One Bourbon, One Cider, One Beer: Apres-Ski in Vermont
We’re pretty lucky. It’s not every sport that ends with a trip to the bar.
So while the runners and the tennis players and the spinning class attendees and the yoga folks are heading for the showers, skiers and riders are sitting down in front of a friendly bartender.
With all due respect to golf’s 19th hole, is there any other sport so closely tied to the bar as skiing and snowboarding? Are we all just a bunch of lushes using skiing as a convenient excuse to get together? A bunch of drinkers with a skiing problem?
Frankly, it isn’t a question I’d ever given much thought to before now. It’s a bit like asking “Why is oxygen so breathable?”
It’s not like we need a release from stress. Spend a great day skiing and riding in Vermont with friends, and you’ve probably got a pretty good grin on your face. When you live here, or when you have the good fortune to visit often, you can see why you’d want to stretch out the perfect winter day. Sure, the lifts might close around 4:00 p.m. and the sun eventually sets, but that doesn’t mean you have to shut it down. Yes, we skiers and riders demand even more fun after our fun. If the mountain is the party, the bar is the after-party.
Pub, tavern, saloon, club, speakeasy, taproom, alehouse, lounge, watering hole, dive. The après-ski bar is not merely an accessory, I would argue. It’s a vital element. It’s where plans get made. Where friendships are renewed and confirmed. It’s a spot where someone might summon up a little extra liquid courage and introduce him- or herself to that attractive stranger across the bar, possibly setting in motion a lifetime together. As they say in New Orleans, laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll, my friends.
The bar is where we gather. Where we nurse our wounded bodies and/or egos. It is skiing and snowboarding’s town hall.
There is no simple answer to what makes a great après-ski bar, or bartender, or drink. It’s so subjective.
When I think about après-ski bars around Vermont, it’s easy to tick off favorites. The Matterhorn in Stowe always feels like there’s a party about to break out. The Belfry on the road to Jay is a welcome, random stop with great wings. The Tower Bar at Jay Peak throws down mean poutine along with its drinks, including a bacon-infused bourbon. I’ve sat at a barstool at the Red Fox near Stratton more times than I can count. The Killington Access Road has countless options, but I always seem to wind up at McGrath’s Irish Pub down at the Inn at Long Trail. I still miss the old Alchemist in Waterbury, a pint of Donovan’s Red and the beer-cheese-and-pretzels appetizer before me on the bar, but Prohibition Pig is no slouch as a replacement. The Hyde Away in Waitsfield exudes a warmth and generosity that makes everyone feel like a local. And up the hill a ways, General Stark’s Pub at Mad River Glen might be the best of them all, a quintessential ski bar in every way, complete with a mug with my name on it.
In search of answers, I talked to the pros. Sue Mowrer Adamson is a resident barkeep at American Flatbread in Burlington and the namesake of Zero Gravity Brewing’s “A Beer Named Sue.” Her take: “For a perfect après bar, I want something that lends itself to meeting others. ‘What did you ski today? Where are you from? Et cetera.’ A wide-open bar, not too many seats—around 12, but with tables close by for sociable eavesdropping. A fireplace, long tables and cozy/couch seating, with a dartboard, maybe bar shuffleboard and, ideally, a pool table.”
Shawn Fuschetto, whom you can find behind the bar at Sugarbush’s Castlerock Pub, is downright deliberative when asked about the essential elements of a great après-ski bar.
“Mountain views?” Fuschetto asks rhetorically. “Nah, the old bar at Jay Peak was in a basement, and that place was a classic. A nano-brew draft selection? That’s great, but honestly, so long as the beer is cold, it’s all good. Sitting at the Glen House with the one draft option on a spring day never drew a complaint from me. Salty locals? Smiling bartenders? Hot servers? That’s all secondary to what the folks who were playing on the mountain bring to the scene, unwinding after a terrific day. That is absolutely my favorite thing about every après bar I’ve ever spent time in: Friends, new and old, telling stories with big smiles.”
Once you’ve found barstools for yourself and your crew, the more important question becomes what to drink. Do you go with a fancy mixed cocktail? A glass of whiskey—neat—that’ll warm your gullet and loosen your mind? Perhaps something delivered in a 12-ounce aluminum vessel, brewed somewhere in the greater Milwaukee area?
Although the Norwegians might have started the tradition back in the 1800s in Telemark, and the French affixed the “après-ski” name sometime around the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, it’s fair to argue that Vermont lately has taken the experience to new heights. No other place combines the quality and quantity of skiing with the quality and quantity of homegrown adult beverages that Vermont now offers.
Vermont is on its way to becoming the Napa Valley of beer, if it’s not already, with craft brews that regularly rate among the world’s best. A growing number of cider makers and vineyards now dot the land. And then there’s the hard stuff. Today, Vermont has close to 20 distillers of various sizes, creating their own slants on vodka, whiskey, gin and more. For a state with the second-smallest population, Vermont has an outsized impact on the world of tipplers.
“There’s so much excitement around alcohol in Vermont right now,” says Ben Calvi, a cider maker at Woodchuck. “Distilled spirits—we have great spirits distilled locally. Our beer scene has been awesome for 10 or 15 years, and every year it seems like there’s a newer, better microbrewery popping up. And we have eight cideries here in Vermont. There are only probably 100 in the U.S., so to have almost 10 percent of them here in the small state of Vermont is pretty cool. Vermont’s a perfect place for hard cider. We’ve been growing apples here since the first colonists came. Everyone’s just really excited about drinking when they come here.”
Seeking guidance, I asked folks from three of Vermont’s best for their take on what makes a great drink when you come off the hill.
“At the end of the day, people like to sit around together and enjoy the afternoon air and talk about the day,” says Steve Johnson. “You’ve been out doing something, you come back and get together again, so there’s a time to talk and people will have a cocktail.
“[What’s best is] something that’s not heavy, but I’m just going to enjoy sipping while I’m talking to people,” Johnson says. “Later in the evening, they might go for the Grand Marnier drinks, but if you come off the hill at 4:00, you might want
the lighter spirits: vodka or gin.”
As the president of Vermont Spirits Distilling Co., Johnson should know a thing or two about cocktails. The Quechee-based distillery has grown steadily since its founding, churning out a mix of products including vodka, bourbon, brandy, whiskey and gin. The company takes a decidedly Vermont approach to making spirits, using local agricultural products
“Given that we have more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the country, I don’t think it’s surprising to people that we’re distilling spirits as well,” Johnson says.
“I think some of what we do is different—we don’t have a lot of potatoes or grain, so we’re not making vodka out of that. We’re using apples and whey and maple and things like those. That’s probably what surprises people,” he adds, “and that it’s good.”
Good may be an understatement. Vermont Gold Vodka and Vermont White Vodka remain leading sellers for the company, and its No. 14 Bourbon (in reference to Vermont, the 14th state) is clearly a hit, according to Johnson. “We can’t keep that in stock, actually.”
Hard cider might not have the same close association to après-ski as a cold beer, but it’s a steadily growing part of the market. A big part of the appeal is due to the work of the folks at Woodchuck, aka the Vermont Hard Cider Company.
“I think it’s just so much fun. Skiing or snowboarding—it’s the one sport where you just smile the whole time. And being in such a good mood makes you want to go and celebrate afterward,” offers Ben Calvi. “You’re tired. Your muscles are a little sore. You’re probably a little cold. Your feet have been cramped up all day. So to slip into some comfortable boots and have a cider or cocktail or something is a pretty perfect way to end it.”
Calvi’s fellow cider maker, John Matson, explains part of the product development process. “We definitely develop some winter-specific products. Our Winter Chill is oak aged, so it’s a little bit chewier than some of the more sessionable [light] ciders in the summertime,” Matson says. “Some of them go really well with cocktails—bourbon goes really well with cider. So I think a lot of our ciders can transition into that forum.”
Founded in 1991, Woodchuck embraces its Green Mountain roots. “We’re a Vermont-based company,” says Calvi. “It’s in our name: ‘Vermont Hard Cider Company.’ We were born here 25 years ago. Sure, you could make hard cider in Florida, and you could buy juice and ship it there and make it on the beach. But it’s not the same thing, right? Vermont is one of the only places in the U.S. that has world-class apples, and to be so close to the source is really a big part of our identity.”
With 20 ciders in production, Woodchuck has something for everyone. Can’t decide which one to try? Gumption, made from a blend of common eating apples and dry cider apples, is perfect for wintertime. Better yet, Gumption is now available in 16-ounce cans.
“One of the reasons we put ciders into cans was not just for the skiers and snowboarders, but just outdoorsy followers in general,” says Woodchuck’s communications manager, Caitlin Stroupe. “They’re the ones who were requesting it. You can’t bring glass to national parks or the beach, and then at the mountain, it’s a little easier to slip a 16-ounce can in your backpack.”
Long Trail Brewery really put Vermont beer on the map with its signature Long Trail Ale. Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t walk into an après bar in the state without seeing pint after pint of the amber ale in people’s hands. Long Trail also brewed the seasonal Hibernator for almost 20 years, a hearty brew with a restorative quality that was perfect for recovering from a day on the slopes.
Last year the company retired Hibernator and launched Sick Day, which the brewers felt was a better fit for the occasion. It’s got a more modern vibe, a warming body and that same restorative quality that Long Trail beers are known for.
Drew Vetere, marketing media specialist at Long Trail, describes where it got its unusual name. “We were throwing around names for something that we thought would resonate with people from Vermont. And I kept thinking one thing that’s synonymous with winter is being ‘sick.’ Whether it’s calling in sick for ‘reasons’ of deep snow or just having a ‘sick’ afternoon out on the mountain. So I thought Sick Day was a pretty appropriate name for that vibe of just carefree wintertime, which is part of the reason beer goes so well with skiing. You’re out there doing something that you really enjoy, with people that you really enjoy, and it’s a reason to celebrate.”
“We had an IPA in mind when we first started to design the recipe,” explains Matt Quinlan, Long Trail’s director of operations. “We wanted something with those big piney hop flavors, but because it was more of a wintertime recipe, we wanted to give it some more meat. So we put a lot of darker malts in there that gave it a very interesting flavor—sort of a darker IPA, a wintry version of an IPA.
“It’s a beer you can enjoy if you’re not a skier or rider. But this is definitely a beer that we made with the skier and rider in mind: Something they’d really like when they’re done and they come off the mountain. Something that really replenishes them.”
The best part of Sick Day? There’s no mixing required. Just order yourself up a pint or grab a sixer the next time you see it.
IF YOU GO:
Don’t take our word for it: After a day on the slopes, go sip for yourself. Woodchuck, Long Trail and Vermont Spirits all have tasting rooms where you can kick back and enjoy the goods.
The Woodchuck Cider House
1321 Exchange Street
Resorts within an hour’s drive: Sugarbush, Mad River Glen, Killington, Pico, Middlebury Snow Bowl, Bolton Valley
Long Trail Brewing Company
5520 U.S. Route 4
Bridgewater Corners, VT
Resorts within an hour’s drive: Killington, Pico, Okemo,
Suicide Six, Middlebury Snow Bowl, Magic Mountain, Bromley, the Quechee Club
Vermont Spirits Distillery
5573 Woodstock Road (Route 4) Quechee, VT
Resorts within an hour’s drive: Killington, Pico, Okemo, Suicide Six, Middlebury Snow Bowl, Magic Mountain, the Quechee Club
Après-Ski Vermont: Cocktail Recipes
A selection of cocktail recipes to help you recover from your day on the slopes, featuring ingredients from Vermont Spirits and Woodchuck Hard Cider.
Written by Mike Hannigan