Split Rock Distilling Horseradish Vodka with Damariscotta River oysters. Credit: Courtesy of Topher Mallory

The Damariscotta River boasts a rich diversity of oysters, from the meaty, briny Norumbega to the fine, flinty European Flat. As aspiring distillers, Topher Mallory and Matt Page preferred their oysters as shooters: slurped down with vodka poured directly into the half shell.

In the spring of 2016, Mallory and Page were in the throes of getting Split Rock Distilling up and running when they took a break to spend some time on the river with their friends, Chip Holmes and Olga Oros. Holmes and Oros’ company Damariscotta River Cruises hosts tours of the river, complete with an on-board oyster bar where the friends spent the evening enjoying oyster shooters and each other’s company.

Oros, who is Hungarian, has always had a penchant for horseradish. She had been trying to make her own homemade horseradish-infused vodka — a perfect complement, she reasoned, to oyster shooters on the half shell — but she had a feeling that Mallory and Page might be able to perfect it.

Oros suggested the idea; Mallory and Page ran with it.

Credit: Courtesy of Topher Mallory

Even though the scheduled opening day for the distillery was only months away, the pair decided to try and make their own horseradish vodka. While there were other horseradish vodkas on the market, Split Rock Distilling aimed to distinguish itself by making their organic vodka from scratch with 100 percent New England-grown grains.

Mallory and Page began experimenting. They tried adding the horseradish directly into a vat of vodka; the favor was far too intense. Then they experimented with an infusion process, soaking cheesecloth sachets filled with skinned and minced horseradish root in the vodka like tea bags. Finally, the flavor was just right.

“The taste we were shooting for was something earthy and rooty,” Mallory said. “We are trying to have a little mouthfeel and heat, but we want to avoid that sinus-clearing, over-the-top horseradish flavor.”

Mallory confessed that he and Page had very little experience with the spicy root prior to their experimentation. The early stages of hand-mincing horseradish were painful at times. “We weren’t prepared for the visceral experience,” he admitted. “It’s in the air, it’s on your hands. We were both crying instantaneously.”

Eventually, they learned how to manage the sting. “We most certainly do not touch our horseradish if we cannot open our loading dock door and turn a fan on,” Page said with a laugh.

Credit: Courtesy of Topher Mallory

Once they had perfected the product, Mallory and Page both knew they had something special. They decided to add horseradish vodka to their lineup of flagship spirits for Split Rock Distilling’s opening day, along with other vodka varietals, gin and bourbon whiskey.

Because they aimed to be a wholly organic distillery, they needed an organic horseradish supplier, and one that was equipped to supply it in bulk. Since horseradish has not reached the same level of popularity stateside as it has in, say, Hungary (where it is a mainstay spice, and often served pickled), few farmers grow it, and those who do grow it in small amounts (most farmers only sell a few pounds of horseradish per season).

“One of the biggest challenges was finding 50 or 60 pounds of organic horseradish,” Page said.

When Mallory and Page called organic farms asking for their mass quantities of horseradish, the farmers balked and questioned if they maybe had the number wrong.

But Mallory and Page were determined: they wanted horseradish in mass quantities, they wanted it organic, and they wanted to get it in Maine.

Eventually, they found Snakeroot Farm in Pittsfield. Owner Tom Roberts told the pair that he had a bed of horseradish that had laid fallow for a while, but there might be some lingering roots remaining. Horseradish grows from pieces of the root. “One you’ve got it growing it’s actually hard to kill,” Roberts explained, “you just have to watch out for perennial weeds.”

Credit: Courtesy of Topher Mallory

Page drove out to Pittsfield to check it out. He was immediately enamored with Snakeroot Farm and their zero-waste ethos. Roberts showed Page the patch — there was, as he predicted, horseradish still in the ground, about 30 pounds worth. Roberts showed the enthusiastic distiller how dig up the root, which Roberts described as looking like a “big ugly carrot,” and cut and replant the tops so they can regrow them for years to come.

“I just wanted to show him what it was like,” Roberts said. “We dug a plant, he was amazed all the work that went into it for what you got.”

From that fateful day in the horseradish patch, Split Rock Distilling and Snakeroot Farm formed a business partnership — and friendship.

“From there on the relationship really sparked,” Page said. “The horseradish vodka of course took off, so now Tom is growing horseradish fields for us.”

The relationship is mutually beneficial. “For us it’s this windfall that people actually want lots of horseradish,” Roberts said. “It takes up space but it’s easy to grow, and it’s a low maintenance crop.”

Roberts said they are hoping to expand the patch by at least a third in the coming season.

Credit: Courtesy of Topher Mallory

Over the past few years, Split Rock Distilling has carved out a tidy niche in the local liquor market. Currently, nearly 30 retailers and bars around the state of Maine carry the company’s spirits, and it will be available in stores in New York and California in 2019. Popular Maine establishments have added the liquor into regular rotation including Bullwinkle’s Bistro, a popular spot for snow sport enthusiasts recreating at Sugarloaf Mountain, which has incorporated the horseradish vodka into their creative Bloody Mary menu.

Though the Bloody Mary seems a natural choice for mixologists using horseradish vodka, Mallory and Page both swore they did not think of it until later. Even still, they embrace some more unconventional pairings with their quirky flavored liquor.

Mallory likes to prepare his horseradish vodka with cranberry juice and simple syrup for a festive yuletide cocktail; Page prefers his horseradish vodka in a martini, complete with a garlic stuffed olive skewered with a spear of rosemary.

“It’s a lot more versatile than you’d think something as distinct as horseradish vodka could be,” Mallory said.