Words by Allison Paige | Photos by Greta Tucker
Batson River Brewing & Distilling’s Tasting Room in Kennebunk offers craft beers and spirits with a chaser of nostalgia
No offense to cat people, but I’m a dog person and so, as it happens, is the team behind Batson River Brewing & Distilling’s Tasting Room, Kennebunk’s newest watering hole. If the pointer on their logo didn’t give it away, a real live dog may even greet you on the premises, or at least his portrait will. Rigby, the 11-year-old American bulldog of head distiller and co-owner Matt Dyer, inspired everything from the decor to a namesake beer. Rigby, a winning combination of laid-back and jolie-laide, is, if you’ll forgive me, the pub’s “spirit” animal.
Cross the Lanigan Bridge over the Kennebunk River, and before long you’ll see the Tasting Room at the crest of Chase Hill. Situated at 12 Western Avenue in a building that was most recently Tia’s Topside, the space has been reimagined by partners Tim Harrington, Kevin Lord, Matt Dyer, and Wade Benker-Ritchey into a destination for drinkers of every stripe.
Roadhouse, brew pub, gin mill, saloon: the two-story, 6,252-square-foot space is all that and more, offering a bar lounge, game room, and outdoor patio. Discreetly placed televisions are ready to air the Sunday game, and the front lawn features a fire pit to warm alfresco tipplers.
Interior designer Krista Stokes, whose past projects include Harrington’s Vinegar Hill Music Theatre in Arundel and “glamping” tents at Sandy Pines, was a natural choice for creating a decor that is evocative and inviting. “We wanted for people to have an experience,” Stokes says.
The property was turnkey, so renovations were minimal. A retractable glass door was added to capitalize on the river view, but essentially, the additions made were to emphasize the history of the space, a home that dates back to 1825. “It was important to preserve and celebrate the heritage of the building,” explains Stokes. “To have this sense of history and all of the imagined lives that would have lived here over time.”
The result: dark-chocolate walls and warm amber lighting, wood accents and industrial touches make the space feel sumptuous, intimate, and relaxed. “We wanted it to be sexy and a little bit romantic,” Stokes adds.
Dyer is full of admiration for the ambiance Stokes created. “What Krista’s achieved here is pretty timeless,” he says.
Dyer, an Auburn native, made a career in Maine’s bustling food business, working his way up to beverage director at Earth on Hidden Pond before partnering with Harrington, of the Kennebunk Resort Collection and Atlantic Holdings LLC, and Kevin Lord, operations director of Thomas & Lord, to found Batson River Brewing & Distilling. Their motto, Born on a farm in Kennebunkport, alludes to the centuries-old farm where in 2014 they started growing the hops and botanicals that are used today in their beer and spirits.
Wade Benker-Ritchey, cofounder of Temescal Brewing Co. in Oakland, California, was recruited as head brewer. It should be noted that Benker-Ritchey is actually a cat person, proving that cat and dog people can go together as well as beer and a chaser. He calls brewing a creative practice somewhere “between art and chemistry” and explains how water quality affects the balance. Fortunately, Benker-Ritchey is pleased with Maine’s water. “The water is softer, stripped down, great for experimenting, great for hoppy beers,” he says.
“Without beer, you don’t have spirits. It’s a first step in the process, to make the beer and then distill it back down,” Dyer explains.
The beer menu is evolving, with seven on tap and more to come. Currently on offer are Benker-Ritchey’s signature Fish House IPA, Paddy Creek Pale Ale, and Rigby Stout, with barrel-aged brews on the way. An inspired cocktail list features Dyer’s vodka and gin. “We’re looking down the road to do an estate beer with 100 percent all of our hops and everything that we can produce on our farm,” Dyer adds.
Molly Nevens, formerly of Liquid Riot in Portland, is house manager, while the jewel box of a bar, lined with mirror tile and lit by vintage Russian factory lights, is overseen by bartender Dylan Stafford. Chef Matt Stiteler’s selection of small plates complements the libations.
Everywhere the eye rests, another charming detail—old fishing reels, antique wooden lures, a stuffed pheasant, feathers gleaming—tells a story. The richly realized atmosphere is what Stokes calls Field & Stream meets Town & Country. Above the hearth, a trio of trophies, white-tailed deer, and a caribou benevolently gaze, bringing to mind one of Wes Anderson’s perfectly rendered film sets. If Anderson and L.L. Bean had a baby, and that baby grew up to be a beautiful pub, it might look a little something like Batson River’s Tasting Room.
“I think familiarity and nostalgia are really nice things that put people at ease,” says Stokes. “We repurposed as much as we could. It inspired people to bring things that made them feel warm and nostalgic for a vintage Maine.”
One such example is the 1920s-era canoe found by Harrington and Lord that hangs above the main seating area. The tables are made from former whiskey barrels from River Drive Cooperage in Buxton, while marble remnants from Lord’s Maine Marble & Granite Company in Arundel were used for the bathroom sinks.
Upstairs in the game room/lounge are a custom shuffleboard table, wall-mounted magnetic Scrabble board, darts, and a selection of classic board games, while leather sofas and ottomans provide a cozy spot to sit and sip. The aforementioned portrait of Rigby, part mascot, part muse, hangs on the wall, lending the whole enterprise an additional dash of panache.
Man’s best friend is everywhere, from the pointer on the sign to the range of merchandise (from T-shirts to bottle openers) created by Portland-based graphic designer Hugh McCormick. A painting of a dapper pointer hangs over the fireplace.
Although new, the establishment feels pedigreed, like a favored hunting dog—amenable, well-trained, and eager to please. Among the many traits to love about dogs, Stokes names good humor, loyalty, and optimism—admirable attributes, whether canine or human, that the team behind this venture seems to possess in spades.
Of the experience they hope to offer patrons, Stokes says, “We want to be hospitable and treat you well, and we want you to relax and put your feet on the furniture.”
On a sideboard, surrounded by a pack of porcelain pups, a needlepoint sampler of a Sam Walter Foss verse captures this wish: Let me live in the house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.
Rest assured, at Batson River Brewing & Distillery’s Tasting Room, you will find a warm welcome, a potent drink, and a friend to every man, woman, and beast.