TMI: Louis Chatey, of Westford Hill Distillers

Distilling and Brewing IndustryBeverage IndustryConsumer Goods IndustriesArts and CultureArtJules VerneSt. George

Louis Chatey
age: 56
occupation: co-owner, Westford Hill Distillers
found at: Westford Hill (Ashford)

You converted your family's farm into a distillery that produces award-winning eau de vie, a distilled brandy made with fruit. What prompted you to do so and how did you manage to accomplish such a feat?

After college I came back to Connecticut and set about tackling the property which hadn't been actually farmed since the 1920s or the house lived in since the 1950s, clearing the overgrown fields and restoring the 18th-century Cape. In retrospect, a task a bit like learning to play the violin, best done when you are young before you realize how hard it is. I was drawn to the place for the obvious family connection and passion for early architecture. In the early 1980s, farm wineries were just starting to emerge in Connecticut, so I planted about five acres of vinifera and French hybrid varieties as a means to putting at least a small portion of the property back into active agriculture. This led to a new passion turned career in wine, but not here on the farm. Through luck and timing I found myself propelled into the wine business, ultimately working on a high level in the California wine industry, traveling aggressively both nationally and internationally. Needless to say, my vineyard fell victim to neglect. As the saying goes, the best fertilizer for a grapevine is the farmer's shadow. It was on a trip to Alsace in meeting with winemaker Andre Blanck that my wife Margaret and I were introduced to eau de vie. Andre brought us into his house and instead of serving us his prized Riesling, he first poured us a glass of his wonderful framboise. The light went off for both of us, realizing all the abundant fruits available to us in the Northeast and their potential in distillation.

What don't they teach about being a distillery owner that you had to learn for yourself?

Well in 1997 when we started there really was no "they." Artisan distilling was in its infancy, with only four of us producing in the U.S. and Westford Hill the only one east of the Rockies. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms — with whom we had to permit — didn't really know what to make of these small upstarts, being accustomed to regulating just the large factory distillers. Now there are over 250 of us and [we're] rapidly growing. No schematics existed on how to build a distillery, so I built a winery, as winemaking is the first step in eau de vie production, and saved a spot in the corner to put the still. There was only one text on distillation, written in German and not translated. Our mentor was Jorg Rupf of St. George Spirits, who started the artisan movement. He helped us acquire our Bavarian-made still and came out and worked with us for several days teaching us the intricacies of the Jules Verne-looking contraption. So we flew by the seat of our pants and learned as we went, with the exception that my wife came from a career in marketing and my background in the business of wine and spirits.

What influences your decisions about what sort of products to create? How much of what you do is trial and error?

We approach distilling with winemaking sensibilities so it is all about quality and character of the fruit or grains available. We have been buying from the same growers for 14 years and will reject fruit that is delivered substandard. Our fruits are then each hand-sorted before going into fermentation. In developing our Rime Organic Vodka we experimented with many different grains. Ultimately we found this source of organic corn that really distinguished itself from the rest, resulting in a unique vodka for the market. We also custom produce for other people such as a line of Asian Pear distillates for the company Subarashii Kudamono and a line of Italian cordials for a new Connecticut company, PEEL. We get many requests to do custom distillation but only partner with those that have what we feel is an outstanding recipe and a sound business plan. In addition, we produce rum and whiskey that are marketed by other artisan distillers. Our newest project is a vermouth in development with a winery in the region. This is in response to bartenders in the Boston area resorting to making their own vermouths in lieu of current commercial offerings. It's good to see bartenders stepping up their quality and creativity to be on par with what is coming out of the restaurant kitchen. With regard to the error part of the above question, I remember in 1997 buying 600 pounds of fresh raspberries for our first framboise experiment. After distillation we yielded about a mayonnaise jar-full and Margaret and I looked at each other thinking, well if we can convince just two people to pay about a thousand dollars a bottle we could break even on this.

What is the riskiest thing you've ever done?

Raising two boys, which by comparison makes extreme sports look like shuffleboard at the senior center in Boca.

When was the time you were most scared?

During my children's births. Being completely helpless as to the outcome and praying everyone is healthy.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Making dinner in the evening and having my family around the table. I get to do it a lot now.

What is your biggest regret?

That's still a work in progress, but I have a lot of irons in the fire.

If you weren't a distillery owner, what would you be doing?

To be an architect, doing residential designs with a Wrightian demeanor toward my clients, that would be great fun. Perhaps music, as my degree is in music composition and if I retire I just might put my degree in motion.

What's your favorite thing to do on a summer day?

On a perfect summer day that would be sitting on my tractor mowing the fields on the farm, surrounded by nature and the smell of fresh hay. It's very meditative. In fact, it was on one of those days that I got my greatest birthday present. My son, who was very young — about 4 or 5 at the time — used to keep a journal that he kept in an old Ford Model A truck in the barn. While out mowing I noticed him sitting on the stone wall fence looking at the scene in front of him, journal out, writing and drawing, taking it all in. At that point I had the wonderful feeling that he gets it and that the next generation has an appreciation for this wonderful life.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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