On the way to the coast of Maine last summer I stopped in Freeport. Everybody does. It's the state's No. 1 tourist attraction, home of L.L. Bean, the outdoors gear and apparel empire that grew from a pair of gum rubber hunting boots created in 1912 by Leon Leonwood Bean. Old man Bean once said, "Outdoors recreation has added years to my life." He died in 1967 at age 94.
Just down Main Street (a.k.a. U.S. Route 1) some other geniuses at Maine Distilleries are working on a different cure for what ails you: Cold River Vodka, 80-proof, made from mighty Maine potatoes (not grain, like most vodka) and the same aquifer tapped by Poland Springs Water. Though Cold River is less than 10 years old and produces only about 5,000 cases a year, its vodka has won awards, commendations from connoisseurs and a small but loyal following in the 26 states (plus western Canada and London) where it is sold. It has not yet found its way to California.
The Maine distillery, a small clapboard building by the highway, offers free tours and tastings. It has just four rooms full of shiny stainless steel vats, copper pots, beakers, thermometers, hoses and mounds of potatoes (15 pounds per bottle of vodka). The taters are from Green Thumb Farms, owned by one of the partners, Donnie Thibodeau, who almost went out of business in the anti-carb heyday of the Atkins Diet. But then he found something else to do with his spuds.
Production starts with making the mash, a sort of thick potato soup that is left to ferment and then boiled or distilled, yielding highly concentrated alcohol or ethanol as a byproduct. The distillation process at Cold River is done in small, carefully-monitored quantities, resulting in an impeccably clean, impurity-free alcohol that is cut with water, then flavored with spices for gin or fruit for blueberry vodka.
Of course, nothing is added to the distillery's signature, unflavored vodka. Upstairs in the tasting room I found that it pours like liquid glass and tastes way too precious for mixing. Given the choice between a Cold River Vodka martini and pair of gum rubber boots in a duck blind, I'd take…well, just guess.
Freeport Visitor Information, (800) 865-1212, http://www.freeportusa.com.
L.L. Bean, (800) 441-5713, http://www.llbean.com.
Maine Distilleries, (207) 865-4828, http://www.coldrivervodka.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times