Chad Butters is Bringing Back the Tradition of the Farmer Distiller, One Acre at a Time
Visiting distilleries all over the country, I'm inadvertently learning a lot about US history. I don't mean facts such as the date of Washing crossing the Delaware (I've crossed over the Delaware River plenty of times, and have never thought it a particularly noteworthy achievement. Making it from Exit 1 on the New Jersey Turnpike to the interchange with the Parkway, however, in under two hours should be commemorated.) I mean more of what would be called "social history," or just how plain folks lived.
For instance, it's hard to imagine from the vantage of the present, but a century ago, the majority of people made their living from farming - or otherwise relied on it for food. What most people don't know -and I only learned from speaking with folks who've studied the history of distilling- is that farmers almost always had surplus crops that would spoil unless found another use. Fermenting and then distilling grains or fruit not only created an imperishable product, but one that had considerably greater value, by weight, than what went into them.
Back then, you could find a distiller where ever there was a farm. So it is by happenstance that I now find a farm where there is a distiller. Specifically, Chad Butters of Eight Oaks Craft Distillers.
I enter the barn-like structure (clearly of new construction) and am greeted by bartender Alexis along with a chorus of guys at the far end of the bar. They are enjoying mules, they let it be known, and I give credit to Alexis and Eight Oaks for not succumbing to the copper mug gimmick. These guys get glass tumblers just like everyone else.
Alexis is really fun to talk to. She studied event planning at a local college, worked for a hotel, briefly, before finding her calling running the tasting room here. She does a hell of a job. Alexis has no problem holding her own with the rough-and-tumble, but good-natured, locals while walking me through the basics of the distillery.
Next, I meet Logan the distiller, who may be even younger than Alexis. I like his energy and immediately get the sense that he is a man who learns through trial and error. He tells me of a garage on the property he converted into a malter - all from watching Youtube videos. Strangely, it doesn't seem like any of Eight Oaks' spirits uses malted barley. They do have the basics of the spirits spectrum covered: rum, rye, bourbon, vodka, gin and -in keeping with local tradition- applejack.
Alexis pours me rum first. It is 80 proof, made from Caribbean molasses. The nose has the sweetness characteristic of rum, followed by wood and vanilla on the finish. The palate is not too sweet, finishing on a bit of anise.
Eight Oaks rye is 80 proof and comes from a 90% rye, 10% corn mash. It takes between four to six days to ferment, and goes through Eight Oaks' 170 gallon copper pot still twice. It is then aged in new oak. The sample I try has been aged one year, even though the distillery wants to age it for two. The nose has a bright chemical element, like a newly polished wood floor, ending on a floral note. The palate is a creamy and herbal spice, with a medium burn on the finish.
The bourbon is aging for eight months, so won't be released until June. I don't get to try any.
When I chat with Chad after my tasting, he is very proud that his vodka comes completely from local soft red winter wheat. There are too many distilleries that buy neutral grain spirits from elsewhere, run it through their still and some charcoal trays, and call it a day. Eight Oaks hooks up two very large columns to their pot still, to ensure the vodka is as clean as can be, before charcoal filtering twice. The result is a nose subtly of white grape and grass. The palate is also grassy with a sweet finish.
Most distilleries that make a vodka will also try their hand at gin, since it requires the extra step of getting the botanicals into the already-distilled vodka. Eight Oaks is no different, in that respect. Their gin is 84 proof, four-times distilled and is infused with lemongrass, orange peel, coriander, orris root and juniper. Due to the way different organic molecules interact with alcohol, some of the higher maintenance botanicals have to be macerated and steeped in the distillate before the final distillation, while others will infuse by simply hanging out in a basket placed in the still’s column. The alcohol vapor picks up the flavor of the botanicals by passing through the basket.
Eight Oak’s gin is described as a “New American style” because it plays up citrus notes at the expense of juniper. The nose still has a distinctive pine scent, but the palate bursts with citrus, clove spice and finishes on an intriguing black tea.
Alexis fetches Chad from the back in time for me to try the applejack. He explains how their decision to make applejack was unavoidable for a number of reasons. Chad has close relationships with the several farmers from who he obtains grain, including the one, Kevin, to whom he leases out the distillery land. These farmers have apple orchards and press the apples into juice for Chad to ferment and distill at Eight Oaks. With sources so eager and generous, and Chad being the gracious guy that he is, he could hardly say “no.” The other reason, not that he needs one, is Chad’s sense of continuity with that local history I mentioned above.
Apples have been grown in this part of Pennsylvania since it was settled by Europeans. Distilled apples were soon to follow. In keeping with tradition, Chad distills his apple jack twice through a brandy still, which is a smaller version of his copper pot still, and closer to what Colonialist farmers would have used.
Eight Oaks applejack is 80 proof. It has a nose of –surprisingly- apples, accompanied by pleasant citrus and floral notes. The palate is deep and sour. Think of granny smith apples cooked down with brown sugar. It finishes a bit bready and tart. That could be the crust for your pie.
Chad is keen to mention that about 30% of the grains they use are grown on their land, thanks in large part to Kevin. That percentage should increase soon, and include an apple orchard, as they cultivate more of their twenty-two acre parcel.
I imagine I’m not different from most people growing up within one hundred miles of a body of water, in that I have not met many farmers. That said, I feel confident adding that Chad does not fit the mold. His vision for his distillery is not only far-reaching but precise in strategy. When he talks about wrestling wild fields into farmland or orchard one acre at a time, I can’t help but picture an army of tractors, led by Chad the general. So it makes perfect sense when Chad tells me he is a retired career soldier, having served in the army for twenty-five years.
Whereas I’m sure the farmers’ lives of yesteryear synched up with nature’s rhythms –seasons, sunsets and sunrises, gestation of their livestock- this modern-day farmer before me has more of a rigid order necessary for battle. It certainly works for him and Eight Oaks’ success so far. If I come back in a couple years, I expect to see rows of corn and wheat leading right up to the Eight Oaks' doors – and maybe even Chad atop a tractor.