Growing up on a farm in northern Baltimore County, Todd Hardie began minding his own beeswax at age 12. When his family acquired a hive, Hardie "became totally enchanted by how industrious the bees were-always flying off, foraging, returning-and how everything they did was beneficial to humans." Hardie, now 60, has journeyed along the apian way ever since, as a state bee inspector, commercial beekeeper, and purveyor of honey-based natural medicines. He recently launched a line of artisanal spirits produced with honey. Judging from the top honor his Barr Hill Gin garnered last November at the New York International Spirits Competition, Hardie's new project (caledoniaspirits.com) has created a buzz in multiple senses.
After studying agriculture at Cornell, Hardie followed the honey north, where bees tend to be most productive. (Southern heat can suppress plants' nectar generation.) He settled in northern Vermont, attracted by the interdependent relationships in its agricultural community. "I wanted to be the beekeeper," he says. "That's a very important role in traditional Vermont life." Even under the best circumstances, that life poses challenges. "To take a hive or an orchard or a field of grain through the seasons," says Hardie, "dealing with growing cycles, harvesting, packaging, and bringing a product to market-to break even is a minor miracle."
Minor miracles grew harder to come by beginning in the mid-1990s. Hardie encountered early signs of what entomologists a decade later would identify as "colony collapse disorder" among the 1,900 hives he tended. It remains a mysterious phenomenon linked to dramatic bee population declines, with grim implications for the ecosystem. As his bees died off , Hardie sold most of his surviving hives and diversified into honey-based health products, honey wine (or "mead"), and now spirits. With the vodka market saturated and the top shelf for gin increasingly crowded, success won't come easy. "This is either the craziest thing I've ever done, or one of the best," he says. "I'm not sure which."
Hardie's mead now serves as the base for distilling Barr Hill Vodka. In Barr Hill Gin ($20-ish per half-bottle, 90 proof), raw honey, instead, gets added near the end of distillation. Poured from under a cork stopper sealed with beeswax, the gin's juniper-powered nose carries undertones of flowers and bark. Unctuously textured, it interweaves flavors of semi-sweet honey, pine, and rosemary. Served up, with a lemon twist, it makes its own cocktail-kin to the classic Bee's Knees.