In Good Spirits - Kingswood Oxford

Alumni News

July 19, 2021

In Good Spirits

Al Capone did it with violence. Jay Gatsby did it with panache, and Christian Stromberg’s ’89 great-grandmother did it to make ends meet. 


“She was a moonshiner,” Stromberg said. “Her husband died as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, so she took the family to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during Prohibition. She made moonshine in the tub, and my grandfather would sell it on the streets in order to get by.”


So goes the Stromberg family folklore and Christian Stromberg’s entree into the world of spirits. He’s the owner of Saxtons Distillery, located on the outskirts of Brattleboro, Vt., a quaint town with a hippie vibe full of colorful, psychedelic murals, anti-establishment graffiti, and plenty of septuagenarian men in waist-length ponytails. If 1968 were a town, Brattleboro would be it.


He’s come a long way from constructing his first still at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) where he tinkered with the family gin recipe that he describes as “nothing fine drinking and very raw.” Now Stromberg produces a boutique suite of handcrafted Vermont-made gin, bourbon, rye, and liqueur: Sapling Maple Bourbon, Sapling Maple Liqueur, Perc Coffee Liqueur, Snowdrop Gin, and Sapling Maple Rye.


An engineer by trade, Stromberg worked for 14 years at Pratt and Whitney, Gore-Tex, and an automotive supplier in stifling office cubicles, where he explained sardonically, inheriting a departing employee’s stapler was considered a win because you could barter with your co-worker for other hard-to-find office supplies. Stifled by the lack of creativity in the corporate world, Stromberg wanted to break out on his own and create a place he could look forward to coming to every day. Of course, there are long days, even longer weekends, and dealing with the headaches when things don’t run according to plan but there are perks too. But now he heads to work wearing the Vermont state uniform of a gray polar fleece vest and a plaid shirt, where he’s greeted by Ginny, the sneaky always on a fast break tabby cat, who rids the place of critters. 


“Liquor seemed viable,” he said. “I didn’t have to convince people to buy it. Yes, there’s always brand awareness to contend with, but it was a different landscape 15 years ago when I started.That was a long time ago in the world of this. I didn’t realize everyone and their cousin was going to want to open a distillery. I just knew that I wanted to do it. There were probably 200 distillery licenses at the time and now there are over 2,000.”


Saxtons Distillery moved to a new location in 2018, a sprawling, corrugated-metal warehouse that was formerly a gymnastics studio. In the distillery section of the building, you can still glean the remnants of the original space, complete with the former foam and trampoline pits. In their place are 750-gallon industrial-size stills that Stromberg designed. Finding a new building with a sprinkler system was key because the original place on Route 30 lacked the proper fire codes required for working with highly flammable alcohol. There were unfortunate hiccups along the way; they ended up having to replace 90 percent of the sprinkler system because it wasn’t adequate.


Stromberg believes the true value of his product lies in his unique distilling process. Saxtons distills its Snowdrop Gin in a vacuum still and uses a lower temperature to avoid cooking the botanicals This process ensures that the gin retains the natural taste and smell of the fresh herbs used to make it.  (He credits some of his knowledge from a KO chemistry class taught by Chuck Glassmire.)


“If you boil them, like you boil anything, you are destroying a lot of those lighter aromatics,” he said.  “By doing it cooler, we are able to keep that lightness. It boils in here (he points to a huge metal tank), vapor comes up through here, through this cylinder, and picks up the aroma from these little baskets at the top where we have the botanicals. This is called a ‘vapor infusion.’ Some distillers will put all the ingredients in the pot the night before and let it soak. We’re trying to keep it lighter. I feel that if you’re putting it all in one big tank, you’re going to get a lot of heavier aromatics.”


Snowdrop uses 18 aromatics, including cardamom, coriander, and cocoa and employs a lighter touch when it comes to juniper, one of the main ingredients in gin. A heavier presence of juniper produces a pinier, more turpentine taste, Stromberg says.


“We strive for a balance,” he said. “It’s not like we want something specifically cardamom heavy. It’s got to balance with the rest of the aromatics. We have more licorice notes, which we like. It gives it a subtle sweetness – a perceived sweetness.  What is unique about Snowdrop is that we are making it cool, you are getting all the aromatics. If someone were to use the same botanicals without our process, they would not come up with a different gin.”


Stromberg produces 20,000 bottles of Snowdrop Gin a year, sold mostly through New England but also as far away as Califonia. He recommends gin cocktails, such as The Floradora (gin, lime juice, muddled raspberry, and ginger beer) which don’t lose the notes rather than the celebrated favorite of Snoop Dogg, “gin and juice” which drowns the flavor. For his martini, he suggests ½ an ounce of vermouth at most, though he concedes to garnishing it with two olives, even three if patrons insist. Saxton’s also produces a barrel version of gin, which is almost exclusively for sipping.


But gin is only one product in their lineup. Its Perc Coffee Liqueur, for instance, won the gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Saxtons purchases unaged bourbon locally, which they barrel for a couple of years as bourbon and then season a year more as a maple bourbon. The maple is blended in a secondary agent. Saxton has two new products in the pipeline – a honey bourbon and a honey barrel bourbon with a higher proof, a less sweet version of what they normally produce.


Stromberg says the most challenging aspect of the business is distribution. “We can make anything,” he said. “It’s just getting people interested is the trick. There is an ongoing effort to stay relevant. We don’t do on-premise promotions like the Tanqueray girls, but fortunately, I’ve been around for a while, so we have brand awareness.


But, he admits that losing the front tasting room in the distillery during COVID was difficult because the brand lost much of its visibility. The tasting room is an eclectic, quirky industrial space filled with a 20-foot long vintage wood shuffleboard table (carted with great difficulty from New Britain, Conn),  a foosball table (which Stromberg says was the real reason he went into the business), a ski lift with a fake alpine backdrop for selfies, and a very cool tricked out horse trailer embellished with a gold leaf interior, fairy lights, and copper bar, which will be towed to tasting shows and other outdoor events when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.


Although the business took a hit during COVID, Saxtons stayed open the entire time, though it did shutter its tasting room. The business was conducted through a front window, and outdoor heated pods were set up so people could still enjoy themselves. Stromberg even held a Zoom virtual tasting with fellow Wyverns last year. To stay afloat, Stromberg pivoted to making hand sanitizer with 170-proof gin until they were permitted to produce actual sanitizer, 


“We didn’t sell any drinking alcohol during that period,” he said. “People were buying cases and cases of sanitizer. In talking to the distributors, they said everyone was buying jug handles of liquor. Everyone was buying value. Our sales eventually recovered, but we lost in restaurants. We lost an entire sector of on-premise consumption. It’s going to take a while to come back.”


Saxtons, like many other businesses, was stalled by the pandemic. But Stromberg is poised for future successes. He seems to have inherited not only his great-grandmother’s moonshine recipe but her resourcefulness as well.


For more information visit www.

Main News