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Local Foods Flavor N.H. Microdistilleries

Back in the day the notion of homegrown hooch conjured images of backwoods brewers or bathtubs full of gin.

Not anymore. These days, micro-distilling--its fancier moniker--is less about the buzz and more about the artistry and science that goes into teasing spirits out of locally-sourced fruits, grains and herbs. Plus, it's legal and has been in New Hampshire since 2003.

"I've seen huge growth in the past 10 years," says Heather Hughes, managing member of Sea Hagg Distillery in North Hampton. "Legislation was loosened up on a federal level and then you know states obviously have their own rules and such as far as manufacturing. … I see growth definitely in this area."

According to the American Distilling Institute, in 2004 there were 69 craft distilleries. Today, there are more than 400 and that number is expected to grow to between 600 and 800 by the end of 2015, according to ADI.

New Hampshire has three distilleries with active licenses --Flag Hill in Lee, Sea Hagg in North Hampton and Djinn in Nashua--and two with licenses pending --Smoky Quartz in Seabrook and Tall Ship in Dover.

Also known as "boutique," distilleries, a micro-distillery is an operation that produces  alcohol in relatively small quantities.  For New Hampshire, that means distilling fewer  than 5,000 cases of liquor per year.

One of the reasons micro-distilling is taking off is that people are starting to see hard liquor differently, says Heather Houle, general manager of Flag Hill.

"I think things like winemaking and brewing and distilling, those things were also so attributed to being, 'oh you're doing that?' you're a little clandestine, a little sinful," Houle says. "But finally we are coming to a realization that you can enjoy these hobbies; they can be fun, they can be creative and you learn about different aspects of chemistry and things like that and they are not so shunned anymore."

Another reason for this boozy boom is the push for local products. And as much as possible, distillers in the state are looking to fit that bill.

Houle says at Flagg Hill they were originally going to make their vodka from potatoes as it's traditionally made. But New Hampshire has an abundance of apples, which quickly made them a much cheaper option. Now the company uses apples not only for its vodka, but its gin.

"I think to start right off that gives it a little bit of a twist: a little lighter, nice flavor to it, than your traditional grains, which are usually used for gin," Houle says.

Flag Hill also uses local maple syrup, blueberries from New Hampshire and Maine and cranberries from Massachusetts to flavor its elixirs.

At Sea Hagg, though it gets the molasses for its rum from a co-op of growers in Louisiana, many of its spirits are flavored and made with local and regional seasonal fruits, such as the apples for its brandy.

To do this, the apples are fermented and then distilled. That product is then either put into glass containers and becomes  eau de vie or into a barrel to become brandy. By law, brandy has to be aged at least two years before it's sold and Hughes says they are hoping to have one ready later this winter.  But eau de vie--which is a clear brandy-- can be sold pretty much right away.

"An Eau de vie is a fresh spirit, that sits only in glass,"  Houle says."So it doesn't change color. It's a very dry, usually higher proof spirit. Our apple eau de vie is about 98 proof. It captures the flavor of the apples, but it doesn't have the sweetness. "

That said, barrel aging is big right now, Houle says .

Flagg Hill is currently barrel aging some whiskey in the hopes of having the  state's first bourbon next year.

In the meantime, the company is getting some traction with its moonshine, also known as white whiskey.

Moonshine is the precursor to bourbon, or the clear alcohol that if aged in an oak barrel would eventually become bourbon. Houle says the moonshine they make comes from the liquor that doesn't fit in the barrels.

Though it's still illegal to make your own liquor, there is a way to get a little creative at home. According to the Sea Hagg web site, folks can buy barrels through their distillery, spirit included.  However, once the  purchaser receives the barrel and all the bottles produced from it, as long as it's for private consumption the contents can poured back into barrel to further age and dispense.

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