High Spirits

High Spirits

“We dreamed this up and now it exists in the world. People drink it.” Those words came from the energetic lips of Sas Stewart, co-founder of Stonecutter Spirits in Middlebury, VT. It took some time to get Sas into a place where she was comfortable enough to enjoy her own success. She’s quick to talk about their sustainable business model, the complicated aging process, and the amount of work her co-founder Sivan Cotel puts in. She’ll talk about the other small businesses she’s worked with along the Middlebury Tasting Trail and the Carrara family, owners of their building, who helped retrofit the old tile factory into the space they have today. She’ll speak at length about the architectural layout (chic and hip don’t begin to describe it), and  her handpicked employees but she won’t talk about herself.

So I will for her.

Sas has a laugh that carries, an energy that is boundless, and a brain that never stops working. “I’ll be behind the bar and people will come in and ask if the bartender is there. Of course its because I’m a woman.” Well not only is Sas one hell of a bartender, she’s also Stonecutter’s mixologist. After all it was her palate that designed Stonecutter’s flagship barrel-aged gin, which just won Double Gold at the San Francisco Spirits Competition (if making gin were pro-wrestling, Sas would have the big glossy championship belt). She’s also the interior designer, graphic designer, and the one who insisted on carving skylights into the building in order to let in as much natural light as possible. “It makes the employees happy… okay, it makes me happy.” She also had the genius idea—and to me, this is what really separates Stonecutter –to have nonstop natural air pumped into their barrel room.

Sas Stewart and Sivan Cotel of Stonecutter's Spirits.

Sas Stewart and Sivan Cotel of Stonecutter's Spirits.

But Sas is not alone in her endeavors, her partner Sivan Cotel is the fiscal mastermind and it’s his obsession with aging (and bourbon) that made Stonecutter’s barreling process so unique. Each barrel of gin is aged for four months. It’s exposed to the mild Vermont summers and the not-so-mild Vermont Winters. “Sometimes the spirits get a little chilly, and we had to tell ourselves that’s okay.” It’s more than okay. It gives their gin life. It’s a gin that drinks like a bourbon and converts those with aversions to both. There’s a delicate balance of juniper, coriander, orange peel, cardamom, licorice root, green tea, and rose petals. Not to mention the natural flavors added from the oak barrels and the swelling and warping that happens when exposed to the elements.

Swizzle sticks from Sas' collection.

Swizzle sticks from Sas' collection.

Seated in a plastic chair eating a working lunch of cheese and crackers she explained to me the benefits of their business model. Pointing out their heritage cask whiskey that’s been aging for four years, and still has time left in the barrel. She told me all about the support system that her and Sivan have developed amongst other local businesses. About how Gary from Vermont Coffee Co. helped them set up their loading dock when they first moved in, and how his act of kindness set the tone for their whole business. “It’s awesome. It’s so much more collaborative than competitive. If I have a question for [Department of Liquor Control] in Vermont, I can call them and speak to an actual human being. And they’ll answer my questions! If I have a question about anything, really, there’s always someone to call, someone willing to help.”

It was then that I asked her if she ever takes a moment to soak it all up. “We do take time to celebrate, but there’s a drive. We have to keep pushing. We have to keep going—not necessarily expanding the business, but improving it. I mean, it’s hard to drink shitty booze,” she said with a laugh. Then she relaxed a bit and looked across the hundreds of barrels, their tasting room/bar crowded with people in the middle of the afternoon visible through the window over her top-bun (she’s got great hair). She looked at her plate of cheese and crackers, half-eaten, when an employee knocked on the door. Before he could ask for help she was up and greeting the customers, lugging the ice bucket around, and offering the new crop of first-time visitors a tour.

Because they own their own business and they know what it takes to succeed, Sas and Sivan don’t stop. You can try Stonecutter’s award-winning gin anywhere in Vermont, and soon in a few neighboring states as well, but if you want the real experience, you need to stop at their location and meet the woman behind it all. 

Photographs by Dylan Griffin.

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