Once covered in vast swathes of pristine forest, New England began suffering habitat loss in the 1600s when European colonizers sowed the seeds of deforestation for both timber and agriculture. It was a massive blow to the biodiversity of the region, but not all hope is lost in the modern era. People—from their homes and businesses alike—have been embracing the fight for wildlife conservation, with one operation paying special attention to the region’s native pollinators. Launched in 2011, Vermont’s Caledonia Spirits has earned widespread acclaim for its flagship product: Barr Hill Gin.
Distilled with a large dose of raw honey, the spirit was created at the behest of expert beekeeper Todd Hardie and distiller Ryan Christiansen—and when it comes to inspiration, the honeybee has served as the pair’s muse since the very beginning.
“Raw honey is at the heart of what we do every day,” Christiansen tells us. “Without the bees’ hard work and gathering of nectar, we simply could not achieve the botanically-rich complexity of Barr Hill Gin and our other spirits. As a lifelong Vermonter, I’m proud to unlock the flavors of this region, and the bees are the key to this. We’re on a mission to reconnect cocktail culture to agriculture and educate those along the way about the importance of bees and pollinators within our fragile ecosystem.”
While Barr Hill’s devotion to conservation is a year-round commitment, the distillery’s most prominent environmental contribution occurs each September in the form of Bee’s Knees Week. Launched back in 2016, this 10-day global campaign invites participants to head to a nearby bar, order a Bee’s Knees cocktail, and share a photo to social media with the hashtag #beeskneesweek.
For each hashtag posted, Barr Hill guarantees the creation of 10 square feet of pollinator habitat, working in tandem with local Vermont organizations to select the best blend of indigenous flora. While it’s incredibly easy to participate, this collection of small acts has made a massive impact, with over half a million square feet of pollinator habitat created through the campaign over the past three years.
In addition to preserving Vermont’s native pollinators, Barr Hill also serves as a shining example for sustainability-focused distillation, with no shortage of state-of-the-art systems woven into the building itself. The distillation process gives off massive amounts of heat. Rather than let it dissipate into the air, Barr Hill collects this energy through a thermal banking system, repurposing it to heat the outdoor patio when the weather turns cold. Beyond that, the distillery also cooperates with nearby Vermont Technical College, sending their spent grain over to be converted into methane for local electricity production.
Perhaps one of Barr Hill’s most impressive accomplishments is their impact on the industry as a whole—exemplified at 2022’s Bar Convent Brooklyn. The event made history as the first bar and beverage-specific tradeshow to offset 100% of its carbon emissions, a feat that was only achieved thanks to a large-scale partnership with Barr Hill. Through this union, the distillery fostered the creation of 73,000 square feet of pollinator habitat, serving as an added legacy of the brand’s adherence to preserving biodiversity.
The conversation around sustainability has become incredibly prevalent in the contemporary spirits industry, and for any budding distillers looking to launch their own product, Barr Hill is a shining example of how to do it correctly. Though greenwashing runs rampant in all industries, the values espoused by Caledonia Spirits offer an easily-quantifiable blend of local and widespread impact, all while acting as a steward for some of the Earth’s most vulnerable species. As the weather grows warmer again next year and the air fills with the vibrant hum of New England’s native bees, flies, wasps and hummingbirds, raise a glass (preferably one that’s filled with a Bee’s Knees) to Vermont’s finest steward of our eons-old ecosystem—and, of course, nature itself.
Images courtesy of Caledonia Spirits