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Driven to Distilling: A trip to Wiggly Bridge Distillery in York, ME

I wasn’t exactly sure what the angle was when my mom and stepdad asked if I wanted to join them on a trip to a distillery.  Neither of them drink whiskey.  Neither of them drink much (by my standards), though my stepdad is a home brewer, soon to be brewery owner. Regardless of these facts, it doesn’t take much to convince me to go anywhere, never mind a distillery.  In the days before going over the pieces of the puzzle started to fall together.  The distillery owner started experimenting with distilling in Montserrat, my mother and stepdad are moving their to start the brewery.  The guy owns a wide variety of businesses around York, including carwashes—my stepdad owns a carwash.  It was a socially oriented business affair, it seems, but with me along to drink whiskey.  Sounds good to me. 

I woke up to head over there earlier then I do on the average work day, made the rendezvous with my companions for the day and we headed out to the Maine coast.  The town was dead, a dark hazy sky overhead and a crisp sea wind driving through the streets past the still boarded store fronts, closed for the season.  Inside Wiggly Bridge it was a different story.  Well lit and dank with the smell of fermenting grains and at the center of it all a man, who I would soon find out was a ball of endless ambition.  Dave Woods is well known around that part of Maine for his entrepreneurial ventures that span from the oil business to the pizza business.  Nowadays it’s his tight knit family that runs day to day operations, and Dave’s interest in whiskey consumes his days.  Between snippets of conversation on carwash bay doors and the like Dave’s story came together.  He was interested in whisky (he uses the scotch spelling) and decided, much like it seems he has decided many times before, he’d like to try his hand at it.  Dave and son David started hammering out the details in copper and wound up with a 60 gallon Arkansas style still.  Then he did a lot of reading.  Not much more than a year later I found him living on a timer, making required readings every 15 minutes, tossing 50lb bags of rye into a mash while simultaneously doing a stripping run.  All the while conversation bounced between carwashes, distilling, brewing and life on the island.  From what I gather the month or two that Dave spends in Montserrat are his only rest from 14 hour work-days, though I’ll admit a certain envy to what I call work in this case. 

At some point Dave broke out the whiskey.  The moment I’d been waiting for, naturally.  The first pour came from one of those little decorative one gallon casks that consumers can home age in.  It smelled decidedly smooth with hefty helpings of vanilla and a bit of spice.  I took a sip and started mulling over flavors.  The front was strong corn sweetness and a hefty vanilla.  There was a bit of an apple/peach note, and a deal of spice.  I went to speak and found my vocal chords a bit numb.  Turns out the little barrel was hiding about 125 proof.  The mash bill Dave has worked out is something like 56 % corn, 38% rye and the rest malted barley.  Honestly, I don’t remember exactly, I wasn’t taking notes—regardless I was pleased by his boldness on the rye side, mostly because I love rye and rye heavy bourbons.  Next Dave brought out some work in progress samples, one that he plans to age a bit longer, another that he planned to release.  Planned, I say because it turned out to be a failure.  The work in progress, a baby bourbon as the works in progress all are, was at a far more reasonable proof, with more open flavors but heavy on the vanilla from its short barrel time and full of hearty mid flavors, the dominant to me being that sweet peach flavor I found in the other tasting, and a nice cinnamon / nutmeg finish that lingered on.  The other work, the unreleased baby bourbon, was interesting to me.  Not because it had a nice flavor profile, it was musty and saccharine sweet, but because it showed Dave’s willingness to show the process—the failures.  Dave later shared with us a story of his first foray into the oil business, in which he boomed and busted, and it seems that this attempt was that first foray, but Dave showed that he’s learned his lesson, and rather than putting out this admittedly inferior product he’s tinkered around.  The final result of that tinkering is his latest white whiskey.  His white whiskey showed what I see as the promise of things to come.  While I’m not crazy about the white whiskey category, I see it as a tool of gauging what a whiskey will become, with age.  Dave’s current white shows he has found the sweet spot, so to speak, and it’s delightfully smooth with a soft sweetness and spice to spare.  Give this stuff some time and we may have something special.  But that brings me to another point.

Wiggly Bridge’s aging process brings up a debate that is raging through the craft whiskey world right now, when bourbon traditionally take 5 years to age, how do you get off the ground?  While other distillers turn to quick turnover products that require no aging, vodka, gin, and rum, Dave has decided to focus most of his energy it seems on bourbon.  He is doing a white rum, and planning selling his white whiskey as such, but he’s also playing a controversial game—speeding the aging process.  Using five gallon barrels and 30 gallon honeycombed barrels Dave is looking to release his first saleable product in mid-May, just a year and a half or so after starting the business.  The question now is will Dave’s gamble pay off?  Find out in our next installment:  Wiggly Bridge, High Tide or the Tipple Topple—Coming May 2014, likely.  

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There’s also pretty cool merch there, for the consumer looking to get ahead of York fashions

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