Lt. Gov. Molly Gray cuts the ribbon with owners Matt Cushman, left, and Glen Sauer.
BENNINGTON, Vt. — The old town garage slated for demolition three years ago has been transformed into a vibrant gathering place in the downtown.
The Village Garage Distillery on Depot Street held its grand opening on Sunday with Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who had visited the site while it was under construction last fall, cutting the ribbon.
"It takes a lot to have a vision and it takes a lot to take that vision and turn it into a reality and to do that during a pandemic," said Gray to the crowd gathered outside for the event. "It's incredibly special to see historical spaces like the Village Garage ... to see a place that we want to preserve as part of our community and then turn it into a place where people can come together — and who doesn't like coming together over good food and really good drinks ...
"I think that's what makes Vermont really special, that we see innovation and creativity and also honoring tradition."
Owners Matt Cushman and Glen Sauer opened the distillery and restaurant a few weeks ago with little fanfare; on Sunday, it was packed with patrons and well-wishers.
"We got a lot of support from the local community. It was a soft open, so we didn't market it super aggressively, initially. We want to just kind of dial in the service and the food and, you know, now we're really pleased with how that's gone," said Cushman.
The structure at 107 Depot dates to 1948 when it opened as a tractor dealership, then was used as the town garage for 50 years until a new facility was built in 2018.
"This building was going to be torn down and some folks from the Better Bennington Corp. fought against that to maintain the building and then they came in with this ingenious idea," said Jenny Dewar, executive director of the downtown business group. "These guys had just a great vision."
The town put out requests for proposals for the site and accepted Cushman and Sauer's in 2019. Both men have long generational histories in Vermont and the garage itself was special to Sauer because he remembered stopping there often with his dad.
Operating as SC Spirits LLC, they purchased the property for $80,000 with an anticipated investment of $1 million to create the distillery, tasting room and restaurant.
Cushman said the venture started over a drinks with Sauer when they found they "both harbored this wild fantasy of opening and operating a distillery."
They didn't know how to run a distillery, but during the past three years while they restored the building, they began talking to experts and interviewing candidates to run their operation. They brought on head distiller Ryan Scheswohl and chef Jonathan Studley to run the Servicenter restaurant.
Their first releases were Village Bourbon and Village Vodka last fall with a label featuring stars on a round blue background, modeled on the flag used by the Green Mountain Boys in the Revolution. Bottles can be bought on site and are also available in Vermont State Liquor Stores. Cushman said they are looking into distribution in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The Servicenter offers cocktails based on its spirits, along with wines and non-alcoholic beverages. The menu features local produce with small plates, salads, sandwiches and burgers, and entrees including pork tenderloin and chicken and waffles. (This reporter tried the Halfway to Canada poutine, a BLT, winter caprese salad and bourbon bread pudding.) The unique menu design has drinks styled as blueprints and was created by the Keefe & Wesner Architects, who also designed the renovation.
The distillery is strategically located in a walkable area of downtown, not far from the Putnam Block redevelopment project and next to a current empty lot being eyed for new housing.
Dewar noted the connections with other amenities and businesses nearby that survived the pandemic. "Now there's a major rejuvenation in Bennington," she said. "That's super exciting. We have a huge number of events coming up this summer and just look at it, it's so crowded here, it's amazing."
Gray said she had the opportunity last fall to meet with community leaders about the revitalization efforts, and took a tour of the distillery because it benefited from an economic opportunity grant. She told them she'd come back for the ribbon cutting and was surprised and pleased when they invited her.
"I think the revitalization that's happened here in this part of the state can really be a model for other parts of the state," she said. "It's really exciting and a great honor to come back down because I think this is just one example of an incredible Vermont business that's working to preserve history, this historic town garage, and also creating a space for community to come together."
Stepping away from the constant congratulations for a few minutes, Cushman said they had really wanted their dream to give back to the community.
"Obviously we want to make a great business, but we want to contribute to Bennington," he said. "It's our hometown, we were born and raised here. And we think that there's a real opportunity to make Vermont spirits a category and that's that's really our mission."
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