Nashoba Valley Single Malt Whiskey and Murphy’s Law

Five years ago, shortly after getting the first farmer-distiller’s license in Massachusetts, Rich Pelletier told his wife he was planning to tie up about $100,000 worth of inventory by putting up single malt distillate in barrels to age. If everything worked out, he figured, they just might be able to make some money someday.

But things go wrong, as Pelletier learned this month as he was just getting ready to bottle his Nashoba Single Malt — one of the few American single malts produced.

Not fatally wrong, but wrong.

A little background: apple wine has been made at this sprawling orchard thirty miles west of Boston since 1983. When Pelletier bought the 90-acre farm in the early 1990s, he continued with the wine, but wanted to see what else he could do. In particular, he figured he should be able to do something with all the apples that fell to the ground to rot — like, maybe, ferment them and make vodka. So he successfully pushed the state legislature to create a farm-distillery license, and began producing a popular apple-based vodka.

Since then, he’s continued to expand his line, producing apple, peach, and pear brandies, plus a gin and several fine liqueurs. Foggy Bog — a cranberry liqueur is his top seller, and he’s also done well with Northern Comfort, a surprisingly delicate maple liqueur. (A full list of Nashoba spirits may be found here.)

So you’ve never heard of Nashoba Valley liquor? There’s a good reason. Pelletier doesn’t sell through distributors or stores or even in Massachusetts bars. (Why sell wholesale, he figured, if he can retail it and keep the lion’s share?) So if you want to buy Nashoba products, you pretty much have to drive to Pelletier’s farm. Think of it as a local farmstand selling legal hooch. (There’s also limited mail order; see below.)

Back to the whiskey. In 2004 Pelletier started with two barrels of single malt (made from Canadian barley), aging it in old peach and wine barrels. He dipped the thief in now and again. And earlier this year he decided it was time to bottle the barrels.

As good fortune would have it, I happened to stop by in September, just two weeks before bottling was scheduled. I tasted. And I found his whiskey strikingly good, with a fruitiness that was ethereal, light and not unwelcome, just teasing the midpalate before vanishing. (The first year’s run was unpeated; future years will have a seven percent peated barley malt in the grain bill.)

Pelletier planned to bottle some 600 bottles from his freshmen effort — some 280 had already been presold when I was there. (A bottle cost $49 before September 1, and $59 after.) He put five barrels up the second year and has been expanding gradually since. He’s planning to hold back some future barrels, and eventually sell 10-year and some older expressions.

The bottles he’s using are from Italy and are quite attractive — heavy glass polygons, like rectangles that  knocked slightly askew in a bar fight. And I thought this was a nice touch: he’s sawn up the barrels in which the whiskey aged, and attached a two-inch block of stave on each cork, so you get a souvenir of whence the whiskey came.

So what went wrong? Well, when the bottles were delivered last month, they stunk. I mean, really stunk, of something foul and toxic — he had to move the pallets outside the building. They were not, in short, not something into which you wanted to decant a delicate, five-year-old whiskey.

Pelletier investigated. One clue — the trucking company that had delivered the bottles had a “Hazardous Materials” sign on it. Turned out, the previous load had been liquid sytrene. “In my 15 years of being in this business and having bottles shipped to us from all over the world,” Pelletier wrote on his website, “I have never had this experience as every trucker that I have dealt with had the intelligence to understand that bottles are akin to any food product and that they need to be handled in the same fashion in order to insure safety and quality.”

The expense of cleaning and testing the bottles was deemed prohibitive. So Pelletier ordered a whole new batch of bottles from Italy. The initial early fall bottling has been pushed back again, now into late fall. Expect a November 2009 release of the Nashoba Five-Year Single Malt. 

Nashoba Valley Winery. 100 Wattaquadock Hill Road, Bolton MA. 978.779.5521 Pelletier reports that he can ship many of his products (although not all) to 23 states that have agreements with Massachusetts. (They’re listed here.)