Hailing from northern Vermont, Caledonia was known for a long time for their local, raw honey. The beekeeping family, now led by Todd Hardie, ventured into the spirit distilling world about five years ago and now the unique vodka and gin from Caledonia Spirits is hitting Arizona. Using the honey from Hardie's farm, the spirits, and specifically the gin, have a great botanical quality lent from the flowers the bees pollinate in the area.
Hardie came to Phoenix last week to showcase his spirits at Tarbell's. Although he admitted he's used to more humble gatherings as a beekeeper from a long line of farmers, he invited me to a lavish five course meal prepared with paired cocktails to show just what his versatile spirits are capable of.
At just 12 years old, Hardie began beekeeping with his brother when he put the first hive on his family's farm. After experimenting with honey wines, mead, and even cough syrup, Hardie made the jump to distilling, producing both a vodka cold fermented and distilled completely from honey and a gin that's flavored with raw honey.
While the Barr Hill Vodka gains a nice smoothness from the honey, it has a pretty neutral flavor overall. However, the gin's flavor is definitely enhanced by honey. Honey-flavored liquor might leave a bad taste in your mouth after the huge surge of overpowering honey whiskeys on the market, but the Barr Hill Gin takes a more subtle and floral approach to its flavoring.
In fact, the gin's only botanical element is juniper, which might lead you to believe that it would be intensely juniper-forward. Instead, the honey actually imparts all of the botanical elements from the flowers the bees pollinated that season. That means the gin delicately changes with the seasons depending on the honey used.
Hardie says while most distilleries focus on consistency, his honey allows him to let the harvest shape his spirits. Maybe that's why it's won gold medals at both the 2012 New York International Spirits Competition and the 2013 Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Competition, as well as 'Gin of the Year' in Hong Kong in 2013.
While tasting through cocktails made with the gin, it did become clear that you have to use care in mixing it up. It definitely can be easily overpowered by sweet and citric elements because of the honey, but, if you keep that in mind, it can still make a pretty tasty Bee's Knees. It's also great with vinegary elements, like a shrub, if you're nervous about getting an overly sweet drink, and, like most gins, pairs nicely with herbal and bitter components as well.
Overall, Hardie is a farmer at heart, lending all of the success of his gin and vodka to his bees. He says he is most excited that agriculture is coming back and the next generation is moving back toward a simpler, more artisanal way of life and heading back to farms.
Caledonia Spirits are now available in the state for the first time through Young's Market Company. However, the gin and vodka are both exclusively available to try at Tarbell's for the time being.