As the holidays approach, some towns in New England start to look like real-life snow globes: charming shops, tree-shaded lanes, welcoming restaurants and bars all getting decked out for the season. A layer of fresh snow is simply icing on the cake.
Kennebunkport is one such place. This seaside village in southern Maine has one of the most attractive town centers in the entire state, if not all of New England, and with its glorious holiday festival the Christmas Prelude taking place in December, Dock Square and the area around it becomes a truly special place.
A common mistake when visiting this community, however, is believing that the Kennebunk River breaks Kennebunkport into two sections. It really does feel like one village, but the part west of the river isn’t even Kennebunkport at all, it’s actually part of Kennebunk. The Lower Village – Kennebunk’s downtown is a few miles inland – is home to a number of top dining and drinking spots, much like its neighbor just to the east, including a restaurant that is a favorite for those who also happen to like freshly made beer and spirits.
Once you get a feel for the Lower Village, you’ll start to notice that it’s a bit more laid back and slower paced than Kennebunkport, which is pretty laid back in its own right.
The commercial district mostly sits on either side of Route 9 (Western Avenue), though a few shops and restaurants can also be found on Route 35, which intersects Route 9 just up the hill from the river. Between the intersection and the bridge is an attractive structure on the right going down the hill that looks like a house, but it’s actually Batson River Brewing & Distilling.
While it can be a bit easy to miss because of its residential look, your eyes may be drawn to the fire pits and old pickup truck out front, signs that this is not someone’s private home and instead a hidden gem of a restaurant.
Climbing up the stairs to Batson River, you’ll quickly see that this is no ordinary dining spot. In front is an outdoor patio; just behind it is a spacious porch that’s mostly protected from the elements. Once inside, you’ll see an utterly charming bar area on the first floor along with plenty of tables for dining, while a jaunt upstairs turns up the charm even more, with couches and sofas, table lamps, more bar seating, board games and darts.
And just off the upstairs area is a wonderful second-floor porch that affords views of the Lower Village, the Kennebunk River and Kennebunkport -- this space is perhaps the pick of the lot on a nice day. An additional feature during the colder months is perfect during these days of COVID: six rustic-looking “fish shacks” that can be reserved in advance online – they’re decorated to look like the type of old-fashioned shacks you might see on the countless lakes and ponds found in the vast inland wilderness of Maine.
Both Kennebunkport and Kennebunk’s Lower Village feature a variety of dining options, from classic seafood spots to local breakfast and lunch places to trendy, upscale restaurants. While Batson River is more down to earth than trendy, its menu does lean toward upscale, with a mix of traditional and New American fare offered.
If you’re looking for starters, appetizers or sharable plates, several options are available, including a hearty poutine that comes with beer-braised short rib, fries, cheese curds and an IPA gravy. This being Maine, mussels are also on the menu, and these pilsner-steamed morsels come with chorizo, scallions, corn and grilled bread.
For those who are focusing on the brewery side of the place, Bavarian pretzels are served with beer mustard and gin pickles. Wings and tenders are also offered, as are duck fat cornbread, a Caesar salad with fresh anchovies and those gin pickles are available as a standalone snack as well.
A few main dishes at Batson River include a plate of tagliatelle, squash and sage butter that’s perfect for a chilly day; a slightly different take on the Maine lobster roll that comes with brown butter, tempura crisps and chives; and a hefty burger that’s made with local beef and is served with white American, boursin cheese and bacon, all on a brioche bun.
If you have room, desserts are available as well, including a sinful chocolate mousse with bourbon toffee, hazelnut and Chantilly whipped cream.
New England has countless breweries and a good number of distilleries, but it’s not often you find a place that does both — and especially one that focuses on food as well. Batson River does all three, and does them all very well.
This is important on the beer end of things because they have some pretty stiff competition. While everyone talks about the Vermont beer scene, Maine has quietly emerged as one of the best states in the country for craft beer, including top-tier breweries between Kittery and Portland.
The offerings here are varied, including a mix of IPAs that range from citrusy to bitter; a rich imperial stout that’s strong enough to go to your head pretty quickly; a porter with hints of coffee, chocolate, and bourbon; and some easy-drinking brews such as a kolsch, a couple of pilsners, a Mexican-style lager, a wheat ale and a summer ale.
For those looking for spirits, Batson River makes a few, including rum, gin, vodka, bourbon and an agave spirit. Perhaps the best way to try them is via the many cocktails offered here, be it via a classic gin and tonic, an old fashioned or a Downeast version of a Moscow mule.
Because Kennebunk’s Lower Village and Kennebunkport’s village center are basically part of the same commercial district, it’s easy enough to wander back and forth between the two, crossing the scenic Kennebunk River along the way multiple times. And while it can be difficult to choose from the many restaurants in both areas, it’s a bit less difficult during the colder months, in part because some dining spots are closed for the season. Batson River Brewing & Distilling likely won’t be one of them, thanks in part to their cozy little fish shacks, which give diners the option to be outside without really being outside as the pandemic continues.
No matter what time of year you go, Batson River is an under-the-radar destination spot in a way, offering great takes on food, brew and spirits while having the kind of welcoming atmosphere that will make you want to return as soon as possible.
Batson River Brewing & Distilling, 12 Western Avenue, Kennebunk, ME, 04043. batsonriver.com/batson-river-tasting-room
Note: Batson River has another location in Portland, and will soon open in Biddeford as well.