Nantucket Winery / Cisco Brewers Visit

Imagine a gorgeous island with well kept, grey shingle homes, cobblestone streets and world-class cuisine. Add in rowboats that bob on the tide and a wealth of fishing and swimming opportunities. Now season the experience with a winery, a brewery, and a distillery. You have just hit on the perfect combination that is the Nantucket Vineyards complex on Nantucket Island, Massachuetts.

Known by the names Nantucket Winery, Cisco Brewers, and the Triple 8 Distillery, this partnership is located about 2 miles from Nantucket town amidst quiet farmlands and warbling birds. A central courtyard area is surrounded by a collection of operational buildings and tasting rooms. There are even lovely gardens tucked into the corners. The winery is currently in the middle of expanding this courtyard to have three new tasting areas - one for beer, one for wine, and one for spirits. A bandstand will allow for live music and special events to be held here.

We spoke with Dean Long and Jay Harman, two of the three partners that run this organization. The winery / brewery / distillery employs 9 people total, including 3 bartenders for the tasting room. Our tour began in the main brewry area. Cisco Brewers makes a concerted effort to seek out the highest quality ingredients in their quest for the best tasting beer they can create. The base starts with whole barley grain, primarily from England. Jay offered us samples of grain to munch on, and it really was quite tasty! It was similar to eating raw oats for oatmeal, but sweeter. The brewery uses various roasts of barley. Just as with coffee, you can have light roast, dark roast, and other options. There is even a "chocolate" malt, which refers more to the color than the flavor. The flavor of the chocolate malt tends to add a coffee style finish to the beverage. A base malt provides the sugar for fermentation, while other malts are added in to subtly influence the flavor of the beer.

The barley is crunched up so that the starches inside each grain are exposed for better extraction. The mash is then sent into a container originally used by Sam Adams. This large open-topped tank is so voluminous that it doubles in the winter as a 12-person hot tub for the crew here! During the beer-making process,150F water is filtered through the mash, which steeps out the sugars. Once the sugar is dissolved into the water, that flavored sugar water is boiled and hops are added. Hops are green buds from plants which, interestingly, are related to the marijuana plant. The walnut-sized buds add the bitter flavor to beer. This bitter flavor helps to balance out the sweetness of the barley.

With the mixture at around 212F, the brewers cool it down to 70F before sending the liquid into the fermentation tanks. This temperature change is necessary because the tanks hold yeast - and yeast is a very finicky substance. Yeast only operates in a certain temperature range, and extreme heat can kill it. As Jay explained, they "crash cool it, and pump it in". Just as with winemaking, the yeast eats up the sugar and puts out alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide bubbles out as gas, while the alcohol gives the beer its kick.

After only 5 days or so, the fermentation is done - most of the sugar has converted to alcohol. By measuring the amount of sugar in the incoming liquid, and comparing it to the amount of sugar in the final product, the beer maker can calculate the percentage alcohol in the beer.

Note that fermentation creates heat - so part of the challenge during this time is to keep the fermentation tanks cool, so that the yeast remains at its ideal temperature to do its job. The fermentation tanks have a glycol sheath around the outside of each one, to help keep them at around 72F.

Once the fermentation is complete, the beer ages for at least 2 weeks to settle. Lagers can age for 2-3 months. This ageing time is factored into the charts of which types of beer tend to be drunk during which times of year, to work out production schedules. Summer lagers are made in the winter, so that they're ready for summer sales. Ales are made during the summer months.

Now it's time to prepare for bottling. Carbonation is added into the beer over 2-4 hours. Cooler beer can absorb more carbon dioxide into it, so careful attention is paid to the temperature of the beer and the saturation. Next, the brewers blow carbon dioxide into the bottles, to ensure no oxygen is in them. Oxygen would cause the beer to get stale quickly. The bottle is quickly filled up with beer, and then the bottle is immediately capped. The Cisco bottling line can complete 40 cases/hr, and for the 31-gallon kegs the brewers simply attach pipes to the main tank. Interestingly, the local Nantucket stores are not allowed to carry kegs, and no kegs are sold off-island for retail sale. So perhaps 10 restaurants off island get these kegs, and the rest are found right on Nantucket in the various bars.

When the brewery operation isn't making the fine beer selections, it is busy creating the whiskey wash. In essence this can be described as beer without hops. The wash is done fermenting in about 3 days, and then goes into the still. The tank in the brewery is so large that three separate runs of the still need to be completed to handle the wash created. On a good day, the brewers can distill 5 barrels of single malt.

It was time to taste some beer. The beer tasting area is a nice, wood-theme bar at the front end of the brewery. You can sit in the sunshine, enjoying the beer samples while looking back over all of the tanks and bags of grain used! The Whale's Tale Pale Ale is probably the most popular of their beer selections, and it's easy to see why. It's a nice, light brown color, with a gentle foam. The beer is well balanced between the bitter tang of hops and the smooth yeasty base. The Bailey's Blonde Ale is named after a blonde lab which once kept watch over the brewery area. This is a fresh, easy drinking ale with a lovely citrus flavor.

We strolled from the brewery building over to the still area. On the way, we passed a garden plot where strings stretched from the ground up over the roof of the brewery. Lines of hop plants were winding their ways up those guides, with their vibrant green leafy tendrils currently reaching to chest high. Jay told us that in another 2 weeks the hops would easily be up over the top of the building. The brewers have measured the plants growth and have seen them climb over 5" in a single day.

It was time to look over the still. The winery applied for a brewery license back in 1995, and the license to distill in 1997. It wasn't until 2000 that the Massachusetts government gave the Triple 8 Distillery the approval to begin distilling. Then, unfortunately, the still building caught fire - the brewers had to move everything and start up again. Dean's initial plan was to make eau de vie, or clear brandies created from the leftover products from the winemaking process. However, it was pretty clear from the onset that whiskey was in high demand locally, and the winemakers liked this idea as well. Nantucket Winery is currently the only single-malt winery on the east coast, and there are only a few in the entire US.

Nantucket brought in an expert to help them get started on whiskey making, and sold futures on whiskey barrels. As the whiskey was ageing, they launched the 888 Vodka which became an instant hit. The 888 is even sold in Las Vegas and the Washington DC area. The brewers have added an orange vodka and cranberry vodka, the latter made from berries grown in a local, organic bog. The winery next added in gin and rum products, each gaining its own loyal market. Still, the passion for whiskey is still there. "Single malt whiskey is definitely the heart and soul of our operation," said Jay with a smile. The owners are always tweaking their operation to develop even better quality products. For example, the winery is now experimenting with different styles of barrels, to see how they enhance the flavors of the alcohols.

Production has slowly ramped up over time. In 2000, the brewers created only 4 barrels of single malt whiskey. In 2001 they had 25, and by 2002 they had made 30. The samples taken over the years indicate that result of this hand-crafted care is a truly fantastic product. According to experts, the Nantucket whiskey already tastes like a 7-8 year old whiskey.

Part of what the winery owners have to keep an eye on is the evaporation, or "Angel's Share", that occurs naturally in wood barrels. For example in Scotland around 5% of whiskey is lost to evaporation in the first year, then another 2% each year after that. If Nantucket ages their whiskey for 18 years, they could lose up to 40% of their product. As this is a single barrel single malt whiskey, the barrel can't be topped off or added to in any way.

Demand for the whiskey is alredy high. Investors can reserve a barrel for $3,000. The high praise for the liquid - currently named "Notch" - has them estimating that the bottles will sell for $150/bottle or perhaps even more. With around 200 bottles of whiskey in each barrel, that equates to quite a profit for each investor. Nantucket currently has a year's backlog of investors waiting for their barrels of whiskey!

Now it was time to move on to the wines. Nantucket vineyards has tried many times to grow vines on the island, but each attempt has failed. Last year they even tried just to set up a demo vineyard to show visitors what grape vines looked like - and even those vines died. The island weather is simply not hospitable to grape vine growing. Instead, Dean works closely with vineyard managers in Oregon and Washington, deciding which grapes to bring in each year. As peoples' tastes change, the mix of wines is adjusted to match. For example, in the past year Syrah has become the new best-seller.

The winery production is growing prodigiously. Jay said that Dean "bought more grapes this year than ever before - we've doubled our production from last year." The winery used to bring in Chardonnay from the Lenz winery on Long Island, but now those grapes come in from the west coast as well. The Syrah comes from the Columbia River area of Washington.

We began by tasting the semi-sweet pinot gris. This is a great summer wine, with a sweet, fresh berry and gooseberry flavor, having a hint of melon and vanilla. Next, the dry pinot gris, which has the same melon flavor with a more crisp, gentle aspect and a hint of green berry. The Syrah was a lovely wine with gentle spices and tannins, and a nice, fresh, fruity flavor with nice mouth feel. There are hints of pepper and juicy fruit.

Interestingly, while the grapes in the bottle are from 2003, the winery legally cannot put the vintage on the bottle unless the grapes come from a state that touches Massachusetts. That means that they can show vintages when they use New York grapes - because western Massachusetts touches New York. However, they can't use vintages with Oregon grapes, because Massachusetts does not touch Oregon! Talk about a silly law that needs to be changed ...

The winery is a very pleasant 2 mile walk from town, something that I recommend highly to anyone who visits the island in nice weather. Whether you take the ferry over, ride in a plane or find another way onto the island, be sure to bring some bottle carriers with you. After spending a day sampling at the Nantucket Vineyards complex, you're going to want to bring quite a number of bottles home with you to enjoy!

Photo Album from the Nantucket Winery Visit
Main Page for 2005 Nantucket Wine Festival Reviews

Master Wine Event Listing

All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.