YORK, Maine — It takes 24 months to create a straight bourbon. It’s taken David Woods 13 months and counting to turn the neglected barn in York Corner into a distillery of bourbon whiskey, vodka and other premier quaffables.
He first laid eyes on the New England relic in 1983 when “the old beat up barn” was for sale. At the time, the eager 20-something turned down the opportunity to buy it. Now, decades later and with multiple businesses under his belt, Woods has sunk a million dollars into the circa 1887 barn for the newly expanded production facility of Wiggly Bridge Distillery.
“I love the bones of this old building,” said Woods on a recent tour of the Route 1 work-in-progress as carpenters whizzed about.
Amid the serial entrepreneur’s holdings, which include a pizzeria, a campground and a coffee shop, Wiggly Bridge is his first venture into manufacturing. The small-batch distillery opened in York Beach in 2013 and soon outgrew its space. The startup’s bourbon whiskey, white whiskey, vodka and rums have become so popular across Maine and New Hampshire that Woods needed to increase production to stay alive.
By opening a second, two-still distillery, he expects to break into new markets such as Massachusetts to meet the public’s thirst for handcrafted spirits.
To get ready for a spring opening, his crew has been working around the clock.
A year ago, the barn, which had been a hardware store for 30 years, was is rough shape. It was listing, saddled with uneven floors, and chipmunks had chewed through its electrical wiring. The dirt foundation on the south side needed a do-over. And that was the short list.
“We saved all the hand-cut nails and spikes and reused them along with repurposed lumber,” said Woods. “Very little was thrown away.”
Most material came from the funky foundation on the south side. Between a multi-layered network of tree limbs and telephone poles, a two-inch sheet of hay and horse manure was unearthed. Where it wasn’t rotted, lumber was removed plank by plank and reused elsewhere in the barn.
Now poured concrete and new windows delineate the production room, where spirits will be made in stills made by his son, David Woods II. This alchemy will be on display when the barn doors open for tours and tastings.
Future plans include opening an intimate steakhouse in the mezzanine above with live acoustic music and food prepared table side. Soon the smell of sawdust will be replaced with the earthy scent of sour mash, molasses and citrus.
“It’s a little bit of a gamble. We didn’t know what it would entail,” said Woods.
Now that he’s nearing completion, he admits refurbishing an old barn for modern use “is a money pit.”
“It would’ve been cheaper to tear it down and start over,” said Woods, but the York man wanted to protect the utilitarian strength and dignity of the historic barn. “I hate seeing them being torn down.”
Across the state reclaimed salvage companies are knocking down barns fast. Barn boards, beams and pillars are sought-after elements for home design.
“They are just being decimated all over the place. We are turning into a vanilla society, and it makes me nauseous,” said Woods.
The carpenter on this job, Adam Stevens, admitted these gigs are increasingly rare in Southern Maine.
“Barn restoration is a dying thing. Most of the time we are tearing them down,” said Stevens.
This barn’s hemlock ceiling, well-worn floors and experienced pillars are getting the reverse treatment. In the far corner where horse stalls once stood, a new tasting bar will soon attract aficionados. Though the counter is new, the front of the bar is made of galvanized sheeting and old floorboards. The floor in the tasting area was rotted and replaced with hemlock planks.
“I didn’t want it to look new,” said Woods, gesturing to the well-worn wooden floor beneath his feet. It will be washed, but not buffed or replaced. “Let it show its age,” said Woods.
And speaking of age, the former root cellar below is now lined with new American white oak barrels filled with aging spirits. Surrounded by earthen rock, the scene calls to mind the caves of old-world wine vineyards. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for a spirits cellar.
Manure and hay used in the foundation “may influence some of the stuff in the wood; it could change our profile,” said David Woods, who is not alarmed, but rather intrigued by the possibility.
For his son, working in a barn “feels like home.”
Added his father, “it’s like an old pair of slippers.”
Just like their spirits, “this building needs conditioning.”