The term “soul” is not something we usually associate with the name “Vermont”. Trees, rolling hills, (lately) hazy beers, small towns, normalcy overamped into something akin to weirdness, tight-lipped Nor’easterners, “deer jackin’ “, ” creemee”, stick season and mud season, “bull pout”, and vegetable dioramas…sure. Stipulated…even if the rest of us find all this as impenetrable as a bank vault. “Soul” is more identified with Southerners, my people, or with Detroit and Philly, where they created their own forms of the music that whispers, speaks, and SHOUTS “soul”.
But soul is where you find it and soul has stubbornly resisted a precise definition for as long as the word has been used. Even our mortal souls remain a mystery, so who’s to say what it’s composed of or that it cannot, by definition, take root in a part of America so outside the mainstream that the locals call us tourists “leaf-peepers” and each other “woodchucks”?
I just tasted Vermont Soul for the first time and it came without warning and kinda slapped me sideways.
This FedEx box showed up on my porch while I was out taking my dogs for a car ride. I came home and there’s a box. Says “Brattleboro, VT” on it. Something called “Saxtons”? I have no mention of anything about this and, in fact, I have found no email query about sending it in any of my Gmail inboxes, spam, or trash files. Odd. Normally – not always but 95% of the time – producers and/or PR firms alert me about a shipment being sent. I seem to have a very vague memory of…something having to do with Saxtons, maybe? But, here it is, anyway, so I open the box and pull out two carefully bubble-wrapped bottles, elegant little buggers in the 375ML or half-bottle size. Nice label design, great heavy glass…classy.
I didn’t see anything else in the box, so I took a look at the labels: “The Sapling”, a Maple Bourbon. Huh. If I did answer a query about this stuff, I obviously didn’t properly communicate that whiskeys infused with stuff are far less likely to be things I can honestly review, and of all the possible additions to beverages, maple is easily my least favorite. I like maple flavor in two ways and two ways ONLY: pancake syrup and icing on doughnuts. Period. The only flavoring I dislike more is walnut, and I won’t even eat those in cookies or fudge or especially not liquids. So, I figured I had just screwed up and not stipulated that they send their unadorned straight Bourbon.
The other bottle was a Gin called “Snowdrop”, which the label described as an “American Dry Gin”. It also says “vacuum distilled”, which tells me that Saxtons is (or “they are“? Is the name a possessive of a family called Saxton or one of the dictionary definitions of it: Merriam Webster: “Germanic tribe that conquered England”/Urban Dictionary: “An attractive guy who usually wears glasses. A Saxton is a great guy who knows how to treat a girl.”) a bit fanatical about purity? Dunno. I suspect the first def but am rooting for the second. But I really think it’s a family name and they just, in typically terse Vermonter fashion, eschewed the apostrophe. I confess that, ever since childhood, I’ve found Vermont a bit, well…funny. I don’t remember why but visions of eccentric New Englanders are dancing in my head, reading the bottles, and jokes are dawning on me in fistfuls, impeding my progress toward figuring out what the actual hell is in these bottles.
So…I decide to taste them.
NOW, it gets weird.
As mentioned, NOT a maple fan. But I pour about half an ounce of the Saxtons “The Sapling” Maple Bourbon into a small Balvenie tasting glass and take a very wary sip, ready to spit, should the mapleness gross me out like it normally does. Instead…
Holy Crikey, this stuff is GOOD!!
I mean MAJOR, jaw-dropping fine, exceptional, warm, stunningly creamy, rich, flavorful, game-changing good. “Okay, calm the f**k down, willya?” I say to myself, “Just…try it again and breeeathe…”
Those two bits of interior dialog were repeated four times before I finally had a handle on the extremely foreign idea that something, anything, could be infused with actual NE tree-sourced maple syrup and that I would not only not spit it or shrug at it but want to taste it again, like right now.
The pertinent fact, as I came to understand, was that this shocking Bourbon tasted like BOURBON, first and foremost, and like maple syrup only as an accent flavor. The maple did not take over, as maple tends to do in just about everything. In fact, the background flavor of the maple expressed itself as a sort of vanilla-ish, coconutty grace note that amped up the Whiskey flavors of grains and nuts and caramels and a tiny hint of smoke and an intimation of sweet herbs. It is an absolutely compulsive flavor profile which, since Saxtons obviously has proven can be achieved without the liquid wearily yearning for pancakes, begs the question, “Why doesn’t everybody use maple syrup this way?” In fact, I would have been willing to accept and understand if Saxtons had been a tad overbearingly maple-y. They’re in Vermont, after all, which is to real maple syrup what Central Washington is to hops. These are people who eat solid drips of maple syrup frozen in snowfall, directly under the tree taps and do this so routinely that they even have a name for it: “Sugar on Snow“. And, indeed, there is some Sugar on Bourbon going on here. It’s sweet, fo’ certain, but not icky sweet and has enough bite to it, at 70 Proof, to remind you that this is a WHISKEY and not a liqueur or aperitif.
The Sapling is flat-damned shocking, at least for me. It makes a mockery out of all those maple infused/flavored beers that I’ve gagged through tasting for over a decade, now. And it absolutely raises the bar on infused Whiskey, too. If Saxtons is capable of being this measured and judicious in the use of their foremost local resource, nobody else has any excuses, other than maybe a basic lack of understanding of what maple is going to taste like when they use it. And Saxton also does something with all the stuff they make that I think is worth some sort of gold star: they price the bottles sanely and offer them both in the 375s and 750s. This Bourbon is $25.14 for the half-bottle and $45.14 for the 750, both bargains for What’s In The Glass. This is Must-Try American Bourbon and is just about impossibly delicious. 98 Points
Saxton “Snowdrop” American Dry Gin looked innocent enough, sitting there demurely in its classy, semi-formal black ‘n’ white label with tasteful gold foil accents. And, lulled into a false sense of Vermont laid-backness as I was by the Sapling, I expected to taste a chic, subtle, refined style of gin that whispered rather than screamed flavors and would blend into your gin-based cocktail without any kind of attention-hog ebullience.
Instead, well…this is not so much a “snowdrop”, which conjures up images of snowflakes gently settling onto still cedar boughs, as what happens when you have a major snowfall on your roof, rashly try to poke it off from the ground with a broom handle, and it all comes off at once and slaps you flat. This is a bona-fide Wild Thang, as un-Vermont-y a beverage as I can imagine. The aroma coming off the glass was sinus-clearing, heavily accented with juniper but redolent of other perfumey botanicals like star anise and caraway and ginger root. And the first sip was a literal riot of flavors, even more than the nose suggested. The main mental image I got, upon that first sip, was Taz, the Tasmanian Devil from the old Looney Tunes cartoons, a berserk bundle of energy and joie de vivre that’s in perpetual motion and completely untamed. The bottle carried a neck tag with a 93 Point Wine Enthusiast review excerpt on it that contained the word “subtlety”.
I beg to differ.
This is easily the biggest Gin I have ever tasted and one of the most purely exciting and delightful. I happened to have a bottle of ginger beer corked up in my fridge when I tasted this and since the classic Gin Buck, (a cocktail invented in England in the mid-1800s and which actually predates its more famous cousin, the Moscow Mule) is a fairly quick ‘n’ simple three ingredients, I whupped up a sample-sized glass. Then, I whupped up two more.
The Gin Buck is one of only five cocktails that I ever drink and I used about a half ounce of Snowdrop with three and a half ounces (measured) of ginger beer and it was Party Time in Steve’s Mouth! Holy Cow, what a vibrant, explosive, engrossing combination of flavors! The botanical blend – which is considerably less exotic than most modern Botanicals and possibly less a result of foraging than of shopping – is coriander, juniper, thyme, star anise, cocoa, orris root, cardamom, sarsaparilla root, rosemary, allspice, fennel seed, grains of paradise, orange peel, Damiana leaf, caraway seed, anise seed, and ginger. The Damiana and Orris are the only ingredients that are not usually available at better supermarkets and both of those are easily obtained by mail order, so it’s entirely possible that nobody at Saxtons went out and grubbed around in that loamy Vermont soil for additions to this Gin. But whatever hand was at work on finding the right blend of infusions was deft and precise and endlessly judicious. Once you get past the almost shocking sheer size of the flavor profile, it is a ridiculously delicious and delightful Gin. It tastes exactly like exactly NO other Gin I have found in the past ten years of seeking out bottles from Europe, the US, Africa, South America, or even Asia. If you mix cocktails with Snowdrop, plan to use a bit less than you would with any normal (somewhat boring) Gin. It WILL take over and even that won’t be a bad thing, as a small dilution of tonic or ginger beer that slightly tames down that wild profile can be just as good an idea making it in the reverse. I tried it both ways, as well as with and without the traditional lime wedge, and every way I poured it, the Buck worked beautifully.
Saxtons, as it turns out, is a river in Vermont. The owner’s name is Christian Stromberg and the company’s name came from the distillery’s original location in Cambridgeport, Vermont, hard upon the banks of…the Saxtons River. From Christian’s picture, he fits the Urban Dictionary definition to a freakish T and I can also imagine him slapping on a helmet and helping his cohorts ransack England, so as far as I am concerned, there is still a tiny bit of playful ambiguity as to the name but as to the products, well…turns out they don’t even make a straight, uninfused Bourbon. ALL of ’em (except the Gin and two coffee liqueurs) have some amount of maple in ’em and, really, what would you expect from Vermont? The website link is here, so go take a look. And you can probably expect to take a trip to the Northeast to lay hands on Saxtons, as they do not ship and aren’t distributed very widely, with only two states as markets out West, California and Nevada. (You can get them in Montana and Utah by special order only.) But if you can find them, DO IT. Like right now. And sip with your jaw on your chest to keep it from falling on the floor. 99 Points