By Telly Halkias
Vermont may not have been one of the original 13 colonies, but the legendary Green Mountain Boys militia played its part in the march to independence. Along the way, their taverns overflowed with the revolutionary spirit, and their private stills stayed busy.
Today, a similar revolutionary spirit is blossoming in Bennington, just a few miles away from the site of the eponymous 1777 battle, in the area’s lone distillery, Spirits of Old Bennington.
The fledgling but steadily evolving business, operating out of leased space in the old Vermont Tissue Company plant, is nestled appropriately next to the Paper Mill Village Covered Bridge on Route 67A, hugging the banks of the Walloomsac River. It’s the brainchild of former General Electric engineer and project manager Ken Lorenz, from nearby Hoosick, N.Y.
Always wanting to run his own business, a trip to Scotland sparked the distilling flame in Lorenz. Having previously weighed the options of opening a bar, Lorenz was looking for ways to mix his longtime desires to run his own business with his affinity for spirits.
Lorenz found a few others who were toying with small stills and learned from them. He started out visiting small distilleries during his travels, talking to other owners.
“All of them were doing OK, and some better than others, but all liked the industry,” Lorenz recalled. “So the positive comments pushed me forward.”
Having previously pitched the idea of a distillery to friends and relatives, Lorenz and his wife, Alexis, took a leap of faith and sought to do something different with their family’s life. Turning passion and inspiration into reality, they founded Spirits of Old Bennington, formally incorporating the business in 2014, while moving into their current facility in 2015 after first working out of a nearby business incubator space.
“Except for the crazy idea of starting from scratch,” Lorenz said. “I did start with a small 8-gallon still, and that first fall we made apple brandy from friends’ apple trees and a few runs of corn whiskey. I had brewed beer in the past, but really took to the art of distilling.”
Surprises and partners
As the business progressed with long days and early milestones met, Spirits of Old Bennington got its early products into the local and regional markets in both Vermont and New York.
“The biggest surprise so far is that starting a production business is really hard,” Lorenz said. “On top of just the effort to put in the equipment and make product at scale, building a brand is a major challenge. I’ve been sponsoring events and attending festivals. It’s a major time investment. The big brands have the power to reach more people and craft liquor is still relatively new. I’m hoping that we can, as an industry, change the minds of more people.”
As the distillery began to show early signs of success, Lorenz was burning midnight oil as a one-man operation, but realized that he had reached a tipping point. To grow the business, he needed help.
In the summer of 2017, Lorenz reached out to Southern Vermont College for more intern support. (The college had supplied support previously in the form of a small business plan in 2013.)
That’s when business professors Jeb Gorham and Stacey Hills, who teach as well as work as industry practitioners, began exploring opportunities for involvement with Spirits of Old Bennington, offering years of experience and expertise in business growth, branding and marketing.
In late 2017, they forged a formal partnership with Lorenz, moving forward as co-founders. Gorham took on the role of business growth, and Hills assumed responsibility for brand marketing.
“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.
Products, plans and initiatives
Today, the trio moves forward in the original production facility, complete with tasting room open to the public, and plans for growth in production and distribution. Gorham is charged with building on the distillery’s current 400-gallon annual output, in various and creative ways.
“We would love to expand and create a social club with pool hall, darts, games, indoor bocce and shuffleboard,” Gorham said. “Of course, core product growth remains vital. We’re looking to adding canned cocktails to our line … high-quality mixed drinks such as the mojito, the Tom Collins, and even some of our own fun variations and creations.”
Indeed, the current product line at Spirits of Old Bennington has come a long way from the early days of Lorenz experimenting with his neighbors’ apples to an attractive (and growing) lineup of distilled spirits, which include various twists, flavors and subtypes.
The liquors, which Hills now markets, have catchy new labeling, as well as names harkening back to the nation’s birth, the company’s Vermont roots and the history of distilling itself: Sedition Gin, Covered Bridge Rum and Kilted Wheat Whiskey.
“One of our biggest initiatives was smoothing out the brand story and developing a singular vision of how to convey it,” Hills said. “We redesigned our signature Covered Bridge Rum and Sedition Gin labels, giving each an identifiable color scheme and imagery. It has worked especially well for our rum. Customers recognize the Paper Mill Village Covered Bridge and know that when there is a bridge on the label, our rum is inside.”
This bodes well for the future in an industry where craft-level emergence has not yet made the same inroads as microbrewing has over the past generation. Nevertheless, the partners at Spirits of Old Bennington are taking a page out of the fighting spirit of the Green Mountain Boys, perhaps even blazing a trail where other small craft distilleries can follow.
“The most important things is for the public to give us a try,” Hills said.
If you go …
1514 North Bennington Road (Route 67A),
North Bennington, Vt.
Tasting room open Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m.
Telly Halkias is a national award-winning, independent journalist. He lives and writes from his homes in southern Vermont and coastal Maine.