Potatoes and blueberries are two of Maine’s most recognizable products.
Recipes can be found in staggering numbers for each, though it’s rare to find them in the same recipe. Well, Cold River Vodka in Freeport found a way to mix the two
with the company’s second product — and first flavored vodka. Using Maine potatoes from
Green Thumb Farm, natural spring water and Wyman’s Maine blueberries,
distillers at Cold River created a blueberry vodka that Wine
Enthusiast recognized in its “Nex-Gen Flavored Vodka” category.

But the Maine company’s blueberry vodka is just the latest in an effort by the nation’s only maker of ground-to-glass potato vodka — raising the potatoes and bringing the product right through to bottling — to expand its award-winning product line and extend its reach across the country.

Cold River’s story begins several years ago. When the potato market started to wane at the height of the low-carbohydrate diet craze, Donnie Thibodeau, a fourth-generation potato farmer and owner of Green Thumb Farm in Fryeburg, and his brother, Lee, a medical doctor, began looking at ways to diversify the farm’s revenue and generate alternatives.

The two had grown up in Presque Isle, the heart of Maine’s potato country, hearing
their father and uncles talk about their history of turning potatoes
into vodka, so the brothers didn’t have to think too far outside the french fry and potato chip box to come up with the idea of making potato vodka.

They soon enlisted Lee’s former college roommate, Bob Harkins, who had recently left his job as a ski area executive, to investigate the potential. They then took on another partner, Chris Dowe, who had expertise as a brewery consultant. After two-and-a-half years of study, research and work, Harkins says, in 2005 the product was ready for sale.

They named it in honor of the river in western Maine that supplies the aquifer tapped for the vodka. And with Thibodeau’s farm supplying the potatoes, Cold River Vodka was a 100 percent all-Maine product, something its owners are proud of. Their Web site announces: “Cold River Vodka … The spirit of Maine.”


The secret to success

In a short period of time, Cold River has become multi-award-winning. It has been named Best America
Vodka by “Kindred Spirits 2” in 2008, rated the top vodka on Wine Enthusiast’s spirits
list this year and earned the magazine’s only “Classic (96-100)/Highest Recommendation” rating for vodka in 2008, to name a few.

There’s nothing simple about making a vodka that has earned so many awards and accolades. Assistant Distiller Ben Francis says it starts with three one-ton bags of potatoes to make the mash — 1,200 gallons’ worth. It takes five mashes to get one batch. Ultimately, it takes 12 1/2 pounds of potatoes to make one bottle, with the distillery producing 54,000 bottles this year.

“The product’s unique because it’s made with potato,” said Francis. Cold River is one of only two U.S. vodka makers who use potatoes. “You get a little bit of a different alcohol with potato; the nose is a little bit more round and soft, the feel to it in your mouth is a bit more thick and a there’s a little bit of sugar from the potato that’s not able to be fermented, and it stays with the alcohol.”

The mash is placed in one of three fermentation
stills (all the stainless steel stills were manufactured specifically for Cold River Vodka by McCann Fabrications in New Gloucester), and after 24 hours the mixture is transferred to the copper
distillation chamber, where the mixture goes through three cycles of

The first cycle is more of a “campaign of distillation,” says Francis (four distillations at three-and-a-half hours each), which readies the product for a second distillation.


“(The copper) chemically reacts to impurities in the spirits, so it
removes a lot of sulfur compounds,” said Francis. “The sulfur compounds
stick to the inside, so that means we need to clean it (really well)
for it to do what it’s designed to do.”

The fermented “soup” is transferred into the distillation pot and a
steam jacket heats the mixture indirectly, converting the alcohol from
a liquid to a vapor. The vapor rises through a series of rectification
chambers as it begins the cooling process. The copper still removes
impurities, so filtration is avoided.

“The alcohol basically increases in concentration every time,” said Francis. “So that means it can convert back to a vapor and go to the next level.”

The first distillation yields 100 gallons of vodka that
is 50 percent alcohol by volume. During the second distillation,
the vapor rises through rectification chambers 34-and-a-half feet high, before the
cooling process, yielding a product that is  95 percent alcohol by volume. The third
distillation refines the product to 96.2 percent alcohol by volume, nearly the limit of purification.

It takes five mashes and 10 days for Francis, Dowe and day assistant distiller Joe Swanson to distill one batch of vodka. That means long days and nights, with very little automated assistance. 

Once the distillation process has finished, the alcohol is mixed with water to make the final product. With the blueberry vodka, a juice is made from alcohol-soaked Wyman’s Maine blueberries and then added to the product, yielding a 40 percent  alcohol-by-volume flavored vodka that has just 1 percent sugar.

“When you use potato, and you process it yourself and use the copper, you get a product that retains a lot of the uniqueness of the potato and makes it a lot different than other (vodkas) that are on the shelf,” said Francis.

Currently available in 17 states, as well as England and British
Columbia, the partners are shooting even higher. In five years, Harkins says he’d like to see Cold River Vodka become a national brand. The capacity at the Freeport distillery is limited, so the partners are already planning to build another distillery at the farm in Fryeburg. But they will keep the current location for tours and the gift shop. For information on a tour, see the related information or go to the company’s Web site at coldrivervodka.com.

For more information

  • Visit: 437 Route 1 in Freeport
  • Hours: Distillery and gift shop open 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week in the summer; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday during the rest of the year. Call ahead for tours.
  • Gift shop: Buy both the classic and blueberry vodkas and related products
  • Phone: 207-865-4828
  • Online: coldrivervodka.com or e-mail info@coldrivervodka.com

Award-winning vodkas

  • The Best American Vodka; Paul Pacult in his 2008 book “Kindred Spirits 2”
  • In Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 50 Spirits” 2008, rated the No. 1 vodka in the world (“Highest Recommended Vodkas” rating)
  • Wine Enthusiast’s “Nex-Gen Flavored Vodkas” for Blueberry Vodka
  • Double Gold in the World Spirits Competition, San Francisco, 2008
  • Spirit Journal “Highest Recommended” 2007

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