"We're one of the first farm-to-table bars," says Nick Roy, head bartender at Juniper in the year-old Hotel Vermont in Burlington, as he gently pours a lemon ginger martini into a chilled glass, ensuring that the liquid hits the lemon-peel garnish just so. "Things here come with a story."
In this age of extreme locavorism, it would be easy to dismiss his claim as a mere boast. But given that the bar stocks bottles from all 17 Vermont-based distilleries; has local beer, cider and no-alcohol ginger beer on tap; and undertakes experiments, such as infusing local bourbon with pumpkin skins left over from the kitchen's soup-making endeavours, I'm inclined to believe in his enthusiasm. And as I learn on my weekend exploring this small city on the shores of Lake Champlain, supporting small businesses is a way of life here. The hippies may have (mostly) given way to hipsters, but the community-based ethos is the same.
Take Hotel Vermont. Burlington businesses have a presence throughout the property: pretty square soap dishes, for instance, are handmade by AO Glass; shower products (supplied in eco-friendly large-format pump bottles) are custom blended by Lunaroma and the sleigh chairs and black-painted stump tables in the lobby were made by woodworkers at Shelburne Farm. Should guests request a romantic night in, they're likely to be presented with a bottle of bRosé, a sparkling blueberry-apple cider from Citizen Cider.
The trend continues next door at the second location of Hen of the Wood restaurant, which sources from area farms and entrepreneurs (the original, based in nearby Waterbury, is often named best in the state). The dimly lit space's still-bustling scene as I depart at 11 p.m. on a Thursday in early May is a testament to demand for its expertly executed, ingredient-focused dishes. The daily menu on my visit included melt-in-your-mouth panisse frites, carrot cake served with shredded apple and Vermont blue cheese, beef tartare with russet chips, and crushed potatoes topped with tarragon aioli.
One afternoon, I borrow a bike, place my purse in the basket (of course it has a basket) and head 10 minutes downhill to the busy new tasting room of Citizen Cider, a three-year-old business whose product line is distributed across the state and into Massachusetts, North Carolina and Chicago. It has brewed upward of 100,000 gallons of cider this year, all from Vermont apples, says co-founder Kris Nelson as he presents me with tasting palettes of the nine varieties currently on tap. We try Stan Up, a pleasantly dry and crisp keg-conditioned brew made with heirloom apples and named after Citizen's primary apple grower; Unified Press, its flagship product; and, my favourite, the Full Nelson, an aged cider finished with Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand. It's described as "a totally awesome three-way high-five" between a hard cider, a bubbly champagne and an IPA.
"One of the great things about Vermont is the ability to build relationships with amazing people," says Nelson, who is originally from New York and who worked in wine sales before starting in the cider business. "People are very supportive here, and it's been a fun road to be a part of."
On my last evening, I take a seat at the copper-topped bar at Juniper next to a local couple – she's 77, he's 84 – sharing a salmon main after a bike ride on the waterfront. The previous night, Juniper had been standing-room only as guitar-playing duo the DuPont Brothers sang folk rock in Simon & Garfunkel-like harmony. Tonight, the mixed-age, multinational crowd (Vermont is a popular destination for Quebeckers) is watching the Montreal Canadiens lose to the Boston Bruins in game two of their playoff series.
Inspired by my visit with Nelson, I order a Cider Press, a blend of Green Mountain Lemon Vodka, rye, apple cider and a rotating offering from Citizen Cider, this time the bubbly, gingery Dirty Mayor. (No, it has nothing to do with Canadian politics.) Three bartenders are on duty mixing drinks at a fast yet not frantic pace, possibly inspired by their vivid green Keep Calm and Love Vermont T-shirts. I strike up a conversation with my neighbours, fairly frequent visitors to Juniper becasue of his love of their martinis. She's a long-ago immigrant from Ireland, he a retired professor who moved here in 1957. Both say they would not live anywhere else: They love Burlington not just for its craft martinis – but for its bikeable boardwalk, beauty and easy access to nature. I can very much see their point.
IF YOU GO
Burlington International Airport welcomes flights from most U.S. airlines via its hubs. During ski season (December to April), Porter Airlines offers direct flights from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. By car, Burlington is roughly two hours from Montreal; seven hours from Toronto.
Where to stay
Hotel Vermont: Weekend brunch includes a DIY Bloody Mary bar; rustic-modern rooms have eco-friendly touches. Summer rates start at $229 a night. 41 Cherry St., hotelvt.com
Where to eat
Farmhouse Tap & Grill: It serves half-pours so you can taste many more of the wide selection of brews. 160 Bank St., farmhousetg.com
Hen of the Wood: Book well in advance for a table in this cozy yet spacious space; best views come from the bar overlooking the open kitchen. 55 Cherry St., henofthewood.com
Juniper: The oatmeal is perfection and the menu includes duck eggs sourced from a local alpaca farm, this bright space transitions beautifully from day to night. 41 Cherry St.
Logans of Vermont: Stop in for a fresh, hearty lunch but save room for the extensive selection of homemade baked goods – and check the fridge for a four-pack of top-rated, hard-to-find double IPA Heady Topper by local brewery the Alchemist. 30 Main St., logansofvermont.com
What to do
Citizen Cider: Drop in Tuesday through Saturday to sample the ciders and a plate of local cheese. 316 Pine St., Suite 114, citizencider.com
Shelburne Farms: This education-oriented working farm offers daily interactions with animals, cheese tastings, walking trails, a gift shop selling the farm's meats and lunches and snacks from the farm cart. Book ahead for Sunday brunch or dinner at the Inn, with views of the lake. 1611 Harbor Rd., shelburnefarms.org
Ben & Jerry's: Grab a scoop at the home base of this iconic Burlington business (36 Church St.). Aficionados will take the short drive over to Waterbury for a factory tour. (1281 Waterbury-Stowe Rd.) benjerry.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Hotel Vermont, which did not review or approve this article.