Three friends take on big brands with Preston-based spirits company

Bill Sweeney, co-owner and general counsel of Maple Lane Spirits LLC of Preston, applies a sealing tape as he bottles Foggy Harbor Cassis liqueur on June 22 in Preston. The company also makes vodka, gin and is toying with the idea of adding spiced rum or bourbon to their line.
Bill Sweeney, co-owner and general counsel of Maple Lane Spirits LLC of Preston, applies a sealing tape as he bottles Foggy Harbor Cassis liqueur on June 22 in Preston. The company also makes vodka, gin and is toying with the idea of adding spiced rum or bourbon to their line. Tim Martin The Day Buy Photo

Have you heard this one? A surveyor, an attorney and a farmer walk into a bar and come out with a business plan to start a new company that makes award-winning vodka.

Actually, that's no joke.

Longtime friends John Paul "JP" Mereen of Norwich, New London attorney William Sweeney of Canterbury and Allyn Brown, owner of Maple Lane Farms in Preston, spent many hours socializing at Fat Cat Grill & Bar on West Main Street in Norwich and toying with the idea of launching a small-batch, distilled spirits plant, one of only four in the state.

Mereen, a former Norwich alderman who is now a surveyor, attended seminars "and got excited." He raised the idea with Brown, an old high school buddy, and Sweeney. But the poor economy stalled any real plans until two years ago, when the three friends decided to put their ideas on paper, work out their recipes, and start the lengthy, tedious permitting process of creating Foggy Harbor Vodka.

"We realized the three of us were uniquely qualified," Sweeney said. "JP had the creative idea. Allyn has been running Maple Lane Farms and has the facility, and I've been doing liquor permitting at the state and federal level. Together, it just makes sense."

Even so, getting Maple Lane Spirits LLC of Preston off the ground took a lot longer than expected, cost twice as much as they anticipated and required "hundreds and hundreds of hours" of their time.

"It's also been a lot of fun, too," Sweeney said.

Foggy Harbor isn't ready to invest in a $500,000 distillery, Sweeney said, so the company is renting distillery time at Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery, in Warwick, N.Y., to produce the ethanol alcohol. The vodka is made from corn grain distilled to 190 proof. That base is sent back to Foggy Harbor, and the local producers rectify it to the alcohol level they desire - 80 proof. The details of the method are confidential, Mereen said.

The trio enlisted Mereen's artistic wife, Nancy Bram-Mereen, to draw a fictional tall ship shrouded in fog for the labeling, and Foggy Harbor hit the shelves in Connecticut liquor stores and bars on Dec. 1 - too late to take full advantage of the holiday season and just in time for the winter lull in liquor sales, they said. The marketing plan was Mereen bringing sample bottles to bars and liquor stores to try to get them to carry this new, elegantly bottled local vodka.

Through mid-June, Maple Lane Spirits has sold about 400 cases of six bottles per case. Distributed by Brescome Barton Inc. of North Haven, it also is sold in 70 retail stores and 22 bars throughout the state. The vodka also recently received approval for sale in Rhode Island, and Mereen said it will hit shelves there within the next two weeks.

In May, Mereen submitted two bottles to the Spirits International Prestige Awards contest. Foggy Harbor came home with a gold medal in the taste competition and a bronze for presentation, for its antique-style glass bottle, the blue-shaded ship label and the hand-dipped blue wax seal.

"We were equally happy with the bronze presentation award as we were with the gold," Mereen said. "We beat out big corporations with marketing departments and experts in Russia and eastern Europe."

In addition to Nancy Bram-Mereen's ship design, the back label sports JP Mereen's unique take on the mundane "drink responsibly" tagline:

"It is not wise to find one's self with a sheet in the wind's eye when the air is heavy with fog ... better to drop the hook, just stay put, and enjoy the Foggy Harbor."

Competitive business

Brett Calkins, director of trade development for distributor Brescome Barton, said Maple Lane Spirits is entering a fast-growing craft distillery industry. The state has only a few similar producers, but Brescome Barton distributes products for several small-batch distilleries, including companies in Philadelphia, upstate New York and a company on the West Coast.

Foggy Harbor is the company's first Connecticut-made distilled product.

"It's not very easy to get started," Calkins said. "There's the cost of distilling, designing a label. It takes quite a big investment. They are surpassing our expectations. We will sell a few thousand cases this year, so that's pretty good for a startup."

Local taste-tests have proved just as successful.

Betsy Eichholz, owner of Towne Liquor in Norwich, has sold Foggy Harbor Vodka since the day it became available. She said she learned from the distributor that she has sold twice the number of cases of Foggy Harbor as any other retail outlet. She also has held two taste-testing events in her Norwichtown store, inviting customers to sample half an ounce over ice.

"Towne Liquor Store believes in supporting local businesses," she said. "I know all three of the gentlemen. They're all local and involved in this endeavor."

Stephan Nousiopoulos, owner of Fat Cat Grill & Bar, called Foggy Harbor "an awesome, awesome product." He said last week that he had no idea the three partners worked out their plans at his bar and said he was "honored" to have the connection.

Fat Cat has done taste testings, too, some of them blind competitive tests. It routinely offers a sip to customers who come in and order vodka to see whether they want to try Foggy Harbor.

"We did a taste-test with customers and they picked it out over of some of the big name products, Skyy and Absolut," Nousiopoulos said. "And they always kept picking Foggy Harbor. We didn't tell them what it was, just told them we are checking a new product."

Black currants infusion

Maple Lane Spirits is hardly resting on its vodka laurels.

Two weeks ago, the company received final label approval - the last approval needed - for a new product, Foggy Harbor Cassis, a bold 18 percent alcohol, black currant liqueur made with Maple Lane-grown signature black currants. When the deep purple liqueur, with its purple hued Foggy Harbor label on the 375-ml bottle and shiny black wax seal, hits the shelves on July 1, it will be the first cassis made in America to be sold in Connecticut.

Cassis is the French name for the black currant, and with Maple Lane Farms as the largest black currant grower in North America, there's little competition. The liqueur is popular in Europe and Canada, where, as the back label says, it is enjoyed mixed with white wine or Champagne. Mereen suggested trying it with seltzer water or drizzling it over vanilla ice cream.

The process begins with a high-quality ethanol, Mereen said. Black currant berries are soaked and infused into the ethanol, then crushed and strained.

On June 22, the three partners celebrated the final approval with an inaugural bottling run to package the first cases of Foggy Harbor Cassis at the Maple Lane Farms plant.

Mereen, who gave himself the company title of concept development officer, manned the single-bottle labeling machine, recalculating by the millimeter to ensure that front and back labels were spaced equally.

The few rejects with uneven labels were set aside to be used as the company's samples when they visit bars and liquor stores to market their wares.

"We have to account for every drop," Brown said of federal and state liquor regulations, "even the spillage."

Sweeney said his title as general counsel means he gets to carefully stick a narrow band of strapping tape across the cork lid, leaving a half-inch tab sticking out at the end.

Brown, the company manager, stood at the 400-degree pot of melted synthetic wax to hand-dip each bottle. The little band of tape becomes the pull tab to tear through the wax and open the bottle.

After a short time, Mereen and Brown switched positions.

"You can tell when I'm doing the dipping," he said, "because I'm left-handed, and the wax is slanted in the other direction."

Sweeney smiled at the observation.

"When you buy a bottle of Foggy Harbor, you can be assured that the three owners of the company all had placed their hands on that bottle, personally," he said.

The initial cassis bottling and labeling run produced 50 cases of 300 bottles. They will hit retail stores and bars first in Connecticut and soon after that in Rhode Island.

"This is just the first run," Mereen said optimistically. "Next time we go to do a run, it will be hundreds of cases."

The three got another bit of good news on June 19 with final state of Connecticut approval for Foggy Harbor distilled gin "with a hint of black currant." The gin will have the necessary botanicals - juniper, coriander and angelica - along with Maple Lane's black currants, infused together.

The company next needs state approval for the pricing of the gin before bottling begins - with the Foggy Harbor label shaded green and a green wax seal - and before selling it in Rhode Island by late July and Connecticut in August.

While still a fledgling company, Foggy Harbor wants to make itself known in the Norwich community beyond the liquor stores and bars. Maple Lane Spirits donated a basket of vodka products to the recent auction fundraiser for the Norwich Harbor July 4 fireworks. And Foggy Harbor is one of several title sponsors of the Harp & Dragon Irish Pub's parking garage rooftop fireworks dining fundraiser.

The company also has ambitious future plans. Next year's Spirits International Prestige Awards will have a category for serial products. Maple Lane plans to submit all three Foggy Harbor approved products, the vodka, cassis and gin.

Mereen isn't done in the creativity department either. Maple Lane's small-batch distilled spirits license prohibits the company from branching out into brewed beers or wine. But Mereen has other plans.

"Our next idea is to age in barrels," Mereen said. "We're contemplating bourbon or spiced rum."

c.bessette@theday.com

A bottle of Foggy Harbor Vodca, one of the products offered by Maple Lane Spirits LLC of Preston.
A bottle of Foggy Harbor Vodca, one of the products offered by Maple Lane Spirits LLC of Preston. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo
The three owners of Maple Lane Spirits LLC of Preston, from left, John Paul Mereen, concept development, Bill Sweeney, general counsel, and Allyn Brown III, manager, bottle their Foggy Harbor Cassis, June 22, at their Preston facility.
The three owners of Maple Lane Spirits LLC of Preston, from left, John Paul Mereen, concept development, Bill Sweeney, general counsel, and Allyn Brown III, manager, bottle their Foggy Harbor Cassis, June 22, at their Preston facility. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo
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