Winchester's Wonka: New England Sweetwater Farm and Distillery
Photo Gallery | New England Sweetwater Farm and Distillery
WINCHESTER, N.H. — Robert Patton-Spruill sees himself as Willy Wonka.
But instead of a chocolate factory, he runs a booze factory.
"I get to Wonka my way around all day long," he said. "When I'm not here, I dream about it. I dream about it all the time. It's fun."
As owner of New England Sweetwater Farm and Distillery at 136 Main Street in Winchester, N.H., Patton-Spruill thinks revitalization on the street is possible.
"We liked New England Main Streets and this one was pretty down on its luck," he said. "We wanted to make sure we had an opportunity to make it nice. It's our intention to help make this like a classic, New England, touristy kind of spot."
Preparations started in 2010. But this Sept. 18, Patton-Spruill received a permit that allows him to manufacture liquor.
"It took a really long time. There were all sorts of problems, hiccups, stumbles and mistakes. Things like that happen," he said. "I had them everywhere."
The plan originally called for siting the distillery in a barn at his farm approximately two miles away from its current location. Permission was obtained from the town, then every neighbor sued the town, Patton-Spruill said. Eventually, he won the lawsuit.
The government shutdown in 2013 delayed the process even further. That happened almost immediately after putting in a federal permit application, pushing the project out another six months.
"Finally when they got back to us they said, 'We think the barn is too close to the house so you can do it there but you have to build a new barn and do it in a different building.' That was pretty much the moment when it went from hobby to hobby gone wild," Patton-Spruill said. "Because then to put in a new barn was like $120,000 for just the water, sewer, electrical lines and all that."
The historic Main Street building, available for almost the same cost, was purchased. Now, it's open for tours and tastings Wednesday through Sunday. More information can be found at NewEnglandSweetwater.com or on Facebook.
The goal is to be open seven days a week at some point. Higher volumes of visits were noted on weekends.
Massachusetts resident John Llewellyn said he and his wife Sue watched and waited for the opening of the distillery, looking forward to it being a part of the Winchester community. They were there on a Wednesday night.
"We came by and saw the flag out and we were very excited we could come in," said Llewellyn, who recently purchased a home in the area. "It's great. It's an amazing addition."
His favorite sample was the vodka while Sue's was the gin. Although she's never had gin in her life due to its smell being "so awful," she loved it and suggested it would be best on the rocks.
"It was just so crisp and delicious. It was very different," Sue said. "And the vodka was my second (favorite) because the after-taste was apple."
Clear spirits, such as rums and vodkas, is where Patton-Spruill started at the distillery.
"Ultimately we're whiskey folks, that's who we really are, but whiskey takes a long time to age. So we're good at vodka," said Patton-Spruill, who with his brother and distillery co-owner learned how to make booze from his grandfather who owned a juke joint or "African American booze bar" in North Carolina. "We learned the dark arts from him and then he found God when we were like 16 years old and told us to throw everything out and go pray. We didn't throw everything out and we didn't go pray."
White whiskey is available now and aged whiskey will be in the future. Other brands planned at the distillery are "Monadnock Moonshine," spiced rum and flavored vodkas which could include apple pie, pear or blueberry. Using local products is all part of that idea.
Approximately 60 bottles are made at the distillery each day. In a month, the number should be doubled. Larger expansion is anticipated later on. Distribution in the New England area could come by mid-2016.
Running the still with Charles Hood while Maria Amarosa takes care of tending in the tasting room next door is more fulfilling for Patton-Spruill's mind and spirit than the television and film work he was previously involved with. He still teaches about those types of media at Emerson College in Boston, Mass., where he serves as senior director in residence.
"This allows me to have the most fun I've had in my life. Movies? I still love them. Don't get me wrong. It's like that old comfortable sweater you have to put on," said Patton-Spruill, who started off by making a movie called "Squeeze" which was sold to Miramax, then he made a Showtime network movie called "Body Count" starring Forest Whitaker, followed by a variety of television commercials including political endorsements. "For the past five years I've been working for Scripps Network, which owns HGTV, Travel Channel, DIY Network, Cooking Channel and Food Network. So we kind of reinvented their web stuff, made a bunch of different web videos for them."
The mixture of cooking and science at the distillery offers him an opportunity to explore different methods or "rabbit holes," which Patton-Spruill said is too much fun.
Since 2006, the liquor industry has grown. Laws were changed to allow people to have distilleries. And Patton-Spruill expects trends with liquor to follow the success of craft beer, which grew substantially after regulations changed.
"Because of prohibition, there were only a few brands up until a few years ago and it was all foreign," he said of liquor. "Before prohibition, there were 25,000 distilleries in America. Then after prohibition, there was 40. Now, there's 1,200."