Our car jostles us over rocks and ruts as the paved road disappears in our rearview mirror. An oncoming driver hugs the muddy shoulder with his truck, waving us by him on the narrow pass. An outline of the Green Mountains ripples on the horizon. Horses and cows whip their tails in the pastures. Sweet, oniony smells of early summer fan through the open windows, triggering childhood memories of unlocked doors and playing outside until the sun set. It’s our first visit to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, but my husband and I already have an invitation to hang out with a local distiller.
Bruce helps navigate from the passenger seat as we wind along the back roads leaving St. Johnsbury town center. Thirty minutes outside of the town, the sunlit farms fade into forests of maple trees. Signs guiding ATV’s along trails outnumber official street signs. Trudy, our GPS system, chides us every minute by announcing that she’s “recalculating.” Bruce mutes Trudy while I idle at a fork in the road.
“Which way?” I ask Bruce.
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
We’re about to veer in the wrong direction when I notice a wooden stake plunged into the dirt. A little larger than a label for vegetables in a garden, the block-lettered handwriting on the cardboard sign says “Keyser Hill” and points left. Once we are heading down the correct road, I expect a gated entrance to advertise Dunc’s Mill and the distillery’s 210-acre farm. Instead, I pass a private gravel driveway with a residential mailbox camouflaged under the tree line. After turning around on a hunch about the private drive, I’m still uncertain of whether we’re trespassing. We continue a half-mile under a canopy of maple trees until we reach a clearing of stumps in an open field.
“You know,” Bruce says, “I’m starting to wonder if we’re going to get shot back here.”
“Oh my God, I was thinking the same thing!”
I put the stick shift in neutral again.
“This is kinda crazy, right? I mean, we just met this guy.”
“Yeah,” Bruce agrees, “but Joe wouldn’t set us up.”
“No, that’s not like Joe.”
We believed we knew the ins and outs of Joe’s character, but we’d literally just met him a few days before at the St. Johnsbury outdoor market. Bruce and I’d left the seclusion of our rented cabin that Saturday morning to watch the pet parade on Main Street. We strolled along the booths hoping to grab some coffee and breakfast before the parade started. Locals milled about the couple dozens of stands, stopping to talk to their favorite vendors about the weather, cattle prices, and how their familieswere doing. Stand after stand of locally made cheese, yogurt, skin care lotions, anti aging cream and candles opened our eyes to the versatility of goat’s milk.
While wishing for a maple syrup vendor who also served pancakes, we came across Joe and a different type of maple syrup. He stood with his fingers partially tucked inside his jean pockets and shoulders loose, but not slouched. He wore his plaid, collared shirt crisp and buttoned, but untucked. This handsome shaggy-haired guy, who looked 30-something like us, caught Bruce and I staring at his booth with curiosity. He smiled at us like a kid proud of a new toy. The banner at his tent read, “Dunc’s Mill: Maple Rum Homemade in Vermont.” It was only 9 am. We hadn’t even sipped our first cup of coffee. But something about this guy made us want to drink rum and tell stories.
“Let’s try some,” I said to Bruce.
“Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?”
Joe Buswell, a partner with the mill’s namesake, Duncan Holaday, welcomed us to his table.
“How’s it going this morning?” Joe asked.
“We’re trying to wake up and check out some dogs in costumes,” Bruce said. Short and tall bottles of Dunc’s maple and elderflower rums formed triangular displays on the foldout table. Each bottle contained a burnished brass-colored seal with the letter “D” embossed into the wax, a design concept that conveyed a personal gesture like a hand-written letter as opposed to a text.
“You guys want to taste some?” Joe asked.
“We sure do,” I said.
Joe lined up three plastic shot glasses on the table.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
We drank a round of the elderflower followed by a round of the maple. Both coated my mouth with a honeyed oakiness similar to the smoothness of bourbon.
“I’ve never had rum straight before,” Bruce said.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” said Joe.
As the three of us helped ourselves to seconds we began swapping drinking tales and comparing notes on our favorite whiskeys. Joe and I shared similar tastes, if not similar accents. To listen to Joe’s passion for the Kentucky model for making bourbon, I’d think he was born and raised there like I was. Yet his rounded pronunciation of “dawlers” and “scawtch” for dollars and scotch revealed his Boston roots.
Tipsy and running late for pugs in pink tutus, Bruce and I cut the fun short.
“You don’t give tours do you?” I asked as we settled up.
“Nah, I wish,” Joe said. “But you guys should swing on by while you’re still in town.”
We confirmed the date and time, but maybe because of the rum, or maybe because we’d felt like old friends familiar with visiting each other, we failed to discuss directions.
So here we are, idling beside a clearing on what’s starting to look like a private logging road.
“Should we turn back?” I ask Bruce.
“Let’s go just a little farther.”
As we crest the hill we come to an open field with a panorama of the Green Mountains. The road ends at a log home nestled into the hillside a few hundred feet from the mill below. Joe comes outside of the post and beam-constructed distillery when we arrive.
“It’s awesome you guys made it,” he says.
“Barely,” Bruce responds. “It’s tricky getting out here.”
“I probably should’ve warned you about that.” He looks pleased, as if we achieved a rite of passage.
We hear a door shut as Duncan, creator of Dunc’s Mill, comes out from his home on the hill. Duncan and Joe aren’t related, but they share a father and son-like demeanor right down to the trim of their beards and the way they rest their fingers in their pockets. Duncan extends a handshake reminiscent of the blend between warmth and strength in their 60-proof rums. He spares a few minutes before a meeting he has as a consultant for Vermont’s Barr Hill Vodka.
“I’m sorry I won’t be able to stick around,” Duncan says, “but Joe has a special treat planned for you.”
Joe and Duncan exchange that boyish look of pride we saw on Joe’s face at the market. After two years in the making, they’re eager to unveil a new rum they’re gearing up to launch in stores.
“You’ll be the first customers to taste it,” Duncan says.
Daniel Keeney, the youngest and the last of the Dunc’s Mill operation, joins us on the distillery’s gabled porch. His thick head of brown hair is tousled from bottling their current batch.
Before we go inside, Duncan points up to a dove nestled on a rafter that connects two hand-carved wooden cornices, relics Duncan rescued from a Cultural Revolution-era temple in Singapore. The dove safeguards her newborn baby beside her in the nest.
“I guess she feels comfortable around us,” Duncan says.
Joe interlaces his fingers and looks at Daniel. “She ready yet?”
“Whenever you are,” Daniel says grinning.
Duncan leaves for his meeting and Bruce and I follow Joe and Daniel inside. The one-room distillery resembles a ski lodge with mountain views through wall-length windows and exposed beams forming an open A-frame ceiling. Several pairs of snowshoes are mounted to the wall for when the guys trek through drifts high as their waists to harvest sap from the maple trees. Wooden shelves lining the windows are stocked like a bar with glass beakers and pipets. The multiple stills resemble freestanding fireplaces with chimneys.
“This is where we experiment,” Daniel explains, reading off numbers from the still’s thermometer and hydrometer that Joe punches into a calculator to verify the proof of today’s batch of rum.
“I’ve got to get one of these,” Bruce says as Joe pours four glasses of rum straight from the still.
“Normally we’d cut it down to 60, but since you’re a Kentucky girl we’re keeping it at 90,” Joe says.
The sweet cane taste goes down smoothly and finishes with a burn.
“You could sell that like it is,” I say. “Don’t you think so, Bruce?”
“That’s nice,” Bruce says tossing back what’s left in his glass.
“If they’d taught me this in science class I would have paid more attention,” Daniel says.
“How did y’all get into this?” I ask.
“I’m friends with Duncan’s daughter,” Daniel says, “but I think I’ve always been interested in striking a balance between work and feeling fulfilled.”
“Drinking got me into this,” Joe says, recounting a night he and his wife had a few drinks. She’d dared him to quit his job in financing to do something he loved. Taking that risk is how he’d become friends with Duncan, who’d also traded a secure job for a dream of living off the land.
After more calculating and tinkering with equipment, Joe and Daniel present the special rum that’s been two years in the making. Unlike their maple and elderflower products, this is a molasses rum that has aged in Hungarian Oak barrels for a medium toast char.
“We’re calling it Backwoods Reserve,” Joe says. He and Daniel laugh about the contradiction of country sophistication. But even before we taste it, Bruce and I agree that the name defines the spirit brewing at Dunc’s Mill.
“Damn, that’s good,” Bruce says after his first sip.
“It’s less sweet with more bawdy,” Joe says about the rich, oaky taste.
We take a few more swigs and kick around for the best description. Almost in unison it comes to us—“It’s the whisky drinker’s rum.”
Joe attributes the pure taste to the Water Andric, a natural stream that flows through Dunc’s property.
“Some of these places in California pay many thousands of dollars a year for bottled spring water, but we’re fortunate to have our own source,” Joe says.
Joe’s tapping into a concept about using native resources to create something special that bourbon distillers also appreciate. There’s no criteria that requires bourbon to be made in Kentucky, but most bourbons are because the signature taste is interconnected with the region’s limestone water. Dunc’s even makes a tongue-in-cheek nod to Kentucky tradition by stamping “Moonshine” on their cases.
A group of Vermont’s culinary students interested in learning techniques unique to Dunc’s are coming by soon, but Joe doesn’t want us to rush off.
“You guys hungry?” he asks.
He grabs a bag and refills our glasses with the Backwoods Reserve. He’s planned a picnic for Bruce and I in a meadow on the property. On our walk, Joe points out projects they hope will double their current output. The clearing Bruce and I passed on our drive in is where they’ll plant more maple trees. Containers of young elderberry bushes, whose flavor-producing flowers survive Vermont’s harsh winters, are lined up and ready to plant.
“What will you do when you’re finished with the oak barrels?” Bruce asks.
“Ahh,” Joe says, “I want to have a pig roast. Can you imagine the flavor released from grilling with these barrels!”
Joe spreads a tablecloth over the café table set in a private spot that overlooks the mountains.
“I hope we’ll be invited,” I say.
“Definitely, it’ll definitely be a party.” Joe says goodbye before joining the group that’s arrived from the culinary institute.
After we finish our lunch, Bruce drives us a different route back to our cabin per Joe’s recommendation. A stream that we have to thank for filtering the rum has partially flooded the alternative road. Our sports wagon can push through, but we take the moment to roll our pant legs up and splash our bare feet in the water. Knotted chunks of driftwood are banked on the rocks. A whitewashed piece that splits into two prongs would look nice converted into a coffee table. We load it in the trunk. We’re carrying away new memories of a place where doors are always open and we can play outside until the sun sets.