There are a plethora of delicious products that can be created from cacao nibs, like bean to bar chocolate, craft beer, cold brew coffee, and much more. But did you know you can create something amazing from cacao shells?! Our Let's Talk Chocolate series continues with a look at an exciting new chocolate vodka from SILO Distillery. To create their Cacao Vodka, SILO takes their award-winning vodka and infuses it with the cacao shell. Ultimately taking an otherwise composted byproduct and creating flavored vodka that is smooth, yet complex. Blue Bandana Chocolate Maker, Nick Hadsel-Mares, recently had the opportunity to sit down with our new friend Chris Maggiolo, Head Distiller, to discuss how they utilize cacao shells at SILO Distillery in Windsor, VT.
Nick: What gave you the idea for doing a cacao vodka?
Chris: It started as we were brainstorming new vodka flavors. We had the cucumber, the lemon, the lavender, our regular vodka. And they are all great spring and summer flavors, but I wanted something that could hold up in cocktails in the fall and winter months. Cacao/chocolate definitely, in my mind, fit that bill — especially in Vermont, when thinking about hot coffee, hot chocolate, drinks and espresso martinis.
So when I was first starting to distill, I was working with an outfit, an awesome group of guys, down in Boston at GrandTen Distilling Company. One of their products was done in collaboration with Taza [Chocolates] and it just got me thinking. As much as this is an art, as anything, you are always pulling ideas from the wheelhouses that you have available to you. So I thought, ‘yeah, this is something that could potentially work.’
Blue Bandana [Chocolate Maker] was doing awesome things up in Burlington. I had run into Eric Lampman briefly at a food conference that I had attended at UVM and figured it was worth a shot. So, when I reached out and said this is what I am interested in, he was pretty enthusiastic to give a home to the shells.
Nick: How did you get into distilling in the first place?
Chris: It’s been a pretty long road. I usually tell people that I started studying alcohol in college and most people respond enthusiastically that they did as well. But, my undergrad was in anthropology and archaeology. I was a historic archaeologist. sugar cane plantations. I worked at St. Nicholas Abbey, that has an awesome antique steam-powered sugar press that is massive, and they were doing single barrel rums from sugar cane on their own plantations.
When I got back to the States, I realized that most rum in the States at that time, was just utter garbage. So, I returned to Barbados and studied herbal drinks and traditional remedies. Then, upon graduating, got a job in the wine industry in Virginia, where I’m from. I worked there for a couple years. In 2011, I moved to Boston and got my masters in Gastronomy at Boston University, studying the craft beer and craft spirits industry. I focused mostly on a historical and cultural perspective, but also took classes in marketing, production, sensory analysis, all while working in the industry. I managed a home brewing store in Cambridge [Massachusetts]. I volunteered. I interviewed craft brewers. I helped with bottling at breweries. I got to know the community down there well and towards the end of my program started working/volunteering with GrandTen Distilling. That was what really stuck it all together. The beer and wine helped me to contextualize it a little bit. Spirits was kind of what clicked.
Nick: So, how did you end up here at SILO?
Chris: I have two good friends that I knew in Boston who got a house up here. They were pretty much the closest thing I had to family in New England (mine being 10 hours away). I would do holidays up here, when I couldn’t get home, and I would visit every month or so. And one day, shortly after SILO opened, they introduced me to Peter and Anne Marie [owners and founders of SILO Distillery]. A couple months later I sent them my resume, saying I was interested in working with the company. I was starting to see their stuff show up in Boston. About six weeks after that, Peter reached out to me with a position.
Nick: During our tour, you mentioned you had experience in the bean to bar chocolate world. How did you get involved in that?
Chris: In 2013, a colleague and I spent 3 months traveling around the country. We bought a 20-year-old van from Wellesley College. It was baby blue. We dubbed it ‘Old Blue’ and we put two army cots in the back and hit the road. We did 44 states and worked at about 85 different producers in about 105 days. This included everyone from chocolate producers, to confectioners, we went shrimping and oystering. We would reach out to people a couple weeks ahead of time and say, ‘this is what we are doing. We are interested in spending the day working with you, if we can.’ We got a chance to work a day with Mast Brothers. This was really my first foray into the bean to bar chocolate making process. It was just as they were gaining speed themselves. It was very interesting to see their process and then very interesting to see Dandelion [Chocolates] on the West coast. They have very similar processes. Like distilling and brewing, if you see one, you kind of get the idea there is only so much you can change as far as the core processes. But, they are still very different companies. It’s like you said [Nick], you can give the raw materials to one person and somebody else and they can come up with two different products.
Nick: That’s the beauty of the craft industry.
Nick: Would you mind doing a little recap of how you make the cacao vodka?
Chris: Our vodka starts off as non-GMO, Vermont corn, grown in North Clarendon, Vermont at Grembowicz Farm. We bring in dried corn to the distillery. We mill it, mash it, cook it and then ferment it. We will distill that once, to strip the basic alcohol from the solids, and then a second time, in which the spirit will pass through our vodka column. We will filter the vodka and once the vodka is filtered and really polished, we do the infusion with cacao shells. The infusion lasts several hours. We found that going too far, you extract too much of the bitterness from the shell itself. And too little time gives you the color. The color comes really quickly, but you don’t get that rich dark chocolate flavor that people are taking well too. It’s a very simple process. But, it was really honing in on the exact amount [of cacao shells].”
Nick: Why shells and not the cacao nib?
Chris: The nib is a great idea, and it would work. It would probably give us a very similar product. But, we are very committed to sustainability here at the distillery and up-cycling. So, knowing that the shells were a by-product, something that was just used for compost, we decided to give that a try. There is a lot of nib dust and fragments still left in the shells and the shells themselves still have a legitimate cocoa flavor. You can smell it as soon as you crack the bag open, you can smell it as soon as they hit the vodka. Vodka is an alcohol, so it is very good at extracting compounds. Whereas shells might not be useful to other food industries, because of texture or because you can’t unlock that flavor, the vodka is the perfect key.
Nick: What other vodkas or spirits do you have in the works?
Chris: The cacao vodka was our first vodka in our fall/winter line. It’s worked really well in the summer. We are finding that, much to our surprise, people enjoy their flavored vodkas pretty much all times of the year. We released our cucumber vodka on Christmas Eve and it continued to outsell all of our other vodkas through present. In the dead of winter, we are selling cucumber vodka, which I never thought would happen. Cacao is the same way. I kept visualizing it as this fall/winter flavor. But, we were doing cacao mojitos, and it’s been awesome in the summer. But, I do want to find another fall/winter/autumn flavor. I’ve thrown around the idea of doing something with tea or with chai or something a little bit more with warming spices. What it [our products] really comes down to is that we are trying to showcase the Vermont agricultural economy…We are trying to keep it close to home.
Nick: What is your favorite way to enjoy the cacao vodka?
Chris: I've been enjoying those espresso martinis with it. When I first created it I was doing riffs off of White Russians. Because, who doesn’t like heavy cream and chocolate?! It's pretty awesome. Then the mojitos was my baby in the summer. As we were playing around with drinks, that was one that I came up with.
Nick: Do you come up with most of the cocktail recipes?
Chris: I wouldn’t say most. But, having a background in gastronomy and being around the bar scene and the restaurants in Boston for so long, I feel like I have a knack for it. But, Mary is a great little mixologist, as well. And, we find that a lot of people send us stuff and say this is what we do. We’ve had some fun playing around with smoky cacao cocktails. We’ve been trying to play around with Mezcal or Scotch, and the chocolate and smoke. And then there are a lot of good mole bitters out there that people are putting in cocktails.
Please join us at these FREE upcoming events to celebrate the release of SILO Distillery's Cacao Vodka:
Friday, September 16th from 6:00-8:30pm
Saturday, September 24th from 2:00-5:00pm
Stop by our Factory Store on Pine Street in Burlington as we host SILO for in-store tasting of vodka and chocolate!