Back when “craft spirits” wasn’t a phrase familiar to most people’s palates, Chris Weld was distilling brandy in his barn from apples grown on his Sheffield farm and selling it from his truck.
Eventually, he’d ditch brandy for, well, nearly every other spirit — gin, vodka, rum, rye, bourbon. He would also relocate the operation to Route 7, upgrading the truck bed to a storefront. As the endeavor that became Berkshire Mountain Distillers grew over the last 15 years, though, its ethos remained the same. Weld calls it “grain to glass”: a focus on sustainability, locally sourced ingredients and rugged authenticity.
With that energy firing the stills, Berkshire Mountain Distillers produces uniquely Berkshire-inspired, small-batch liquors that make big splashes in the world of craft spirits. In 2012, The New York Times named Greylock Gin the No. 1 craft gin in America. Last year, a sprawling and ambitious collaborative project with a dozen New England craft breweries netted a gold medal at the U.S. Open Whiskey & Spirits Grand National Championship. Not too shabby for an eight-employee small business in the heart of South County.
For Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ 15th birthday, here are five questions answered by owner and distiller Chris Weld, edited for length and clarity.
Q.What is the origin story of Berkshire Mountain Distillers?
A. Seventeen years ago, my family and I moved back to the East Coast from California. I’d been working in ERs as a physician’s assistant. My wife’s an architect. We were ready for change.
For multiple reasons, we ended up here in the Berkshires, and we bought this great barn in Sheffield. The main thing on it was an apple farm that was set on a piece of property at the base of East Mountain. There’s a lot of hydrostatic pressure coming down off it, so it has springs that come up, which we used for a water source.
The farm had hundreds of apple trees on it that we brought back to fruition. … I quickly realized that I’d lose my shirt trying to sell just apple brandy because no one in this country really drinks much apple brandy. So we jumped in with the rum, vodka, gin. The nice thing about gin and vodka is you don’t have to age them.
The line just kind of burgeoned after that. Naturally, the whiskeys came on. The great thing about where we are is there are a ton of local grains, large grains, corn particularly. Back then, it was really impossible to get small grains, but now we get our small grains locally as well. It’s wonderful to use the local economy and local agriculture. The other stuff we grow — a lot of the botanicals for the gins and everything we use to augment the ones we buy.
Q. Was there a moment when you saw it start clicking?
A. At first, nobody really knew craft spirits. There was a push of “Hey, this is a craft distillery product,” and people were like “what’s that?” It was just a battle of educating people on it.
I remember one of the first restaurants I walked into was Pearl’s, which used to be on the top of Railroad Street in Great Barrington. Somehow I got an appointment with the bartender, so I went in there for the tasting. He tasted two of them and he gave me this funny look.
I said, “It’s good, right?” He goes, “Yeah, I didn’t think it would be good.”
So he brought it on. I’ve always wanted people to be able to support local without sacrificing quality.
In the beginning, I could go to Boston and say “I have a local craft gin,” and there just weren’t any. Now they’re like, “Yeah, there are six or 10 that are made in Boston.” It’s a different game.
Fortunately, we’ve been around. We’ve got good street cred. Despite the fact that there’s 26 or so craft distillers in Massachusetts, we’re still playing that educational game and trying to get people to try things, so it’s like any brand. You just have to go for it.
Q. What does the distiller like to drink?
A. It’s somewhat whimsical for me. I’m a sucker for a gin and tonic in the summertime. It’s hard to beat a nice neat whiskey when you’re grilling a good steak on the coals or something like that.
I love rum, which is why the first spirit I made was rum. For me, I’m an everything-in-moderation guy. I’ve got 24 spirits, so you have to be careful. I always joke that we quit drinking here at 9 in the morning. We do our tasting in the morning, and we’re done with it for the day. For me, the exciting thing is the nuances of different spirits, whether it’s our spirits or somebody else’s. Finding the differences in a bourbon that has the same mash bill. Or, for us, we just did 12 whiskeys in a year.
Q. What’s going on at Berkshire Mountain Distillers in its 15th year?
A. We just re-upped the craft brewers whiskey project with some other beers, so that’s been a really wonderful thing.
I love growing stuff, so we’re expanding the garden program here, more herbs and botanicals that we’ll use here and in cocktails. We just built a farmstand that’s going to feature stuff that we grow here.
We hired a Culinary Institute of America student who’s going to run the cocktail program on Saturdays. It’s been interesting the last two years, because COVID coupled with cannabis tourism brought a lot more traffic through here, and it’s getting busier.
Last year, we just had picnic tables on the grass, and then we put in this whole gravel area and we put in the pavilion here. We’ll have live music and we’re gonna have the cocktail wagon functioning, so we expanded the outdoor seating areas threefold.
Q. What’s on tap for Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ next 15 years?
AI always get asked, “So what do you have coming out?” And I’m like, “We just did 12 whiskeys this year. Nobody in the world has ever done that!”
But the blessing and curse to being a small craft distillery is “what’s coming out?”
Jack Daniels, in 150 years, has done about two whiskeys. We did 12 last year. Nobody’s saying, “Hey, what do you have new coming out, Jack?”
We’ve got some new hires who are really fun to work with and bring some new stuff to the table. We’re in the process of putting in another still, which is exciting.
Eight years ago, we started doing these gin and vodka ready-to-go drinks that we made with our homemade tonics. That was just before its time, so we shelved it. All of a sudden, everyone’s doing canned gin and tonic. We did that before it was hip, so we’re actually going to start with a few more recipes for that.
I’ve always wanted to make an herbal liqueur — something like a Chartreuse, which uses like 130 herbs and botanicals. There’s a bunch of stuff we grow that we ought to try and start making stuff with it. I love Chartreuse, so I want to make a Berkshire version of that.
One of the advantages of being small is we can make decisions pretty quickly. When things come up, we can kinda jump through hoops and get it done pretty quickly. ■