A Philadelphia-based business firmly rooted in New Hampshire
How did a branding titan from Philadelphia end up in rural Tamworth, New Hampshire? The short answer is two-fold: pure water and fond memories.
Tamworth Distillery and Mercantile owner Steve Grasse has spent the better part of three decades building Quaker City Mercantile, a branding firm out of Philadelphia, PA, known for spinning stories and growing brands for names like Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry Rum. The company is a self-described “hybrid of 19th century mercantilism and 21st century brand artistry,” an edgy, profit-oriented business that, at first, seems out of sync with small-town New Hampshire ideals. But the distillery’s farm-to-bottle approach shows they’re as intent on bolstering the local economy as they are sharing its resources. And they love every minute of it.
From his previous forays into distilling, Grasse knew pure water is key to making quality spirits. Having summered nearby as a kid, he also knew the crystal-clear Ossipee aquifer is as pure as it gets. “Our grandmother was born and raised in Meredith and we came here with our mother every summer,” says the distillery’s Director of Operations (and brother), David Grasse. Building the distillery up here offered unmatched resources and the opportunity for Grasse to relive part of his childhood.
He began purchasing land in downtown Tamworth in 2010, beginning with the Lyceum, which he restored as a lively coffee shop and event space. He then purchased the historic Tamworth Inn in the spring of 2012.
“We bought the inn as a preservation move,” says David. They dismantled a portion that was unsalvageable and built the brand new Tamworth Distillery and Mercantile, a khaki-colored barn that fits in nicely with the early 19th century architecture prominent on Tamworth’s Main Street. The doors opened for visitors in May 2014.
The main entrance opens onto a large light-filled room with high ceilings and exposed beams. On display to the left is a sparkly new copper still where, in just nine short months, they’ve distilled over eighty white oak barrels of traditionally aged spirits like whiskey, bourbon and even apple brandy, using Baldwin apples from Applehurst Farm Vegetables in Epping.
But the distillers aren’t exactly twiddling their thumbs while they wait four years for the spirits to age. Instead, they’re getting creative, experimenting with infusions, alternative grains and offbeat ingredients, trying ideas out on customers to see what sticks. “We’re a test kitchen,” says David, pointing to a small room to the right of the main entrance. “Ideas are created here on a small level, distributed here and in Philadelphia, and once we all approve, they’re pushed into bigger production.”
Making the cut so far is their White Mountain Vodka (for sale at New Hampshire state liquor stores) made with a combination of corn and rye, and single grain barley vodka. Also popular is their Apiary Gin infused with juniper berry and hand-foraged poplar buds, and the limited edition art in the age flavored vodkas — all using local ingredients — including sweet potato, chicory root and beet root, which infuses vodka with beet, honey, ginger and apples. The sweet and umami Black Trumpet Blueberry Cordial sources mushrooms from neighboring New Hampshire Mushroom Company and blueberries from Downeast Maine.
“The items we consider using have to come from our greater community and ecosystem,” says distiller Matt Power, Tamworth native and knowledgeable “mad” scientist, who can be found most days manning the test kitchen’s prized possession: a rotary evaporator. This device, used mostly in chemistry and culinary applications, uses a vacuum system to pull apart the flavors and aromas of different ingredients, like elderflower and ginger, isolating their components. “We can combine them in new ways not accessible by traditional distillation and create special effects like bitters and tinctures,” says Power, who has a graduate degree in biochemistry.
Going forward, they’re exploring ingredients like native hazelnuts and walnuts, seasonal fruits, and even animal-derived flavors. They’re also working closely with the folks at UNH Cooperative Extension to create a wheat-rye grain hybrid, and to source balsam poplar buds for their Apiary Gin. “Driving back from the forest to Tamworth with a bucket full of buds and hands sticky as glue was absolutely one of the highlights of our first year,” says Power.
But the distillers don’t want to have all the fun; they’re happy to take visitors along for the ride. In the main tasting room and company store, they offer tastings, educational seminars on DIY infusing, and even kits to get you started, which include a bottle of “The Good Reverend’s Universal Spirit,” a corn-based neutral spirit that can be diluted into two bottles of vodka, or infused with some of the dozens of herbs and spices available for sale like cocoa nibs, cinnamon and pink peppercorns. They also sell miniature 1-gallon white oak casks for aging spirits like the unaged “White Whiskey.”
Asked what a Pennsylvania-native thinks of Tamworth and the distillery thus far, David Grasse says, “I love the small town feel. We’re taking a product from its raw materials and watching it grow, and we get to work with local people and farmers.” It’s a win-win.