Virginia is for lovers, and wine — and also whiskey.
The state boasts a burgeoning craft distilling industry. Virginia shares a similar climate, ideal for barrel aging, with its westward neighbor of Kentucky. Virginia spirits now include a bevy of unique bourbons, ryes, moonshines and American single malts. Visit the distilleries and VABC liquor stores and you’ll also find locally made rum, vodka, gin and more. Many of these producers use regional grains and wood.
Around 70 distilleries now operate in the state. I visited a number during a recent tour hosted by the Virginia Distillers Association. Keep an eye on these producers and products as the state’s spirits spread across America:
A touch Scotland in Virginia. Production includes a traditional malt floor and smoking kiln. Opened in 2005, Copper Fox specializes in fruitwood-smoked rye and American single malt. Founder Rick Wasmund also steeps bags of fruitwood and oak chips in aging stock to intensify flavor creation.
Altogether this results in smoky, fruity spirits. Not the campfire flavors of Islay, but more rounded, roasty flavors. Copper Fox’s two primary products are an applewood smoked single malt (SRP: $44.99), and their rye with a mash bill of 33% fruitwood smoked barley ($44.99). The company also has a series of peachwood smoked single malts ($53.99), named after Beatles albums, which impeccably balance peach and smoke.
Copper Fox is in 15 states and Washington D.C. Currently it counts 1,000 barrels aging. The company has locations in urban Williamsburg and rural Sperryville.
Virginia’s second-largest distillery is on pace to become among the nation’s largest producers of American single malt. Following a passion for Scotch, the late Dr. George G. Moore founded this company in 2011. His vision continues through his family, including son Gareth, and a state-of-the-art distillery on 100 acres in Lovingston.
While their 3,000+ barrels age, Virginia Distillery sources malt whisky from Scotland. They finish this, and mix in young stock of their own. Currently their flagship is a smooth, flavorful port-finished ($57.99). Also they offer chardonnay cask ($64.99), craft beer barrel ($64.99), and a particularly tasty cider cask ($64.99). The company is distributed in 14 states and Washington D.C.
Virginia Distillery is reminiscent of Wyoming Whiskey: a newer big distillery that has invested the proper amount of capital and time. Their first homegrown product, a blend named “Courage and Conviction,” remains several years away. It will combine single malt aged in ex-bourbon, sherry and wine casks. A special-release preview, called “Prelude,” is planned for late-2019.
In the meantime, educating consumers about American single malt remains a focus. “The tough thing is that most people don’t know the category,” says Gareth Moore. “Their education starts with explaining the difference between bourbon, rye and what we’re making. How we’re using 100% malted barley.”
Founder Chuck Miller has followed legally in the criminal footsteps of his grandfather. Miller’s ancestor was a moonshiner whose bullet-holed 1938 Ford truck remains rusting on this 200-acre rural farm.
Belmont still makes moonshine. Also: corn whiskey, gin, apple whiskey, rum, and bourbon. True to its old-timey character — rustic antiques decorate the distillery — the facility operates a solid-copper pot still in an old production system that clangs and whirs.
Miller himself is from another era. A moonshiner in modern times, with a cowboy hat and a million jokes. He received his distilling license in 1989, the 12th issued in America. In 2004 Miller helped jumpstart Virginia’s craft spirits industry, successfully lobbying for legislative changes that expanded distilleries’ sales and production.
Belmont’s long line of products tends towards the boozier side, fitting for the moonshiner theme, and altogether distribute in 42 states.
Taking a cue from Europe, this Richmond distillery ages in casks five or ten gallons, rather than 53-gallon bourbon barrels. Their smaller containers (made of Virginia wood) impart flavors faster thanks to increased wood contact. This decreases aging periods, at the cost of less time for oxidization. Reservoir must toss more stock and cut deeper into distillate runs.
Reservoir works with mash bills of 100% rye, wheat or corn. They offer 750-ml. bottles of each straight grain for $85, or $43 for a 375-ml. They’re also known for small-batch blends, and creative takes, like whiskey made from Ardent Craft Ales IPA, which retained the brew’s piney, bitter flavors.
Reservoir recently raised capital to expand sales and marketing. Opened in 2008, they claim to be the third distillery outside of Kentucky making bourbon. You can find Reservoir in 15 states.
Rather than source rye whiskey while their own aged (in Virginia and Minnesota wood), Catoctin Creek committed to self-made product. The result is a “Virginia-style rye,” says Scott Harris, co-owner with his wife and distiller Becky, which is different from the traditional MGP-sourced grassy, dill rye. “Ours is more fruity and nutty,” Harris explains.
Built in a 1921 Buick dealership in Purcellville, Catoctin Creek opened in 2009. Distribution reaches 26 states. Their flagship Roundstone Rye ($40) contains more flavors than you might expect for 80 proof. It explains why their 92-proof “Distiller’s Edition” rye ($52) is so complex with raison, pithy-orange and nutty flavors.
If you can find it, the Catoctin Creek cask strength rye ($90) is remarkably smooth for 116 proof. They also make brandies, gin and a bottled-in-bond rye.
Come for the bourbon, stay for the beef. Co-founder and distiller Alex Toomy grew up a farm boy not far from this Ragged Mountains distillery, outside of Charlottesville. The 92-acre property includes cattle, and Toomy sells a freshly slaughtered steer’s worth of meat weekly from his tasting room. It made for juicy burgers.
Ragged Branch put up their first barrel in 2014. Today they offer a four-year-old wheated bourbon ($49.99) and a high-rye version ($49.99) about half that age. Both taste good now and show a lot of promise.
A builder by trade, Toomey’s tasting room and rickhouse are both exquisitely constructed. The mountainous views from this rural hillside destination are breathtaking. Ragged Branch feeds whiskey mash to its cattle, closing the loop on this farm distillery.
Founders Bill Karlson and John O’Mara were rejected by the TTB when they tried to brand whiskey with their last names. So the pair combined last initials into some of the more eye-catching branding in Virginia. “KO” lends naturally to bareknuckle boxing, with labels with the likeness of classic pugilists.
The Bareknuckle Whiskey brand includes a wheat ($35.99), bourbon ($39.99) and straight rye ($45.99). As former merchant marines, the founders also launched a line of Battle Standard 142 gins. The number memorializes how many cadet-midshipmen lost lives during WW2.
KO Distilling recently rebranded their Virginia Moon moonshine as Bareknuckle American Whiskey. After laying down their first barrel in 2015, the distillery now has 1,100 at rest. You’ll find bottles from this Manassas-based distillery in three states and D.C., as well as on coast guard and navy bases around the DMV area.
Chances are you’re well aware of these guys. But no list of Virginia spirits-makers is complete without the state’s grandfather of distilling. A. Smith Bowman opened in 1934, the day after Prohibition ended. Now owned by Sazerac, the company continues to receive accolades. They scored World’s Best Bourbon from Whiskey Magazine in 2016 for their port-finished, and in 2017 for their single-barrel.
Virginia’s largest distillery, A. Smith Bowman is in 40 states. Newer innovations include a caramel bourbon cream liqueur, and an experimental rum line with a lovely bourbon barrel-finished expression.
Rum is also in the barrels at this Richmond distillery, which wanted to stand out among the craft whiskey boom. While Virago’s own rums, made from Virginia ingredients, ages in ex-Heaven Hill casks, the brand sourced together a tasty blend. Four-Port Rum ($31.99) combines Jamaican-style rum with mellower Spanish variants for a smooth mix of dark-sweet and funk.
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz or Instagram @cheers_magazine. Read his recent piece Why Have Scotch Sales Fallen Flat?
All photos by MJ Gearles of Revel Photo Co.