Lynn Chadwick, owner of Doom Forest distillery, is seen Thursday at her distillery in Pittston. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

PITTSTON — Lynn Chadwick’s childhood living room now serves as Doom Forest Distillery’s tasting room. The homey feel adds to the comfortable, relaxed ambience of a sampling of Chadwick’s craft spirits.

As Nov. 2 approached, Chadwick prepared for what she hoped would be a winter season where her business could recoup some of its losses from an economically challenging summer. But as COVID-19 cases in Maine began to set records, Gov. Janet Mills delayed the opening date for indoor service at tasting rooms and bars the day before they were supposed to open. While Mills apologized to bar and tasting room owners and acknowledged the decision to postpone opening would cause hardship, the move left Chadwick concerned for the future.

For smaller-scale tasting rooms such as hers, the news was especially grim.

“I really just was looking forward to having people inside. Most people that come into our cabin just say, ‘Wow, it feels like I’m in somebody’s living room,’ and the reality is yes, they were. It used to be our living room, and now it’s a tasting room,” Chadwick said. “It also doesn’t make a lot of sense to open up to have nobody show up because it’s too cold to be outside and be comfortable.

“When I heard the news, I was very disappointed because that significantly changes what plans for the winter are. And I don’t know how people are going to serve outside in the winter and maintain their businesses.” 

As part of that announcement that delayed the indoor openings, indoor seating at restaurants was reduced from half-capacity or 100 people down to 50. For example, Cushnoc Brewing Co.’s Water Street pizzeria in Augusta had to go down to 50 seats from 60, according to General Manager Casey Hynes.

What especially bothers Chadwick and Bruce Olson, owner of Tree Spirits in Oakland, is that tasting rooms and bars are even in the same category. The two have been lumped together under the state order, but small shop owners say it isn’t worth it to pay more for a restaurant license.

Lynn Chadwick, owner of Doom Forest distillery, is seen Thursday at her distillery in Pittston. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Most tasting rooms in the state of Maine are fairly quiet places where they’re coming out to see what your product tastes like, where you do a sampling,” Chadwick said. “It’s certainly not your typical nightclub crowd that comes out.”

“The heart of this is, we’ve got to change the law that (categorizes) tasting rooms the same as bars, because we’re not,” Chadwick said. “Now that we can only do that outside, obviously the weather is not conducive for this at all. I cannot imagine any tasting room in the state of Maine that will do well this winter. It’s just too cold. At the state level and the law level, they need to separate tasting rooms from bars.” 

Kate Foye, spokeswoman for the Department of Economic and Community Development, said in an email that the Mills administration used existing license designations to make these decisions.

“The decision to postpone reopening was not made lightly, but the rapid recent rise in (COVID-19) cases, combined with the elevated risk the establishments pose, means that we could not in good conscience proceed with the planned reopening,” Foye wrote.

“The Administration will continue to do all it can to support Maine’s small businesses and hardworking families through these challenging times and will continue to seek further financial relief from Congress for Maine businesses who have lost so much already,” she continued.

‘SALES WILL GO DOWN’

Mark Libby, owner of Anthony Lee’s Winery in Dexter, agrees with Olson and Chadwick. He believes the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations is “on our team,” but thinks it is a legislative issue.

Chadwick, who is also a science teacher at Erskine Academy in South China, has worked at the distillery since it opened five years ago. Doom Forest Distillery usually opens just one day a week as a tasting room, and this summer mostly did outdoor tastings on Saturdays. Chadwick invested in outdoor heaters and fire pits, which added to the overall cost of her operation. She’s been in touch with her state legislators about getting the law looked at again. 

It’s not so easy to become a bar selling food, either. The only way to do it is to acquire another license. Chadwick’s micro distillery license costs $100 per year, and she believes the only license she’d be allowed to get is $2,200, which would require food. For distilleries, the law is more restrictive, Chadwick believes. 

Libby said his product is in six locations and the majority of the business comes from the tasting room. The customers supported the outdoor tastings, Libby said, and once outdoor tastings were allowed they were slightly above previous levels.

Libby expects it’ll be just like early in the pandemic with curbside service and supplying a handful of stores only. Libby, who oversees the overhauling of turbines and generators at major power plants, said store sales were up early in the pandemic because of the name recognition. He cannot expand the winery as he’d like to, and he also believes it is “unfair” to put tasting rooms and bars together in the same category.

“It’ll be just like from March to June when we couldn’t have any tastings, so I’m assuming sales will go down,” Libby said. “For me, I own everything. I don’t owe anything on my house; I don’t owe anybody anything. I’m not too, too worried.”

At Two Hogs Winery in Vassalboro, owner Ann Dube opens her tasting room from May until the middle of October. She doesn’t usually open in the winter, but traditionally does indoor tastings by appointment.

Dube, who works as a transportation coordinator for students at Regional School Unit 12, said she is still making wine for purchase. Because she has no overhead costs, her winery is here to stay despite a slowed business.

“It’s not my biggest season. Around Christmastime, Thanksgiving, that’s when I’ll see most of the traffic, but after that, it slows down anyway,” Dube said. “I’m fortunate enough that I can maintain and hold on for a better day. That’s how I get by.”

Jordan Milne, vice president of the Maine Distillers Guild, said in an email that Maine’s distillers are disappointed but acknowledge why the decision to delay opening was made “with the best interest of Maine’s residents and visitors in mind.” Coronavirus cases are breaking records almost daily.

“Maine’s distillers have always relied on creativity and ingenuity, and many of our members offer take-away cocktails and cocktail-making kits out of their tasting rooms that can be enjoyed in the safety of our customers’ homes,” Milne said.

“As our State continues to tackle the public health challenges this virus presents, the Guild strongly urges it to also continue to address the economic crisis unfolding among Maine’s small business community,” he said.

Bruce Olson, owner of Tree Spirits of Maine, poses for a portrait at his Oakland distillery on Friday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

PANDEMIC CREATIVITY 

As the owner and sole employee of Tree Spirits, Olson flexed his business creativity throughout the pandemic. He’s been running outside tastings throughout the summer, which Olson gauges to be around 75% of normal business. 

“It’s been different from previous years, but our numbers aren’t that bad,” Olson said. “I feel kind of guilty because some of my friends who have larger operations maybe aren’t doing well.” 

Tree Spirits sources all of its materials from an 8-mile radius. Olson started the winery and distillery 11 years ago with a partner, but now is the sole owner of the business. Tree Spirits is only down about 5% of year-over-year sales. More locals are coming, and the last few months are about equal to last year.

Normally, the business is open through the end of December and closes in January and February to “unwind from a 10-month push” and produce products. Olson bought a pellet stove patio heater to see if it works. He’s the only employee, so he’s doing OK. There is concern, though, if business does drop off.

Doom Forest Distillery supplies a central warehouse, Pine State Spirits, from which stores can order spirits. But Chadwick believes the tasting room accounts for around 60% of the business. Chadwick said Doom Forest Distillery was down approximately 30-40% from a normal summer between not being able to open and other coronavirus related restrictions. She also believes there is enough space inside the tasting room for social distancing. Olson expressed worry about a diminished clientele as the weather turns wintry. 

“It’s unclear how that’s going to work, and it gets a little sketchy because typically we do pretty well around the holidays because wine and spirits are a nice gift, so we do a considerable amount of business in November and the first part of December, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out,” Olson said. “I have to say we’re fortunate. It’s a very small operation.”

When contacted for this story, a handful of breweries deferred to the Maine Brewers’ Guild, whose executive director, Sean Sullivan, replied with a statement.

“Maine brewers are ready to serve patrons safely, following all COVID-19 guidelines, as soon as we’re able to reopen,” Sullivan wrote. “We understand the governor is making difficult decisions and public safety is the top priority. We are hopeful all Mainers can work to stop the spread of the virus so we can get back to business. In the meantime, Maine brewers will remain open for curbside takeout, contactless service and outdoor tastings when and where they are allowed to do so, and we appreciate Mainers ongoing support for local beer.”

Hynes, the general manager and owner of Augusta-based Cushnoc Brewing Co., runs a significantly larger operation than Tree Spirits, Doom Forest and Anthony Lee’s. In Augusta alone, they operate a restaurant, tasting room and annex.

The restaurant business has been OK, but Hynes said he’d like the opportunity for all tasting rooms to prove they could provide a safe experience.

“As a whole, the tasting room business out at the annex is certainly going to be affected. That’s a small revenue stream in a large company for sure, but that’s potentially jobs and it could certainly have an impact,” Hynes said. “From my perspective, it’s a little frustrating. I understand that with the uptick in cases right now that something needs to be done, but … because it’s a tasting room or because it’s a bar and it can’t operate safely, I don’t know if I agree with that.”

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