The Land of Gin and Whiskey Transcript

Apr 10, 2018

Adam Krakowski: I see a lot of people that when they visit Vermont, the first thing they want to do is buy a bunch of Vermont beer or find what could be their first four pack of Heady Topper.

Bill Mares: It’s kind of beer hiking, is what it is. People go on these beer tours. They come up and they take the tour around Vermont. They used to hike the Long Trail. Now they just get in their car and they drive to Greensboro and stand in line, and then go home with these stories about the beer.

Among its many myths and images, Vermont is now considered a place to get excellent alcohol. Visitors ski, camp, take photos of leaves…and hunt for our handmade hooch.

Artisanal alcohol has a long tradition in the Green Mountains. Take the liquor Italian immigrants made in Barre.

Marjorie Strong: They would have truckloads of grapes coming in and they did their own local, homegrown, especially grappa. Grappa’s not something you can get easily. You have to kind of do it yourself.

Today’s visitors may not know that Vermont used to be one of the driest states in the nation. Prohibition lasted longer in our state than most other parts of the country. For nearly 100 years, we had no commercial brewery. But experts say that dry spell may be one of the factors that led to our booming alcohol culture today.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Humanities Council. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Today we’re examining a copper cylinder that’s on display at the Vermont History Center in Barre.

Marjorie: It’s sort of barrel-shaped, with a small – I’m not a distiller, so I’m not quite sure what you’d call that – a tube coming out that clearly links to the distilling process. What we have is really the largest part of it that survived.

This is Marjorie Strong, the assistant librarian at the Historical Society. Marjorie told us this piece of a still came from the Bianchi  family home in Barre.

They used it to make their own grappa. That was very exciting to us because we’d never seen an artifact. We knew it happened, but we’d never seen it. You know, often they were destroyed when the place was raided. They would destroy the still. Clearly the Bianchi family were not raided.

We were surprised – I mean, the bottles survived. I can’t remember if some of them were full, even. Not that we tried them, because I think they date from the ‘30s. But this was something you would have found in Barre homes in the Italian north end.

Grappa was an important drink for the Italian community in Barre. But long before immigrants brought over their family recipes from Europe, early Vermonters would gather in taverns to guzzle beer and cider.

Krakowski: Look at our Constitution . It was signed at the tavern in Windsor.

Adam Krakowski has written books about Vermont beer, and the history of prohibition in the state.

Krakowski: I mean, these were your cornerstones of the community where you were getting food, you were getting beer. Don’t drink the water at that time period, so you have cider and beer being consumed all day.

Vermont in the early 1800s wasn’t a pristine wilderness. It was muddy, dusty, and had lots of manure. Drinking from the streams and springs gave you “Beaver fever,” what we now know as giardia.

Krakowski: Because again, we’re before pasteurization, Louis Pasteur and microbiology theory. And so you don’t know what’s causing things to happen and it’s more of that oral history of, “Don’t drink the water. It’s going to get you sick.”

Brewing beer or cider from that water made it safe. Because of this, Adam says that the average Vermonter at the time had around seven alcoholic drinks a day. Not just grown men: this included women and children.

Even though those drinks were watered-down, that’s a lot of alcohol. And then came the hard stuff.

Krakowski: By 1810 we have a massive boom of distillation happening in Vermont. Predominantly it is cider brandy, it is potato whiskey which is closer to the Irish whiskey known as Poitin, horrid, raw stuff. But you also have your grains being used to make base for gin and for whiskeys themselves.

Krakowski: Production is up, consumption is way up. In Peacham it says that this distillery went up in flames, but don’t worry. There’s 20 other distilleries in the same town. If this is not the land of milk and honey, this is surely the land of gin and whiskey.

This imbibing had serious effects on families and relationships. And since many Vermonters were subsistence farmers, days lost to drunkenness could spell the difference between a family’s survival or starvation.

It didn’t take long for the backlash to form. Pastors began railing from the pulpit about the evils of alcoholism, and a new movement was afoot.

Krakowski: They’re always addressing the social issues of the time, so if they’re lecturing and sermons about drunkenness, drunkenness is happening. And to back it up, you’re starting to see in 1820s the form of temperance, temperance groups starting to emerge.

Krakowski: By the 1830s it’s a fever pitch. I mean, every paper is talking about temperance and there’s a noticeable drop in distillery operations.

The temperance movement pushed for the statewide prohibition of alcohol. Inspired by laws that passed in Maine – the first anti-alcohol laws in the union – the Vermont legislature finally banned alcohol sales and production in 1853.

But there were a few caveats.

Krakowski: It doesn’t outlaw fruit of the vine for the Lord, meaning religious wines. And it has nothing to do with cider…Cider, they’re basically saying, “Well, if you happen to press it and it happens to ferment and you happen to drink it, just don’t sell it. But you still have cider happening. In one record I found, it recommended 40 barrels of cider to be put down for a family for a long Vermont winter. So it’s a huge part of the culture. Generally speaking, a barrel is 33 gallons.

It’s fair to say that none of us have 1300 gallons of cider in the basement to help us survive the winter. But hard cider still has a toehold in the state’s culture.

Davis: So, I think the first time that I tried cider that I was really excited about was Basque. The Basque cider was not sweet at all. No sugar, and it was kind of peppery and citrus. It didn’t taste like any apple that I knew of. It tasted like grapefruit rind and pepper, you know? So you’re like, “Whoa, that’s cool.”

This is Colin Davis. Colin and his friend David Dolginow  run Shacksbury Cider, a modern cider company based in Vergennes that specializes in rare and unusual apple varieties.

Colin told us about an eye-opening tasting where he and David invited three friends to bring in their best homemade batches.

Davis: One of them in particular, his family had been in Vermont for a very long time and … And has sort of passed down this knowledge through the generations and anyway, all three of these ciders were really fantastic, in our opinion, among the best that we had tried. And they all had in common, that some or all of it was wild apples. It was fermented with wild yeast, or spontaneously fermented, and aged for some period of time.

That evening gave Colin and David the idea for Shacksbury’s Lost Apple project. In addition to their regular lines of hard cider, they now make special vintages out of apples they find on wild trees around the state. Sometimes people tip them off about promising trees, but most often they find these apples by simply driving around.

Davis: Especially up in the mountains. You just see them all over the place, so you stop the car and get out and taste them. The vast majority of them are unremarkable, or at least aren’t remarkable enough. Thirty percent, maybe forty percent, we just don’t even pick.

Davis: If we find a tree that we want to pick, we try to find the owner, sometimes we can’t…In my experience, there’s only ever been one person who didn’t want us to pick. Usually they just say, “Why would you want these apples anyway? We usually just feed them to the deer.” But it’s a cool way to engage people and kind of just move around the state and get to know the place you live a little bit better.

Part of a cidermaker’s art is blending different apples to make a compelling whole. But Colin looks for apples that are unique, that can stand alone as a perfect taste representation of Vermont’s soil during a particular growing season: its terroir, to borrow a wine term.

The lost apples offer other connections to Vermont: first, the cider, fermented with wild yeast, is probably similar to the cider drunk by Vermonters generations ago, before, during, and after statewide prohibition. And the search itself constantly brings up questions about the past.

Davis: You stumble across an old cellar hole, or Robert Frost’s cabin. A bunch of apple trees up there. And you think those are there because someone put them there.

Old cellar holes around Robert Frost’s cabin: that fits nicely with the popular image of Vermont. But the story of prohibition is more complicated – and perhaps sadder – in Barre.

Marjorie Strong: It was industrial and an industrial town’s a rarity in Vermont. There are just not that many.

This is Marjorie Strong, who we heard from earlier. Marjorie told us that while the Industrial Revolution bypassed many areas of Vermont, it arrived in Barre, Rutland, Springfield, and several other Vermont cities in full force.

Marjorie Strong: But I think Barre was more dramatic in some of its, what happened to it, which is in a massive influx of immigrants that happened in a really short period of time. Over twenty years, it grew from 2,000 to 10,000.

Marjorie Strong: Railroads came in 1875 and they began opening up the granite quarries. 1880 is really one of the big start dates for the industry. It’s when the Scottish began arriving and then by 1890s, the Italian population is growing. By 1910 say, you’ve got a population that’s one third Scottish, one third Italian, and then everybody else.

These Scots and Italians brought skills as quarrymen and stone carvers from the old country. They also brought attitudes about alcohol that set them apart from their Yankee neighbors.

By the turn of the 20th century, Vermont had been officially “dry” for 50 years. But the debate about prohibition continued. Towns and cities were starved for revenue. And the fledgling tourism industry was taking a hit. Who wants to vacation where you can’t have a drink to unwind?

Here’s Adam Krakowski.

Adam Krakowski: And the idea was that we have so many towns struggling, so many municipalities struggling. Look all around us at how much more developed the states around us are. We need the revenues again. We need to fix our roads and schools, hurrah, you know, the same old political speech.

In 1902, the Vermont Legislature voted to replace statewide prohibition with what it called “the local option.” Towns of over 1,000 voters could choose to end prohibition in their area. But first they’d have to buy a license, for around $1200 a year for each saloon.

Back in Barre, this didn’t do much to change the drinking culture.

Marjorie Strong: There are oral histories about the Italian women bringing bottles of wine to the men working in the sheds and the Scottish women would bring the whiskey for the lunch break…Drinking was a social activity and they were used to that as a social activity, and I think the idea that even by 1902 you licensed alcohol, it was very strange to them.

Enforcers came down hard on Barre’s Italian population. Police organized frequent raids in a couple places. One was picnics:

Marjorie Strong: People from the same area of Italy would get together and they’d drink or they’d have picnics, which actually were raided. There are articles about the police descended on this Italian picnic and words were exchanged, guns were pulled. It was pretty wild some of it.

The other was boarding houses.

Some of these raids were massive. They’d have 20 or 30 officers descending on Granite Street, which was an Italian neighborhood, and raiding houses.

Barre was home to dozens  of boarding houses run by Italian women. Marjorie said there’s a specific reason for this: Because of Barre’s climate, the granite carving workshops were closed tight during the winters, unlike in Italy, where the sides were kept open.

So Vermont granite carvers inhaled more dust, which shortened their lifespan to about 50 years. This left Barre with a surplus of immigrant widows, who only had a few ways to support themselves.

Marjorie Strong: There were, I think, three options. One of them was factory work, which was not an option in Barre. The other one was go do domestic service, which is to be a servant to somebody else, which works fine if you don’t have kids.

A third option was to rent rooms in your own home. Running a boarding house could pay decent money — especially if you also served alcohol without a license.

This did not escape the attention of local authorities.

Marjorie Strong: not only did they have raids, but there actually was a newspaper article about a deputy sheriff who was extorting bribes from these women to not raid them.

Marjorie Strong: These women with children going off to jail for five months at a time. I mean, I’m not sure what it accomplished. The conditions were still there. They, on the whole, all returned and did the same thing because there really was no other way. There was no escape. This was it.

Perhaps the most famous person to document the plight of Barre’s widows was the turn-of-the-century anarchist Emma Goldman.

Marjorie Strong: Emma Goldman was one of the premier women anarchists of our time. She was quite renowned as a fiery speaker. She associated with many people who the government felt were dubious and violent.

Goldman came to Vermont on at least three occasions. And she found a welcome audience in Barre: The city had one of the largest socialist populations in the country at the time.

Emma Goldman clearly lived a full life, and she drew plenty of attention whenever she showed up in Vermont. But she wasn’t too busy to notice the effects of prohibition in the Granite City.

Marjorie Strong: If you look at her autobiography, she has a whole three paragraphs on her visit to Barre and what she saw there, which was that a large group of the Italian women, especially the widows, were forced to sell alcohol and that the people buying the alcohol from them were often the politicians and leaders that they would turn a blind eye. She felt that there was a lot of hypocrisy and corruption.

Goldman visited during the “local option” era. But that hypocrisy and corruption only worsened during federal prohibition, which began in 1919. Since Vermont shares a border with Canada, organized crime rings used the state to funnel Canadian whiskey to big U.S. cities. It’s been said that whiskey was hidden in Barre’s granite sheds, and maybe even in hollow monuments in the city’s cemeteries.

In any case, Federal Prohibition was repealed in 1933. And the circumstances of Barre’s Italian widows did improve soon after, in 1938. But not because of repeal.

Marjorie Strong: I think the biggest thing was the OSHA laws, the laws for dust collection…It just changed the health picture completely. I mean, the reason the women were being forced into boarding houses, you know, running boarding houses and selling alcohol was that they were widows. That their husbands died between 40 and 50 while the kids are still under age and economically they were totally at the mercy of a system that really didn’t support them.

What happened in Barre shows just one of the many consequences of federal prohibition. Another was the shuttering of many breweries across the nation.

Remember, statewide prohibition in Vermont began nearly 65 years before federal prohibition. Breweries that existed in the 1850s were all gone by the time of federal repeal in 1933.

Before Catamount Brewing Company launched in 1984, Vermont went nearly 100 years without a brewery. Adam Krakowski said that long fallow period led to a more home-grown approach to beermaking.

Krakowski: In the areas that you have the rich brewing traditions — Pennsylvania — there were still breweries. If they did shut down, they were shut down for a roughly 13-year, 14-year window. You don’t really have too much of a loss of knowledge on that stretch.

Prohibition in Vermont wiped out any knowledge about brewing that might have been passed down. But it also left new brewers with a clean slate.

Krakowski:  Part of it, I think, is also the Back to the Land movement from the 1970s, where you have people that are moving into Vermont from different areas of the country, and they’re bringing with it their tastes or their likings. We kind of emerged with our own style.

Bill Mares: Well, we moved to Vermont in, ’70, ’71. We lived out in the country in St. Johnsbury. We tried to do various back to the land stuff. Sheep, and chickens, and bees.

Bill Mares is the co-founder of the House of Fermentology, a brewery in Burlington. Like many Vermont brewers, he started out making beer at home.

Mares: It had been actually illegal. And people winked at the law with this … no one ever went and checked around. And then they passed the law said that you could make up to 200 gallons in your homestead, wherever it was.

In 1977, the federal government changed the law to allow homebrewing. This laid the groundwork for a major change in our nation’s relationship with beer. Bill described his own experience making beer in a book called..“Making Beer.”

Mares: My proof of making good beer finally, was that nobody was pouring it in the ferns. I wrote this book in ’83 that was the typical odyssey of a home brewer, who comes to believe, after probably too much of his own beer, that his beer is good enough to sell.

Bill said he thought about starting his own brewery in the 80s, but changed his mind once he realized how risky it would be. He waited until 2016 to open The House of Fermentology with fellow brewer Todd Haire.

Fortunately for Vermont, others were eager to take the lead in those early years.

Krakowski: You have that stretch where that knowledge is lost in Vermont, and you have the guys from Catamount and you have Greg Noonan at Vermont Pub and Brewery, where they literally sometimes made their own equipment, if needed, and they basically created their own brewing style, and they’re not tied to any tradition.

Greg Noonan opened the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington in 1988.

Mares: You could almost say he’s the father of the Vermont craft brewing tradition. He wrote a book called Brewing Lager Beer, which was widely praised by the professional brewing community. I got to know him because he wanted me to help him get a brew pub law passed.

By then, Bill was a state representative.

Mares: In Vermont, the law said the producer could not be a retailer. So we had to adjust, or rewrite the law to permit brew pubs, which were manufacturing beer to sell on premises.

Mares: The Pub and Brewery was the first in Vermont, and it was the third on the East Coast. And I was the guy who cut the ribbon. So if you go down there, you’ll see a picture of me right over the bar, cutting the ribbon. That was fun. I feel like I’m part of Vermont brewing history in this very small way.

Although craft beer in Vermont has gone through some distinct waves over the past 30 years, no one can deny that it’s riding a major crest at the moment. The state that was one of the first to outlaw alcohol now draws thousands of people every year to sample its beer, cider, wine, and spirits.

This may be a new, and somewhat ironic development in Vermont’s history. But it ties into a long tradition of Vermont marketing itself as a special place.

Mares: You do shake your head and say, “Well, you know, it’s really good beer. But is it that good?” I mean, there is this great mystique of Vermont beers. If Kimmich had done this in New Hampshire, would it have been as great? If he’d done it in upper New York State, or if Shaun Hill had been in Iowa … maybe so.