Next week Smugglers’ Notch Distillery plans a ribbon cutting celebration for its new space in Jeffersonville. It’s a prime example of ongoing economic changes in Lamoille County, as the forestry industry is replaced with businesses fueled by tourism.
When Bell-Gates Lumber shuttered its doors about two decades ago, it left a large void in the middle of Jeffersonville. Today the land is owned by the village, and most of the sawmill infrastructure has come down. What is left is two concrete silos that have been turned into public art murals and, across the road, the lumber company’s former office and machine shop.
Now that building houses Smugglers’ Notch Distillery, and its retail shop and tasting room. Ron and Jeremy Elliott, a father-and-son team, moved their business there in 2009.
"I’m the chemistry guy, the production side, and he’s more of the financial guy – making sure we can pay the bills," explained Jeremy Elliott, the younger Elliott. "We started the business in 2006, and we sold our first bottle in 2010. And from there, we’ve been growing at a pretty good rate for the last eight years now. So, we’ve seen a lot of growth."
So much growth, that they need more space. Elliott said they wanted to keep the business in Cambridge, home of their company’s namesake, Smugglers’ Notch.
The town of Cambridge has two villages: Jeffersonville and Cambridge. But as Cambridge Economic Development Advisory Committee member Justin Marsh explained, despite the two village centers, there are few commercial properties suitable to grow the distillery.
"They’ve been actively looking for new space in town, and it’s been a struggle because Cambridge is in a flood plain. ... Route 15, where you would think we would have a hub of economic growth, is sort of blocked by agriculture land. And that agriculture land serves as a flood basin," Marsh said. "So, can’t really develop much along Route 15. So you have to kind of work with what’s already there."
What’s already there, directly across from the old Bell-Gates silos, is another former timber-industry business. It was the workshop, warehouse and showroom for a now-closed post-and-beam builder called Northwoods Joinery.
And now it’s Smugglers’ Notch Distillery’s future home.
Marsh said while the lumber industry used to be a big economic driver in town, now tourism has taken its place – led by Smugglers’ Notch ski area.
Elliott has seen the effects at his Jeffersonville distillery and tasting room, as well as his retail spaces in Waterbury and Burlington.
"I know what’s driving our business is there’s a lot more tourists around," he said.
And that’s driving a lot of relatively new alcohol producing businesses in Lamoille County, which is home to two major ski resorts – Smugglers’ Notch and Stowe.
The rural north-central Vermont county is now also home to at least a half-dozen breweries, a winery, a cidery and two distilleries. Many of them, like Smugglers’ Notch Distillery, are making highly sought-after products.
"So I’m not sure how people find out about us, but yeah, we’re one of the top 10 vodka distilleries in the U.S. by USA Today," said Elliott. "And our original vodka still is the highest-rated domestic vodka in the U.S."
While Elliott said he can’t speak for the other local beverage producers, he knows why he started and grew his business here.
"I don’t know what makes Lamoille County so special in that regard," Elliott said. "Maybe it’s the people. Maybe it’s the location. I know why I live in Lamoille County. It’s because I love to recreate. And so, I can’t think of a better spot to live than a spot that I recreate all the time."
That’s a bonus when it comes to attracting and maintaining employees as well. Smugglers’ Notch Distillery now has 22 full- and part-time employees, and the product line has grown from just vodka to include rum, gin, bourbon and whiskey.
Elliott said they plan to add more jobs once the company moves into its bigger space.