It’s been three years since I sat down with Ned Wight of New England Distilling, and not a lot has changed within his product line in that time. But don’t confuse patience for stasis. The barrel aging that goes into producing good whiskeys and rums is a waiting game like few others in the beverage industry. When we spoke in late 2014, Ned was excited to have just put bourbon into barrels, but described the frustration of having to leave the product alone for what felt like an eternity. (To comply with federal standards, straight bourbon must sit in new oak for no fewer than two years to be labelled as such.)
Now Tidewalker, Ned’s first bourbon, has finally made its way into the world, and it was worth the wait. The spirit is bold and assertive, but also nuanced and shockingly smooth on the palate. In addition to Tidewalker, New England Distilling also recently debuted the first of a new series called Rack IV. The first iteration is a whiskey distilled from Allagash Saison. The results are fascinating. You can still detect hop aroma and flavor in the finished product, a confounding and remarkable characteristic. I visited Ned at the distillery to get some updates on his new products, and to talk about his company’s place in the burgeoning craft spirit market.
Phoenix: Tell me about the new additions to your offerings. They’ve obviously been a long time in the marking.
Ned Wight: The bourbon we started test-batching way back in 2013, started putting up barrel stock late 2014. Then the Rack IV is a project we’ve been wanting to do and dipping our toe in and test-batching since probably 2012. Rack IV is going to be a catchall for our small-batch line. So this first release is the Allagash Saison that we distilled in 2015 and just released in 2017 after two years in new oak. The idea of that line is fun projects, small batch stuff, limited releases; when they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s definitely rewarding making the spirits that we make, reproducing the same thing consistently, but you also get into these industries for the creative side, so Rack IV will give us that outlet to play around and have some fun.
Phoenix: So we’ll obviously see more of the Rack IV stuff coming down the line. Any other developments?
Ned Wight: No real giant plans for expansion, but our biggest change in terms of footprint has been to add a warehouse and tasting room over at One Industrial Way [alongside Foundation, Austin Street, and Battery Steele]. What’s nice about that space is that we get to play with cocktails and introduce consumers to our product not just as a straight pour, which gives them some ideas about what to do with it when they take it home.
Phoenix: What’s the trajectory from here? You’re obviously out in the world now, in other parts of the country, where do you see the products going?
Ned Wight: We’re obviously statewide in Maine, but also Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York (both in the city and upstate), Maryland, D.C. and Chicago.
Phoenix: How do those relationships work? Do you cultivate a relationship with a distributor?
Ned Wight: Yep. In each case with the out-of-state markets, the distributor has come to us and said “we’re familiar with your product, we’d like to put it out into our market.” It’s still fairly limited distribution. We don’t want to go out and sell everything and then suddenly have to move our rye back to a one-year aging cycle rather than the two years we do now, for instance. We try to keep it limited and keep it growing at a rate that we can control.
Phoenix: Have you had the experience of travelling around and seeing your product served in other cities and states?
Ned Wight: Yeah, it’s fantastic. To go to iconic whiskey bars like Jack Rose down in D.C. or Delilah’s in Chicago and there’s your stuff behind the bar — it’s awesome! I don’t know if that stuff ever gets old, it’s one of those intangible rewards.