Flag Hill Winery

Back in early May, the Lady Friend and I ventured back up to our Moo Hampshire homeland for a Mothers’ Day visit to our respective parental units. It had been a tradition in her family that they do some sort of event and/or dinner on the Saturday preceding Mothers’ Day, rather than the actual acknowledged holiday. She and her sister had previously taken their mother on various wine tastings, and this year it was decided to try out Flag Hill Winery, [somewhat] nearby in Lee, NH.

I had been to Flag Hill before several years ago with some Maine friends. Every fall they hold a “Harvest Fest” where you enter into a lottery to be selected for helping bring in the grape harvest. You show up on a Saturday morning with a pair of clippers, and go to work cutting the grape bunches from the vines row by row by endless row. Around noonish (or whenever the vines have been plucked clean) there’s a meal provided (roasted chicken if I remember correctly), a souvenir wine glass and some wine tastings as payment. Tours are offered, and an opportunity to stomp some grapes. Basically, they get free volunteer labor to bring in the grapes. Worth the experience, but not one I’m likely to repeat. I’d rather brew some beer.

Our visit on this rainy Saturday, however, had a different goal in mind: tastings. Flag Hill offers free tastings of their wine and spirits, or, as we discovered, tastings of the wine OR spirits, not both on the same visit. Lady Friend, Sister and their mother all opted for the wine, while I delved into the liquors and liqueurs. A number of spirits are offered: their flagship General John Stark Vodka, Karner Blue Gin, a relatively new product, Josiah Bartlett Apple Brandy, Graham’s Grappa, and a number of fruit liqueurs, cranberry, blueberry, raspberry, and sugar maple.

I can’t speak for any of the wines, as the womenfolk were busy with that part of the visit, but the spirits were generally quite good. My tasting impressions are as follows:

– General John Stark Vodka: this is a 100% apple vodka, and though it’s supposed to be a neutral spirit, I swore I could smell hints of fresh apple on the nose. There was no such taste in the spirit itself, and the vodka was pure and dry. I’m not a vodka fan, but I found no fault with this one.

– Karner Blue Gin: apparently this is a recent addition to the distillery’s product line. I found it to be light and floral, and generally tasty, despite my rather ambivalent attitude towards gin in general. The squarish bottle was quite nice with a screened blue butterfly on the label.

– Josiah Bartlett Apple Brandy: I have been building an interest in apple brandy/applejack, and tried my hand at freeze-distilling, which didn’t really work out all that well. Applejack had traditionally been freeze-distilled in the colonial days, but Flag Hill uses regular evaporative distillation. This apple brandy was very good, with a dry apple taste and warm brandy finish.

– Graham’s Grappa: I’m not too familiar with tasting grappa/raki, so I don’t have much to compare this to, but it was strong and tasty, though certainly had an alcoholic burn. Apparently “grappa” is now a protected term in Europe (like cognac), and refers to the grape-based beverage produced exclusively in Italy, though in the US it’s a generic title.

– Cranberry: this was excellent. Fresh, tart, cranberry taste which cut through any possible alcohol burn. I should have bought a bottle of this.

– Blueberry: not so excellent. Mild blueberry flavor, but a harsh burn. Tasted like vodka spiked with blueberry flavor, which is essentially what it IS, but that doesn’t mean it has to taste like it.

– Raspberry: good, but a bit too sweet and syrupy. Lady Friend sneaked a taste, and liked it so much that she bought a bottle to use as a substitute for Chambord.

– Sugar Maple: Yikes. Super, cloyingly sweet. Very tasty, but tastes like nothing but sweet mapley sugar syrup. You could put this over ice cream or in place of syrup on pancakes. I would never guess that there was alcohol in it. Delicious.

I’m told the wines were decent, but not great, and none of the womens bought a bottle. Lady Friend’s theory is that most places like this buy grapes from other vineyards to add to their blends. Apparently Flag Hill doesn’t do this, claiming to be the only NH winery to grow all of their grapes on the premises, and the less-than-ideal growing conditions in NH make acceptable, but not outstanding wines. The spirits were all perfectly acceptable to me, and I love collecting bottles that are more unique than the usual mass-produced fare. What would be more interesting: pulling a bottle of Stoli or Gen. John Stark vodka out of the freezer for a round of drinks? It adds more character to a collection, though at a bit of a price premium given that it’s a local, small-batch product. My biggest dismay was the apple brandy, which lists a price of $16.95 for a 750ml on their website, yet at the winery sold for $25. I had planned to purchase a bottle, but felt a bit cheated when the price was that much more than expected. Lame.

Fun fact: Their vodka is named for Revolutionary War General John Stark, famed in NH for penning the state motto “Live free or die: death is not the worst of evils.”

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