BRATTLEBORO -- Since introducing his signature maple liqueur, Sapling, in 2007, Christian Stromberg has seen a steady increase in business every year.
Stromberg started distilling Sapling liqueur in his barn in Cambridgeport and selling it locally, and today the spirit is available in nine states.
And now, as sugar houses across the state steam away, Stromberg has two new reasons to hope for a good maple syrup season. Over the past year Stromberg has been perfecting his recipes and he recently released his own maple rye and bourbon.
Each starts with a base of American-made alcohol. Stromberg then adds Vermont maple syrup and ages the blend in oak barrels.
He has a limited number of bottles available now and is looking forward to a good maple syrup season this year to make more bourbon and rye.
"I've used what I have and now I just have to wait to see how good this season is," Stromberg said recently while working in his Saxtons River Distillery in Brattleboro. "So far it is looking like a good year."
Stromberg says he wanted to extend his market beyond the cordial aisle, where his sweet, and relatively mild liqueur is for sale.
He began experimenting with his recipes more than a year ago, and the rye and bourbon he has for sale are each 70 proof.
Since introducing Sapling liqueur in 2007 there has been a steep increase in the number of distilleries in the state. A combination of more favorable serving, tasting and distribution laws, along with growing interest in local and artisanal foods, have driven the number of Vermont distilleries from four, when Stromberg first opened, to 13 today.
"Vermont is a very good state to do this in," said Stromberg. "But it is hard to compete with big companies. If you are a small producer there is a lot going against you."
Everything from pear brandy to hard apple cider to vodka are now produced in Vermont, following the strong growth in the Vermont craft beer and wine industries.
One of the most important changes came when Vermont passed a law allowing distillers to offer tastings of their products.
"You have to be able to let people taste what you have. It makes a big difference," he said.
The distillers in the state have started the Distilled Spirits Council of Vermont which works in Montpelier to help pass more favorable laws.
As his business grew, Stromberg moved his operation from his barn in Cambridgeport to the highly visible former Tom and Sally's Chocolate factory on Route 30.
Inside the low slung warehouse along the West River Stromberg has set up a tasting room, complete with a bar and Saxtons River Distillery products.
Out back, oak barrels are stacked up with his aging liqueur, bourbon and rye.
While changing regulations, competition from massive international alcohol companies, and a sluggish economy all make for some tough obstacles for a small business owner, Stromberg has the added challenge of relying on a natural product with a short and inconsistent season.
Stromberg prefers to use grade B maple syrup, and last year was an overall disappointing season for the state's sugar makers.
The low production meant Stromberg had to pay more for the syrup, slicing profit from his already tight margin.
But he says business has been steadily growing.
This year, with two new products coming online, Stromberg has to figure out how much syrup he needs, find the suppliers, and then make a major investment in acquiring the maple syrup he will need for the coming year.
Stromberg estimates that he will go through about 1,600 gallons of maple syrup in the coming year, about double what he went through last year.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.