January 31, 2011

Oakland businessmen work to perfect distilled syrup

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND -- Bruce Olson and Steve Buchsbaum thought it would be a lot of work to start distilling their own maple brandy. But they didn't know it would be impossible.

click image to enlarge

SPIRITS WITHIN: Bruce Olson puts his ear to a fermenter to listen for sounds of yeast working inside as sparkling wine progresses at the Tree Spirits company in Oakland. Co-owner Steve Buchsbaum is at right.

Staff photo by David Leaming

By its legal definition, brandy is made from fruit, Buchsbaum said. So, what do you call a spirit distilled from fermented maple syrup?

"It doesn't fit into any category," he said.

They call their product Knotted Maple, and they're pretty sure it's one of a kind.

Olson and Buchsbaum, who are longtime friends, recently became business partners when they decided to open a winery and distillery, called Tree Spirits, out of a former garage on Fairfield Street in Oakland.

They started selling their maple spirits and sweet sparkling maple wine just before Christmas.

Within a couple of months, they'll be bottling applejack and dry sparkling wines for retail sale.

Olson, who bought the old garage to use as storage space, has been experimenting with winemaking there for about a decade.

He started with traditional wine made from grapes, but over the years got more creative and tried fermenting apple cider and sap from a maple tree in his backyard.

"Being his friend, I had to drink a little of that wine," Buchsbaum said. "I said to Bruce, 'You could sell that stuff.'"

A year ago, they applied for federal permits for a winery and a distillery and hoped to open within a few months.

But obtaining a license turned out to be a long and tedious process, they said. Buchsbaum, who handled the paperwork, said he had to include information about their equipment, finances, products and distilling process.

"They want to know what you're going to make and how you're going to make it," Buchsbaum said.

To make room for the fermenting tanks and bottling equipment, Olson put an addition on the garage and, in the fall, they had their licenses in place to start production. Tree Spirits is one of six distilleries in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. There are 26 licensed wineries.

Tree Spirits' maple products are made with syrup from Bacon Farm in Sidney. Cider from The Apple Farm in Fairfield is used in the wine and applejack. Since they started fermenting in the fall, they've been working to perfect their recipes.

"We did a lot of testing," Olson said with smirk.

Buchsbaum first had the idea to distill the fermented cider and syrup to make applejack, a popular spirit in the colonial era, and Knotted Maple, which they believe is brand new.

They tried to keep the maple flavor subtle, so it wouldn't get sickeningly sweet after a few sips.

Olson said he's seen maple liquers, in which maple syrup is mixed with vodka, but has never come across anything quite like their spirit.

"We wanted to have a product that everybody else wasn't making," Buchsbaum said.

A 375-milliliter bottle of Knotted Maple costs $35.99. The bottles of wine are $18 apiece.

Olson and Buchsbaum admit the products aren't cheap, but hope the fact that they're unique and locally made will drive sales.

The plan is to officially launch the products in the spring, when they'll put up a sign in front of the shop and schedule regular tastings. For now, they hold tastings by appointment.

While the business is getting started, the men -- both 56 years old -- plan to keep their day jobs.

Olson is a ballroom dance instructor at Blue Wave Studio in Waterville, where he lives.

Buchsbaum and his wife, who live in Belgrade, own Let's Talk Language School in Waterville.

Both men said they wouldn't mind working full-time for Tree Spirits.

"If it takes off, it will take up a lot of time," Olson said. "That's what we hope happens."

Leslie Bridgers -- 861-9252

lbridgers@centralmaine.com

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