hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture July 2018


Bottling a revolutionary spirit

Southwest Vermont’s lone distillery stresses tradition, local history


Spirits of Old Bennington distillery Joan K. Lentini photoKen Lorenz shows off some of the products made by Spirits of Old Bennington at its distillery in the old Vermont Tissue mill building on Route 67A. The distillery is open for tastings on Fridays and Saturdays. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


One could easily argue that the push for independence by the American colonies, and the effectiveness of the Colonial armed forces against King George III’s finest, was rooted in the great New England tradition of breweries and distilleries.

In fact, no less a luminary than Gen. George Washington once insisted that spirits were an essential performance enhancer for the troops.

“The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong liquor have been experienced in all armies and are not to be disputed,” Washington famously stated as he called for the construction of multiple public distilleries throughout the colonies. (Washington himself operated a large distillery at his estate in Mount Vernon, Va.)

Ken Lorenz, founder of Spirits of Old Bennington, the only distillery in southwestern Vermont, smiles when hearing this story. Lorenz spent years planning the creation of his local distillery, and he has a firm grasp of the craft’s history -- and how it relates to the present day.

“Craft beers, home brewing, tap houses – we are almost at the near saturation point with the beer revolution,” Lorenz said. “Distilleries and creative development of spirits is the future, and we have taken a step towards that right here in Bennington. You can say we want to capture that revolutionary spirit that was once very much a part of this area’s past.”

Vermont may not have been one of the original 13 colonies, instead setting for the honor of being the 14th state. Still, the fabled Green Mountain Boys militia contributed greatly to the American march to independence, and Vermont’s stills surely helped its fighting sons make merry.
Given this, and with an eye and ear toward General Washington’s dictum, Spirits of Old Bennington is located less than a 10-minute drive from the site of the 1777 Battle of Bennington. The distillery is housed in the old Vermont Tissue Co. plant on Route 67A, right next to the Paper Mill Village Covered Bridge across the Walloomsac River.


The making of a proprietor
Lorenz is a former General Electric engineer and project manager and lives with his family just across the state line in Hoosick, N.Y. He had long dreamed of operating his own business, and a past trip to Scotland inspired him down the path of distilling spirits.

At one point, the thought of owning a bar was on Lorenz’s radar as he sought ways to mix his aspiration of being a proprietor with his attraction to the growth opportunity inherent in distilling. But from that early idea, he said, he transitioned to the goal of running his own distillery.
He talked to many people in the business who’d had varying levels of success. But even those who’d encountered difficulties “all liked the industry, so the positive comments pushed me forward,” he said.

“I studied and asked questions of those who had their own small stills, striving to pick up as many pointers as I could,” Lorenz said. “I was really interested in the operations of small-scale distilleries.”

Finally, in 2014, after several years of research and speculation, Lorenz and his wife, Alexis, established Spirits of Old Bennington. With the help of North Bennington entrepreneur William F. Scully as landlord, the distillery moved out of its original business incubator location and into the former Vermont Tissue mill in 2015.

Scully’s company, Carbon Zero LLC, has owned the property since 2009 and operates the adjacent redeveloped hydroelectric plant.

“When I first met Ken and Alexis, I knew they were the perfect fit for the historic Vermont Tissue mill and its new mission,” Scully said. “We worked out an agreement that would allow them the flexibility not just to start up but to expand.”

Lorenz said he forged ahead at first with a small, 8-gallon still, making apple brandy from apples from friends’ trees and a few runs of corn whiskey.

He recalled with a laugh that it was a “crazy idea” to start a distillery from scratch, but he quickly became immersed in it.

“I had brewed beer in the past but really took to the art of distilling,” he said.
Lorenz was quick to acknowledge that without the support of Alexis – whose day job away from the distillery “kept our family on a sound footing” – none of this would have been possible.
But even after his early days as an aspiring craft distiller, many lessons were yet to come.


Infusion of expertise
As Lorenz worked long days to achieve early benchmarks, Spirits of Old Bennington introduced products in both Vermont and New York. As these first successes arrived, so did the unforeseen.
“Startup ventures always have unexpected surprises,” Lorenz said. “The biggest surprise so far is that starting a production business is really hard. On top of just the effort to put in the equipment and make product at scale, building a brand is a major challenge.”

Because craft liquor has not yet reached the levels of popularity seen nationwide with small-scale beer brewing, promotional efforts for Spirits of Old Bennington found the nascent distiller sponsoring events and attending industry and other festivals, which Lorenz described as “a major time investment.”

He realized that something, or someone else, was required to realize his goal of growing the business to the next level, so he turned to a familiar place for assistance.

Since 2013, Lorenz had relied on interns from the business program at Southern Vermont College to help him with many of the distillery’s startup requirements, most notably the drafting of his first business plan. And last year, he went back to the college’s deep well of talent, as business professors Stacey Hills and Jeb Gorham took on roles at Spirits of Old Bennington.
The two academics, who both have experience as business practitioners, began assessing Spirits of Old Bennington as a potential partnership opportunity. In return, they offered Lorenz skills and proficiency in marketing, branding and business development.

In late 2017, after a trial run that began in the summer, the three became formal partners in the distillery, moving forward as co-founders. Hills oversaw brand marketing, and Gorham assumed responsibility for development and expansion.

“Distilling is one thing, but bringing in Jeb and Stacey was the best business decision I made, and I wish I had done it earlier,” Lorenz said.

Marketing and growth
Today, Spirits of Old Bennington boasts a tasting room open to the public at varying seasonal times, and it’s moving forward with increased production, distribution and marketing.

To that end, Spirits of Old Bennington’s product line has evolved from Lorenz’s early startup tinkering to an appealing series of spirits that include several twists, flavors and subtypes.
Under Hills’ marketing aegis, these drinks now have engaging new labels and monikers that echo local history: Kilted Wheat Whiskey, Covered Bridge Rum and Sedition Gin.

Hills said one of the group’s key initiatives was “smoothing out the brand story and developing a singular vision of how to convey it.”

“We redesigned our signature Covered Bridge Rum and Sedition Gin labels, giving each an identifiable color scheme and imagery,” Hills said. “It has worked especially well for our rum.”
Hills noted that customers recognize the covered bridge next to the distillery as a local landmark. They also know, she said, “that when there is a bridge on the label, our rum is inside.”

This sort of visual link between a product and a historical tourist attraction bodes well for the distillery, since the lack of a full-fledged national movement of craft-level distilling does not give it the same marketing advantage enjoyed by beer micro-brewing for the past 25 years.
Nevertheless, Hills said, new customers must be won over one at a time. It’s important for the public to give a try to products from Spirits of Old Bennington, she added.

“We’re now carried in restaurants and liquor stores throughout Vermont and New York,” Hills said. “We’re on the Vermont Distillery Trail and are excited to welcome guests to share a drink and a story with us.”

Gorham said every effort for business development centers on a measured but steady 400-gallon annual output. The distillery plans to expand by creating a social club with a pool hall, darts, games, indoor bocce and shuffleboard.

Product growth, Gorham added, remains central to all other efforts and can include partnering with local restaurants and other establishments and organizations to put on events that will help introduce what the three partners see as their most promising new initiatives.

“We’re looking to adding canned cocktails to our line this summer,” Gorham said. “The ready-to-drink market is on the cusp of major movement right now.”

He said the focus of this effort would be “high-quality mixed drinks such as the mojito, the Tom Collins, and even some of our own fun variations and creations.”

Gorham said the three co-founders have invested considerable “sweat equity” in the distillery. As a result, he predicted, Spirits of Old Bennington is poised to take advantage of industry growth because of diligence, planning, creativity – and willing customers.

“So far it’s been an experience,” Gorham said. “We have gotten really good feedback from folks who say, ‘Hey, we never knew you were here, but saw the sign you were open and decided to stop, and glad we did.’”

Gorham said the co-founders’ vision for the business also has helped develop “consistent buyers who have come in and supported the products.”

“Ken rightly saw a real opportunity for craft distilling to follow the path of craft brewing,” Gorham said. “We’ll be out in front of the spirits revolution when it happens, because it will happen.”

Spirits of Old Bennington is at 1514 North Bennington Road (Route 67A) in North Bennington, Vt. For more information, visit www.spiritsofoldbennington.com or call (802) 468-7662.