The booze distillery used to be as common in Salem as the corner store. Salemites could walk to more than a dozen of them, sampling the rum transported by ships in the nearby harbor to far-flung ports. Perhaps there wasn’t an organized behind-the-scenes tour. But Salem was once home to many rum distilleries and cider houses that turned barely drinkable water into something considered precious, and sometimes even used as currency.
After more than 170 years, Salem again has a distillery, a cider house, and a brewery all within walking or trolleying distance, if you’re lucky enough to hop aboard the Salem Spirits Trolley. The same people who created the wildly popular Salem Food Tours have partnered with local spirit producers to offer a three-hour journey into Salem’s history, its neighborhoods, and its cups.
Thirty intrepid samplers recently met at Pickering Wharf at one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon to sample nutmeg, cinnamon, juniper berries, and other ingredients that we would drink that day. The spice trade began just after the Revolution and continued up until the War of 1812. The Salem Spice Shop is a good place to make this point before we set off on a sunny, crisp fall day in a bright red Salem Trolley with longtime professional comedian Mark Scalia as our emcee. “What I don’t know, I’ll make up,” Scalia says, assuring us of total and complete historical accuracy.
Leaving the gleaming waterfront, we make our way to Far From The Tree (FFTT) cider house, passing the old Salem Jail, now home to Bit Bar, where one can play vintage video games directly across from the old Parker Brothers headquarters. We cruise up tree-lined Chestnut Street and gaze at the brick mansions that once belonged to the ship captains who made Salem what it is today, back when it was the Venice of the New World, bringing home spices from the other side of the globe.
“It’s the part of Salem’s history that I fell in love with,” says Karen Scalia of Salem Food Tours, which gives walking tours of Salem’s food history. The tours began in 2010 and have grown along with Salem’s restaurant scene. Scalia dug into archives at the Library of Congress, Mount Vernon, and Johnson & Wales. Her years in New York City as an event planner and performer make her both highly organized and entertaining. She is equally entertained by our emcee, her husband of five years, and laughs often at his antics as he complains bitterly during the tour that he can’t drink because his wife has put him to work.
John Adams, it is said, drank a tankard of cider a day. Children were once baptized in it. Now it’s enjoyed in the sunshine on a strip of pavement next to industrial Jefferson street, home to car mechanics and moving companies. But the urban grit only adds to the charm as people line up during pop-up pierogi night or when a new cider is on tap, which has been pretty much nonstop since the place opened in 2013.
There are several fun groups joining the tour, including a couple from Salem and their friends from Beverly, who have also gone on a food tour of Boston’s North End together. I chat with Virginia Kainamisis of Lowell, who is taking the tour with her mother. “I always come for the October witch stuff,” she says. “I never knew about the history of brewing in Salem.”
Glasses gleam in the brilliant sunlight, holding amber, golden, and pink pours made with Massachusetts apples. I choose a flight next to Roy Bene and Jeremy Phelps from Fort Worth, Texas, and together we sip dry to sweet, starting with Roots and heading through to spicy Lei, made with pineapple and hot peppers, and then on to Ember, with toasted chai and burnt sugar—seven pours in total. As a chef who lives to pair wine and food, Bene sniffs, swirls, and comments on all the spices he detects in each little glass. The two Texans, not surprisingly, favor the Lei with its spicy jalapeno. “I love adventuring with this guy,” says Phelps, “and getting into food and culture that I was not aware of.”
For October, FFTT produced Ectoplasm, a green cider; Bog, a cranberry concoction, is the November release. Growlers are purchased and we all jump on the trolley, buzzing from the jalapeno, and head toward Deacon Giles, Salem’s new distillery that is tied to a story of temperance. “Do you know what that means?” asks Mark Scalia. “Google it. I don’t have time.”
Located on hardscrabble Canal Street, Deacon Giles might be a little out of the way, but it’s totally worth it. It’s expanding its hours soon and will open as more than a tasting room, with signature cocktails and concoctions made by bartenders at partnering establishments. Oozing with enthusiasm, co-owner Ian Hunter takes us on a tour of his sparkly still and other shiny contraptions, dazzling us with his charm and love for the distillation process.
After throwing around some secrets of alchemy, terms from chemistry class, and the names of his complex distilling equipment, Hunter concludes, “And it’s just that simple. You can do it now.”
In the former home of Salem Glass, we raise a glass and sip both the spicy Liquid Damnation Rum and smooth Original Gin while being regaled with tales of the deacon’s demons, the legend that gives the place its name. Several on the tour who previously denounced gin as too harsh and piney for their taste remark on the particular drinkability of the gin here. Distilled in the “Old Tom” style, allowing more malt flavor to come through, the gin is then infused with aromatics and botanicals: juniper, coriander, orange, and lemon peel. Mace and cardamom from the spice trade add an earthy aroma. Rose hips, a nod to Salem’s seaside heritage, add floral and citrusy-tart notes.
Soon, we’re back on the trolley, with a few bottles, copper cups, and hats in tow, heading for beer because that comes after liquor. (Right?) The sun-drenched Notch biergarten beside the South River is filled with happy drinkers and a few dogs. We head to the brew house to chat with owner Chris Lohring. Generous pours of Session Pils soon come our way and we learn about the history of this low-alcohol beer, a crisp, herbal, hoppy lager. With his family in the Derby Street neighborhood for four generations, Lohring tells us a little of the area’s history as we stand inside the brick brewery, built just after the Salem Fire of 1914, that once housed REO Motorcar Company.
Next, we end up in a small brick room reserved for regulars, and out comes another generous pour, this time of Raw Power IPA. This crowd-pleaser is amber in color from British malt, with aromatics of pine and berries. It has a powerful taste but still comes in under 5 percent alcohol, which means it’s nearing 4 p.m. and you still might make a clear-headed decision on a good restaurant for dinner.
A rowdy group of couples from Nahant, Melrose, and Lynn fill a corner with their lively banter. When I comment on the size of their group of eight, George Lowe of Lynn says, “Well, how else would you do it? Drinking alone sucks.” Mark Scalia is finally taken off the clock and gets his beer. Lohring bids us a farewell, and the crowd holds up their Notch glasses: “Salut!”
Tom Lambert, a Salem native, is celebrating his birthday with a slew of family and friends who have gathered for the weekend, coming in from Long Island and Miami. “I’m more of a beer guy. But it’s fun to know the flavors, what goes into it,” he says, “and look what they’ve done for Salem.”
The Salem Spirits Trolley goes from 1 to 4 p.m. and runs several times a month during the high season, and is open to corporate bookings. Public tours are $40 and include sips. salemspiritstrolley.com