by C. Oscar Olson
Nantucket isn’t a very big place, but it can still be hard to check everything off your must-see list during your summer stay. One island establishment that most seem to make it to, though, is Cisco Brewers.
There’s something for everyone at the brewery. It’s dog-friendly with beautiful views and tasty food, surrounded by sea breezes and lush gardens. There are puppet shows for the kids and live music for everyone, food trucks galore, and fun of all kinds. And of course, there’s Cisco’s long list of libations produced locally with love.
Since 1995, Cisco has proudly claimed the role of the island’s first and only craft brewery. Founded near Cisco Beach by a handful of hard-working locals, it’s still family-run and island-oriented.
The story starts in 1992. Randy Hudson brought home a brewing kit, catching on to a popular trend in the early days of craft brewing. He tried one recipe using the extracts provided in the kit, but before long he was paving his own way. By converting an old pasta roller into a grain mill and experimenting with his own recipes, he soon discovered he was in his element.
In need of a place to stay, Randy and his wife Wendy were lucky enough to meet Dean and Melissa Long, founders of Nantucket Vineyards. Their wine making operation began a decade earlier, in 1981. After failing to grow sufficient grapes on-island, they begin importing from the finest growers in California, Washington state, and New York. This serendipitous decision allowed for a finer focus on the fermenting and aging of the wine, resulting in some of our region’s best wine.
The Hudson’s were happy to stay in their loft atop thousands of gallons of grape juice and help out with wine making along the way. They both enjoyed the art and science of it all, and it only fueled the fire the Hudson’s had for brewing beer.
With the exception of their air-conditioned cold room, Cisco Brewers was initially known for being the only outdoor brewery in America. Then known as a nano-brewery, they brewed their beer under blue island skies until 1996 when they met Jay Harmon, a recent graduate of Fairfield University. Harmon joined the Cisco team and began running the operation, capping 60,000 bottles in his first year with the Hudsons.
Growth was tremendous in those first few years, and Dean had a vision of expanding into distilled spirits. In 1997, the group applied for a license from the state of Massachusetts to manufacture high proofed spirits with the hope to produce grappa and fruit brandies. After some thinking, though, they decided whiskey was the way to go. Because, after all, beer is just whiskey that hasn’t been distilled yet.
Because of whiskey’s long stay “in the wood,” the team decided first to try their hand at vodka. To raise the necessary capital, they invited the public to purchase futures on each barrel of Notch Whiskey (not scotch), an option still open to the public today. As a result, Triple Eight Vodka was the first product to flow into bottles from their tiny outdoor operation. It is made from organically grown corn, triple distilled, and blended with ultra-pure sand-filtered island water from well number 888.
Award-winning rum, gin, bourbon, and other expressions of their single malt Notch have since been added to their extensive menu. Their long list of libations are distributed to twelve states and counting, all thanks to the island, its visitors, and the hard work of the three founding families.
Get yourself there by car because there’s plenty of parking (though the lot does fill), by bike because bike paths will take you the whole way, or take advantage of their free shuttle. The Cisco Van will take you and your friends straight to the party from noon to 6:30 pm daily during peak season. Pickup is in front of Visitor Services at 23 Federal Street.
Upon arriving, follow the sounds of music and laughter and find yourself inside. Grab a flagship Whale’s Tale Pale Ale, a new favorite like the grapefruit Gripah, or any one of their rotating brews available only in the Taproom. Not a beer drinker? No problem. They’re aways mixing up classic and custom cocktails that will please any palate. And of course, find the wine that started it all.
Just three years ago in 2018, what some thought would be big changes came to Cisco. Craft Beer Alliance, a publicly-traded beer-brewing and distribution company headquartered in Portland, Oregon, bought the brewery for a sum of 23 million dollars. Written into the terms of sale ensured that the original Nantucket brewery would remain in the hands of Dean and Melissa Long, Randy and Wendy Hudson, and Jay Harman. A lot of things change on Nantucket, but Cisco Brewers won’t soon be one of them.
The team at Cisco has taken their “amusement park beer garden” style off the island. Find the fun throughout New England in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Boston Seaport, The Village in Stamford, Connecticut, and most recently on the water in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It’s good beer if you can get to it, and lucky for us that has never been easier.