Storied 1860s Victorian mansion on Elm Street in Hatfield now a place to make beer, wine and spirits

Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2015

HATFIELD — Jonni Benson might very well be among the most interesting men in the world. The 43-year-old Hatfield native has worked as a chef in Hawaii and sailed halfway around the globe. He worked as a black opal miner in Australia where he was involved in two mining accidents and more recently, as a flight instructor at his own hang-gliding school in Costa Rica.

After touching back down on Hatfield soil for good three years ago, he’s thrown himself into a whole new endeavor — alcoholic beverage manufacturer.

For the past three years, Benson has been brewing beer and making wine and cider at his family’s storied 1860s Victorian mansion on Elm Street.

More recently, he has expanded his operations to distilling gin and vodka with the aid of a silent investor and although many of these libations remain in experimental stages, he’s creating them under a variety of labels that are hitting store shelves and selling in the region.

Benson said his fledgling business has its roots in his childhood in Hatfield where one of his neighbors, Dick Phaneuf, exposed him to the wine-making process. He also studied some chemistry in college, which was among his favorite subjects, he said.

“I grew up on a vineyard,” Benson said of Phaneuf’s abutting property in Hatfield. “I was fascinated by fermentation. I thought it was the coolest thing.”

He also credits Northampton Beer & Winemaking on King Street in Northampton with providing him advice over the years and helping him get his beer-brewing business off the ground.

“Nobody’s doing what Jonni’s doing,” said Mike Edwards, a store manager who referred to Benson’s foray into the beer, wine, cider and spirits market at all once.

“He is a unique individual as it goes,” Edwards added. “He’s one of those people who has an idea and who just keeps going with it. He doesn’t think about failing.”

‘Horrible’ wine festival

A fast-talking, casually dressed entrepreneur, Benson said he decided to dive into the beverage industry after he and his wife went to what he described as a “horrible” wine festival in Vermont. Convinced that day that he could make better wine, he soon bought some of his neighbor’s used wine-making equipment to complement his budding beer brewing practice. An investor friend he declined to name helped finance his distilling operation.

Meantime, Benson said he obtained the state licenses he needed for his home-grown enterprise, one of which took more than two years to receive.

“I said, ‘Let’s just start from the bottom,’ ” Benson recalled. “We just started to do everything.”

Benson said his array of beverages have been sold in 30 different locations, including River Valley Market and Liquors 44 in Northampton. His beer label is under Howler Brewery, named after the howler monkeys of Costa Rica, and they have included Belgian and India pale ales, an all-New Zealand hopped pale ale with a trace of blueberry.

Most of his beer ingredients come from Wisconsin, though he brewed a coffee porter with ingredients from Mocha Joe’s Roasting Company in Brattleboro, Vermont. He’s had a few public tastings at his 18 Elm St. location and plans more later this spring and summer, he said.

“People liked it,” Benson said, noting that his coffee porter was a winner at the last Killington Beer Festival.

His wine label is Otter Tale, a name Benson takes from an old children’s book tale about a dwarf who magically turns himself into an otter to help his family. His wines include red table wine and cabernet sauvignon, as well as apple and raspberry wines. His grapes come from Napa Valley in California and much of that wine is aging in oak barrels in the basement of his home along with hard cider made from apples from Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain. His wine sells for about $10 to $20 a bottle in retail stores.

‘Low and slow’

Then there are the spirits, distilled under the name Mass Appealed Distillery. Benson was distilling gin outside on a sunny spring day last week, and appeared every bit the mad scientist bent on perfecting his concoctions.

“I’ve been learning a lot from Hillbilly Stills in Kentucky,” Benson said of the distilling equipment supplier. “The secret to distilling is low and slow.”

On this day, Benson was distilling his gin under the label Juniper Jack. He blends botanical oils into the gin from lemongrass, pink pepper and coriander, among others.

“I’m learning how to do the blending,” Benson said as he carefully watched the liquids winding and boiling through his propane-fired still. “The first time you do it, you think you’re going crazy.”

Like many typical start-ups, Benson is doing almost everything himself — the beverage making and bottling, the labeling, warehousing and selling. He uses a 50-year-old beer bottle capper that works better than today’s devices, he said, and most of his products are stored in a 13,000-square-foot tobacco barn that speaks to Hatfield’s agricultural past and where Benson ponders opening a brewery someday. He only employs help for his packaging which requires more people than himself.

“The secret to selling is selling,” he said during an interview in his kitchen in March. “I do everything myself except for packaging.”

In the near-term, he would like to open an indoor-outdoor cafe at the rear of his nearly 6,000-square-foot historic home, where he moved when he was 7 years old. He now lives there with his mother Carol, his wife Cathy Richotte, a school teacher, and their two children, ages 7 and 9.

“Like in Europe, a German beer garden,” he said of the cafe.

A cocktail history

It would not be the first time the general public ate and drank on the grounds of 18 Elm St. The ornate mansion, which sits on 4.25 acres, was home to The Hatfield Club in the mid-20th century. The private men’s club had a cocktail menu that included drinks like the Gin Squirt, Sloe Gin Fizz, and Pink Lady with prices ranging from 40 to 60 cents, according to an old and undated menu. It served broiled filet mignon braconiere and brook trout saute meuniere, among 30 or so other entrees.

The barn at the rear of Benson’s property could seat more than 1,000 people at one time and, according to a story in the 1981-82 winter edition of The Country Side Magazine, “was one of the largest gathering places in the Valley for political rallies, wedding banquets and college reunions.”

The mansion was built in 1868 by Deacon Jonathan S. Graves, a farmer who lived across the street, as a wedding gift for his son and it was later purchased by Isaac B. Lowell, a West Springfield politician, during which time it was known as the Lowell Mansion, according to the magazine’s report.

Benson’s parents bought the mansion in 1977 through an auction, and it is currently on the market for $775,000.

Jonni Benson said that if a buyer ever comes around and wants the home, he’ll have to pack up his gin, vodka, wine, cider and beer-making operations and move. But that hasn’t happened yet.

“Somebody has to do something with this house,” he said. “And if somebody has a better idea, they’re more than welcome.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at


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