For decades, the Mount Washington Valley has been touted as one of the East Coast’s most renowned ski destinations. But until recently, the region has been off the radar for those searching for craft beers, wines and spirits.
In December, Cathedral Ledge Distillery opened its doors in North Conway, less than two months after Ledge Brewing began operations just minutes up the road.
Christopher Burk, who owns the distillery with his wife, Tracy, is unlike most people who open distilleries — he had never distilled spirits before. In fact, he had been working in financial services from his home in Denmark, Maine, when he decided he wanted to do something different.
“I wasn’t really enjoying it anymore and wanted to do something different and more tangible,” Burk said of his career. “I grew up in a small farm town in Vermont called Barnet, and I have a lot of respect for farmers. Being connected to them is really exciting.”
Cathedral Ledge Distillery is the first and only organic-certified distillery in New Hampshire, using more than 99.9 percent certified organic ingredients. For Burk, the importance of supporting organic farmers to encourage safer farming practices — avoiding concentrated and aerosolized pesticides that can make farmers sick — is significant.
While Burk did spend four years reading, asking questions and taking courses on distilling ahead of the distillery’s opening, he knew he would have to hire an experienced distiller to create high-quality products to offer the community.
A few years prior to breaking ground, Burk contacted James McCoy, who was a brewer turned distiller. McCoy cut his teeth at Harpoon Brewery and received an undergraduate degree in chemistry and food science at the University of Vermont before heading to Scotland to get a master’s degree in brewing and distilling. In Scotland, McCoy made the graceful transition from brewer to distiller. Prior to working with Burk, McCoy also worked at Wachusett Brewing, Downeast Cider, Whiskey Systems (a distillery software company) and even helped start the Litchfield Distillery in Litchfield, Conn.
“I spent a couple years giving Chris advice and helping him get established,” said McCoy. “And now, here we are.”
McCoy enthusiastically went on to discuss the different spirits Cathedral Ledge is offering to start — a vodka, horseradish-infused vodka, aquavit, gin and a new-make spirit — along with their flavor profiles and how they are made.
The beautiful timber-frame structure itself pays homage to owner Burk’s roots growing up in rural Vermont. The structure is built to look like a traditional barn, with tall, airy ceilings constructed with beams that were hand cut by a father-son team — the Krouse family — out of Arundel, Maine. The construction is pinned together with pegs and utilizes no steel for reinforcement. The barn was constructed using white pine posts and beams, red oak braces and pins, and Douglas fir decking, giving it a rustic New England feel. While it was designed to recreate an older structure, the building is modern, with fully insulated walls and ceilings. For Burk, the ethics of this construction was important.
“I grew up in a post-and-beam house my parents built in Vermont,” Burk said. “My father had rescued a handful of post-and-beam barns. So as a kid I was around a bunch of barns that my father refurbished, and I was working for local farmers. So when I decided to leave financial services and do something like this, I knew I wanted to do it in a nice space.”
The grain to glass distillery mills all its grain in-house and has a tasting room where guests can sample the spirits while watching the distilling process unfold behind a large glass window. For those interested in what’s in their bottles and the process behind it, the distillery will be offering tours.
The distillery also has implemented a number of measures to maximize energy efficiency, including a system that allows for recycled heated and unheated water for tasks such as cleaning the tanks.
According to Burk, North Conway’s high-quality water was one of the major draws to the valley. That, and the fact that he is an avid cyclist and his family has been enjoying the area’s outdoor recreational opportunities for years.
The distillery has no plans to offer food or cocktails, instead, simply remaining a tasting room and avoiding becoming competition for nearby restaurants. In time, the distillery will provide another source for area restaurants who choose to serve local organic spirits.
While the business model, location and spirits themselves hold significance, Burk nods to his roots and stresses the importance of respecting the land and how we choose to use it.
“Giving an outlet for local farmers who choose to be organic certified I think is really exciting,” said Burk. “And we’ll work more and more with local farmers once we’re up and running. Really, I just love the fact that this is tied to our New England agrarian heritage.”