will be used by Berkshire Mountain Distillers, either in cocktails at the tasting room or in one of the distillery’s three stills.
The plants are just part of the distillery’s farm-to-glass profile. Berkshire Mountain Distillers (BMD) founder and master distiller Chris Weld also uses grains grown at neighboring farms as a base for all his spirits, as well as water from a granite-based spring beneath his home property in nearby Sheffield. All told, BMD is a leader in the farm-to-glass movement, and Weld, who owns 100% of the business, values his independence.
Weld took an unusually early interest in distillation. While in middle school, he stumbled upon the details of still construction while reading the “Foxfire Series” books, which detail the traditions of Appalachian culture. “In eighth grade, I had to pick a project,” Weld recalls. “I was torn between making a volcano with baking soda and vinegar, or creating a pot still to make moonshine.” After some prodding, he convinced his mother to let him build the still, but the project ended when she realized that owning and operating a still was a federal offense.
After that, Weld’s distilling ambitions took a long hiatus. He eventually moved from his native Westchester County in New York to Northern California, where he started a family and embarked on a 21-year career as a physician’s assistant in a Bay Area emergency room. Eventually, he was ready to return east, and settled in southwestern Massachusetts in the mid-2000s.
The Weld family’s home, a farm built in the 1880s that includes both an apple orchard and the granite-based natural spring, was the perfect place for a distillery. Weld soon fell into the calling that had previously eluded him. “The distilling project is an amalgamation of many of my interests,” he says. “My father was an avid gardener and outdoorsman. I grew up with dirt under my fingernails, picking tomatoes and planting carrots. I’ve always had a love of working with my hands, particularly outdoors. A farm-to-glass operation enabled me to do just that.” An abundance of nearby apple orchards at first had Weld considering apple brandy production, but its relative lack of popularity soon shifted him into other areas.
White Spirits To Start
BMD began production in 2007, becoming the first legal distillery in the Berkshires since Prohibition. Having visited the Caribbean as a child, at first Weld was intent on producing rum. He sought out a rum consultant from Jamaica, who made visits to his home and taught him the production process. Weld decided on a barrel-aged rum, and produced a blackstrap molasses-based release called Ragged Rum. While it matured, he turned his attention to making gin and vodka.
Small-batch gin soon became BMD’s cornerstone. The distillery’s flagship, Greylock ($30 a 750-ml.), a 40% abv London Dry-style gin, launched in 2009 and was named the market’s No.-1 craft gin by the New York Times. Weld describes Greylock as an “approachable, clean gin,” made from a neutral base of locally sourced grains, and infused with macerated botanicals including juniper, coriander, angelica and orris root, orange peel, licorice, and cinnamon—many of which are cultivated on-site. Greylock has long been among BMD’s top performers, consistently posting strong sales.
Shortly after Greylock was released, BMD debuted a second gin called Ethereal ($35 a 750-ml.). Each year, the distillery creates a unique new expression of Ethereal, using different sets of botanicals picked from the distillery garden. “Growing our own botanicals means we’re able to develop different expressions and play around with the recipes,” says Weld. The latest release, which is set to debut this fall, focuses on floral notes and features bright lemongrass and ginger flavors.
Ethereal has caught the attention of key accounts like the New Hampshire Liquor Commission and the MGM Springfield casino, both of which have featured exclusive BMD gins of their own. “We have more gin expressions commercially than anyone else in the country,” Weld says. “We’ve developed a following. People have tasted a number of them and want to know when the next one will come out.”
BMD released the first barrel-aged version of Ethereal in 2014; it had spent 18 months in ex-Bourbon barrels prior to its debut. The distillery now has a considerable stock of gin aging in barrels, and plans to release an ultra-aged expression further down the road. “We keep putting more gin away, so there are barrels now pushing five years old,” Weld says. “The idea is to get up to 10-12 years old.” Currently, BMD is on its fourth release of Barreled Ethereal.
Alongside the Greylock debut in 2007 came the launch of Ice Glen vodka ($30 a 750-ml.), a charcoal-filtered expression made from a neutral grain base and water from Weld’s natural spring. While it remains in the core lineup, Weld acknowledges that the vodka space has been difficult to navigate. “It’s such a crowded market, and full of deep-pocketed brands,” he says. “And the taste differences just aren’t as dramatic as with gin or whiskey.”
While vodka and gin are where BMD got its start, whiskey now plays an increasingly important role. Weld learned how to make Bourbon at Kentucky’s Woodford Reserve Distillery, and his first offering was New England Corn whiskey, which joined the portfolio in November 2010. Made using locally grown corn, the non-age statement (NAS) whiskey has a mashbill of 90% corn and 10% barley, and is aged over oak and cherry wood. Given its slightly viscous quality, the corn whiskey is popular with mixologists. After the corn whiskey came Berkshire Bourbon, a NAS blend of 72% corn, 18% malted rye, and 10% barley. Weld notes that much of BMD’s Bourbon is now nearing five years in age. Looking ahead, he’s eager to release more mature whiskies.
As with BMD’s gin lineup, the original Bourbon has since spurred an array of extensions. In 2017, the distillery released Smoke and Peat ($60 a 750-ml.), featuring a base of BMD Bourbon finished in Islay single malt barrels for 3-8 months. “Smoke and Peat is nice for Bourbon drinkers who want to explore Scotland,” says Weld. “But it’s also great for Scotch drinkers who enjoy peat and appreciate some additional sweetness at the back end.”
BMD has also innovated with craft beer barrel finishes. In 2013 came the rollout of its Cask Finished series, a line of ten different NAS Bourbons, each finished in oak beer casks from a different brewer. Thus far, brewers in the program have included Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing Co., Montana’s Big Sky Brewing, and Georgia’s Terrapin Beer Co. The Bourbon is finished in the craft beer barrels for about six months.
Weld’s affinity for beer also inspired a line of whiskies distilled from craft beers, which launched in 2016. The first releases were Shay’s Rebellion ($120 a 750-ml.) and Two Lanterns ($90), both made from Sam Adams offerings and aged for three-plus years. Shay’s Rebellion is a distillation of Sam Adams Cinder Block rauchbier, aged for three years in barrels that once held the brewer’s Utopias beer. Two Lanterns, meanwhile, is triple-distilled Boston Lager that rests in Bourbon barrels for four years. Weld first approached Boston Beer Co.’s Jim Koch in 2012 to discuss a potential collaboration. “I went to Jim with the idea of making whiskey out of Sam Adams, and the next day a tractor trailer showed up with 15 kegs,” says Weld, adding that partnership opened the doors to other craft brewer collaborations.
The latest BMD craft beer distilling effort is the Craft Brewers Whiskey Project, which launched in fall 2019. The new collection features whiskies distilled from 15 different craft beers, including Jack’s Abby, Berkshire Brewing Co., Harpoon, Ommegang, Captain Lawrence, and Long Trail Brewing Co. Each release is aged for four years.
Weld notes that aside from being highly popular, the craft beer collaborations have proven effective at meeting the clamor for innovation. “If we don’t offer something new, people start to ask what we’re doing,” he says. “We always have to come up with something fresh; that’s what we small guys have. We can experiment with a lot of different recipes.”
In addition to the Craft Brewers Whiskey Project, last fall saw the release of BMD’s first rye whiskey, as well as the debut of a whiskey made from Berkshire Brewing Co.’s Oktoberfest offering. The latter is BMD’s oldest whiskey to date, featuring 6-10-year-old liquid within the bottle.
Community Comes First
BMD now distributes to some 19 states, but Weld says the local community always comes first. The Berkshires cover 2,100 square miles, and regional pride is deeply rooted. “It’s a tremendously supportive community, and a wonderful nursery for burgeoning businesses,” he says. “People here focus on quality and on keeping it local.” He cites groups like Berkshire Grown, which promotes the use of local products at community restaurants and stores, and says they’ve been key in raising awareness of his brands.
BMD currently produces around 5,000 cases across its entire portfolio, and growth is ongoing. The distillery has moderately expanded in recent years, adding two more buildings, a new still, and two rickhouses. Weld wants to place even greater emphasis on the distillery’s farming component and botanical program, and is focusing on fostering stronger relationships with local cocktail bars. He even invites bartenders to visit the distillery and create custom recipes using BMD’s spirits and botanicals. Eventually, the distillery will also have a farmer’s market on-site that will offer fresh fruits and vegetables that don’t make it into spirits or cocktails.
In terms of product innovation, a Berkshirian version of Green Chartreuse may come to shelves in the near future. RTD offerings like Gin & Tonic and Vodka & Tonic are also forthcoming. Those products initially were released a few years ago, but production was halted as Weld had difficulties introducing them to the market.
While craft distilleries continue to saturate the market, Weld sees opportunity from greater competition. “When I first started, there were two craft gins in all of Massachusetts,” Weld says. “Now there are 20 in Boston alone. The good news is that people are pushing boundaries, and developing great new spirits that consumers haven’t really seen before. We craft distillers are creative and willing to take risks, and it pays off in the long run.”