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To In’finiti and Beyond

The evolution of craft distilling in Maine 

by | Mar 10, 2013

The still at In’finiti (now Liquid Riot). photo/Chris Busby

When In’finiti Distillation & Fermentation opens this month on Portland’s waterfront, the locavore movement in Maine will have reached its highest incarnation to date.

Guided by the vision of 32-year-old Yarmouth native Eric Michaud — proprietor of Novare Res Bier Café, the craft beer mecca in the Old Port — In’finiti is the first restaurant of its kind in Maine, and one of only a handful nationwide. It’s a brewery, distillery and eatery where patrons will soon be able to enjoy food, beer and cocktails entirely crafted within their range of sight.

“Obviously we won’t be growing our own food,” Michaud acknowledged during an interview last month, as workers hammered and sawed wooden railings and tables in the restaurant’s handsome space at the foot of Union Wharf on Commercial Street, “but we’re going to source our food as locally and organically as possible. If you’re eating a lobster, it might’ve come right out of Casco Bay, right to the back door. If you’re having a pint of beer, it was brewed right here on-premise. If you’re having a cocktail, every ingredient in that cocktail was made here. So if there’s three or four different alcohols in that, we made it. If it’s a gin martini, we made the gin and the vermouth.”

As patrons enter In’finiti, the first thing they’ll see is the gleaming copper pot still made by the German company Kothe Destillationstechnik, which Michaud picked up secondhand in (of all places) Nagasaki. Joined by his brother Ian, who left a career as a Broadway stagehand and set carpenter to become a distiller, Michaud will start making bourbons, which need time to age in barrels before consumption, then get going on the clear liquors that have a far shorter turnaround time, like gin and white rum.

The still is not the type commonly used by distillers to make vodka, but Michaud plans to make a basic, low-grade house vodka for well drinks by refining neutral grain spirits, rather than concocting the liquor from scratch. Customers who want a high-grade sipping vodka will be able to order Maine-made Twenty 2 or Cold River vodka at In’finiti. The Michaud brothers will also be trying their hands at all manner of mixers and specialty spirits: absinthe, aperitifs, bitters and herbal liqueurs.

Creativity and collaboration are likewise the bywords on the brewing side of the operation. In’finiti will have 16 taps: eight for its own brews, and eight guest taps featuring craft beer from Maine and away. Customers can expect a wide and wild variety of styles, including one-of-a-kind brews Michaud will make in partnership with fellow brewers.

The restaurant’s name was inspired by the fundamental connections between food, beer and booze — the way grains, for example, can be fermented to make beer, which can be distilled to make hard alcohol. “It’s not the word ‘infinity,’ it’s the symbol of it,” Michaud said. “That figure eight … crossing things over from the kitchen to the brewery to the distillery, and everything’s interconnected.”

The connections also allow an operation like this to economize. “A lot of the breweries and brewpubs I enjoy going to in Germany also have a small still,” Michaud said. “They essentially use it to cut waste — they make a bad batch or a batch goes wrong or they just have some dregs or whatever, they can distill that and get a schnapps out of it. It’s kind of waste not, want not. We have the opportunity to do that. If a batch of beer doesn’t quite go right, instead of dumping it down the drain, we distill it out.”

Michaud believes the craft distilling renaissance now underway in Maine, itself an outgrowth of the craft beer craze,  is a natural progression of the locavore movement — the desire of a growing number of people to consume food and drink originating close to home. It’s about “getting back to basics and just turning things back locally, small batches,” he said. “And most people are drinking [alcohol] while they’re eating, so now people are stepping away from the food and looking at, What else am I consuming?

“The craft beer scene is pretty big, and that’s been a great movement,” he continued. “The next step is just booze. It makes sense.”

 

This establishment was subsequently renamed Liquid Riot, and they’re still going strong. 

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