Our craft distillery movement is resurging by leaps and barrels

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Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington (pictured, sort of), was restored in 2009 to demonstrate colonial-era distilling. Photo: Bob Creamer Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington (pictured, sort of), was restored in 2009 to demonstrate colonial-era distilling. Photo: Bob Creamer

We’re fifth in the nation for wine production and are one of the Travel Channel’s Top 7 beer destinations in North America, so it only makes sense that Virginia’s jumping on the craft distillery bandwagon. And it’s moving at a pretty good clip considering that America went from having 14,000 distilleries at the start of the 19th century to barely a dozen following Prohibition. According to the American Distilling Institute, the number of craft distilleries in the U.S. rose from 24 in 2000 to 52 in 2005 and now stands at 240. Virginia is home to six established craft distilleries with at least two under development, not counting, of course, that backcountry booze with the toothless reputation that’s still alive and well in Franklin County (and on the Discovery Channel).

While Virginia has a long-standing history with two big box booze-makers (Laird’s been making its AppleJack in North Garden with Shenandoah Valley-grown apples for more than five decades, and A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg’s been bottling Virginia Gentleman Bourbon ever since Prohibition ended), all but one of our craft distillers have been at it for fewer than six years.

The oldest of our state’s gang, Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpeper, got its start 25 years ago selling legal moonshine derived from an illegal family recipe. Chuck and Jeanette Miller produce White Lightning (a clear 100-proof whiskey) made with corn that they grow and mill themselves. Their 86-proof Kopper Kettle whiskey is more refined, using a three-grain mash and local oak and apple wood barrels for aging. They distill both liquors in the same 2,000-gallon circa 1933 copper pot still.

Richmond-based Parched Group got in the game spring of 2006 with Cirrus, a hand-crafted, small-batch vodka made from potatoes. Chesapeake Bay Distillery in Virginia Beach had its corn-based Blue Ridge Vodka on shelves two years later. Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville bottled their first batch of Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky summer of 2006, making their mark by being the only distillery in North America to hand malt its own barley and the only distillery in the world to use smoldering apple and cherry wood (instead of peat) to flavor the malted barley. Certified organic and kosher rye whiskey and gin from Catoctin Creek Distilling Company went on the market in 2009, while the Loudoun County distillery itself predates Prohibition.

Though mainly for show, the distillery that George Washington owned and operated at his home in Mount Vernon in the late 1700s was restored in 2009 to 18th century-esque conditions to demonstrate colonial-era distilling. They use only water for the daily demos, but 750ml bottles of unaged rye whiskey are sold in the plantation’s gift shop for history buffs looking for a collectible—or a drink.

With an estimated future annual production of 100,000 cases of Scottish-style whiskies, the Virginia Distillery Company in Lovingston will be the largest craft distillery in the state. Scotch doesn’t happen overnight though. The single malt’s been aging for the past four years and will stand before the ABC for approval in October, followed by three months of paperwork-filled lag time before it makes its way to our lowballs. But even if it’s not available for Christmas gifts, Scotch-heads (or those who love them) can pony up $6,000 to reserve a cask of it for the start of 2013.

Distillery growth might be exponential if it weren’t for Prohibition laws still on the books. It was only in 1980, for example, that the government lifted the regulation that a federal agent must be on site daily to oversee distillery operations (and given their own office and restroom to boot). To this day, distilleries can’t provide tasting samples as we’re used to at wineries. This law was just rewritten this summer for breweries (whose own revival began just 25 years ago), so distilleries shouldn’t be too far behind.

The American Distilling Institute pro-jects that the number of distilleries in our country will grow to between 400 and 450 by 2015. We already have our eyes peeled for the completion of Ragged Mountain Distillery on Taylors Gap Road. Consider it a spiritual renaissance.

New AVA for VA
Wine producers are duly proud of their terroir and now the 14 wineries and 10 vineyards in and around Middleburg, Virginia have an AVA (or American Viticulture Area) to call their own. Thanks to the efforts of Boxwood Estate Winery’s Rachel Martin, this area located 50 miles west of D.C. received official designation in the Federal Registry on September 14. For a winery to adopt an AVA, its wines must be made from no less than 85 percent of grapes grown in the area. The Middleburg AVA brings Virginia’s total to seven.

Liquorspeak 101
Generally speaking, whisky (often spelled whiskey in the US and Ireland) is an alcoholic beverage distilled primarily from grain. Bourbon is distilled from mainly corn, rye whiskey is distilled from mainly rye, and Scotch Whisky (which we often call just Scotch) is distilled from malted barley.

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