Whisky town: Can a craft distillery movement make a permanent home in Central Virginia?

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A discard bowl is an essential component in any whisky tasting, but it's a little bit heartbreaking to pour out the good stuff. Photo: John Robinson A discard bowl is an essential component in any whisky tasting, but it's a little bit heartbreaking to pour out the good stuff. Photo: John Robinson

Rick Wasmund and Dan FitzHenry sit at a small table in a Stay Charlottesville rental house arrayed with plastic cups holding fluids of hues that range from clover honey through amber to the color of cherry juice, a natural reddish brown. You’ve heard about the surge in the craft distillery movement? Now you’re in it.

Wasmund, the owner/distiller/barley malter at Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville made the pages of The New York Times early last week for the American single malt that’s in the cup in his hand. FitzHenry, marketing manager/whisky nose/describer-in-chief at Virginia Distillery in Nelson County, spent the week hitting the pavement in D.C. with his Virginia Highland Malt Whisky, a 6-year-old Scottish vatted whisky finished in Virginia wine casks. His job is to sell to a group of people who think they know everything about a subject that is curiously subjective. This goes well with cigars. Oh, that’s perfect after a steak. Asian food? No problem.

Now the two of them are elbow to elbow, sticking their noses in cups, participating in an informal blind taste test of about 15 different whiskies.

Wasmund sniffs his own whisky. He’s just sipped Corner Creek’s light colored bourbon and one of the star performers of the evening, a subtle Islay single malt called Jura.

“Not overly oaked. Used barrels. I like it,” he says. “I want to say Few.”

FitzHenry doesn’t hesitate.

“Wasmund’s Single Malt. This is yours,” he says.

Wasmund: “Well, I said I liked it, didn’t I? Batch 78. This must be Batch 78.”

It is. He knows it because he malted the barley, which only one other distiller in the country does, and he distilled the spirit, and he put it in the barrels with the apple wood chips, and he tasted it until it was ready, which took a year.

Dan FitzHenry (top), director of marketing and sales at Virginia Distillery Company, takes a whiff of whisky during an impromptu tasting conducted at a Stay Charlottesville rental home last week. Photo: John Robinson

The room is full of foodies, drinkies, distillers, and aficionados. I’m an amateur, but because I’m drinking whisky, I’m having fun. Lots of people drink whisky, but not everyone tastes it.

“Wasmund’s Single Malt has an incredible mint note in the background. It sneaks up on you just after you swallow, right as you breathe out,” FitzHenry wrote in his tasting notes. “You get a mouthful of grass and mint. It’s really interesting.”

In the background, Daniel Page, longtime bartender at Hamiltons’ restaurant, circles a table covered in whisky bottles. He has seen the landscape change. The craze for single malt scotch gave way to small batch bourbon. Now rye is edging in. Can the local fever take hold in the world of spirits, where freshness isn’t an issue and where, let’s be honest, most consumers are trying to get drunk without looking stupid?

NoVA trailblazers
Originally from upstate New York, Rick Wasmund worked in the insurance business, which led him from Florida to Middleburg in the late ’90s.

“It wasn’t so much that I was whisky-obsessed. I was at a whisky tasting and the idea came into my head and I thought it was a good one,” Wasmund said of his decision to become a distiller. “The more I explored it the more I believed we could have a niche that no one was filling.”

In 2000, Wasmund did a stint at the Isle of Islay distillery Bowmore, learning the traditional art of making Scotch whisky, which accounts for his encyclopedic knowledge of Scottish single malts and his obsession with malting his own barley. When he returned, he created Copper Fox LLC, putting a business plan on paper and looking for a quick way to get into the market by partnering with an existing Virginia distillery to create a new product, which he called Copper Fox whisky. But the idea was to run his own operation, so Wasmund kept looking for the right property in Fauquier County, close to the D.C. retail market. He ran into zoning issues there and ultimately settled on Sperryville in Rappahannock County in 2005.

Wasmund’s notion, then and now, was to make a uniquely American drink that could compete in the high-end spirit market quickly.

“We wanted to make it from the ground up. It’s Virginia barley, developed at Virginia Tech, grown on the Northern Neck and we do our own malting,” Wasmund said. “There should be a great variety of flavors of American single malt coming.”

And there are. Craft distilleries from New York to Oregon, Waco to Chicago are producing American single malts with a wide variety of flavor profiles that originate with distinctive distilling practices. Wasmund is Virginia’s torchbearer in the category, and he hangs his hat on his malted barley.

Malting barley involves partially germinating the grain, which changes starch into sugar. The barley is soaked for three days through three changes of water. Then it’s dried on a floor and raked over and over again for five days before being moved into a kiln room, where it’s dried out over a low temperature smoke. Copper Fox malts 1,200 pounds of barley at a time, a tiny amount compared to the big industrial malt houses that supply beer giants and make up to 80 tons at a time.

So unique is his product that it caused confusion when he took it to the Virginia ABC. His single malt is aged in barrels and infused with apple wood chips, which add color and flavor that layers with the distinctive taste of his barley malt.

“Bourbon’s a known product. But American single malt… the ABC didn’t even know where to put it,” Wasmund said. “There’s sections in their stores for scotch and bourbon. They tried putting us both places. Ultimately they told me I could go where I wanted and I told them to put us with the American whiskies.”

Copper Fox produces 6,000 12-bottle cases of spirits per year and Wasmund would like to push the number to 10,000. The economics are tough. He makes a single malt that goes for $36.90 and a rye that costs $45. At those price points, the state takes a little over half of the money straight off the top and the feds take another $3 per bottle in an excise tax. That leaves about $15 to cover the bottle, labels, fuel, grain, and labor.

The ABC sales model is the best route in Virginia, since technically restaurants and bar managers can’t even taste his whisky if Wasmund brings it to them. The state control system in Virginia can be a blessing and a curse.

“It’s not always easy to sell in Virginia. Part of our benefit is that we’re an hour and a half from D.C. There we can self-distribute. I can have a bar owner taste my stuff and if they like it, I can take an order and bring them cases the next week,” Wasmund said.

These days Wasmund gets a couple calls a week from people interested in starting their own distilleries. He has seven people on his team, and he’s just about ready to release a single malt gin with a heavily botanical flavor profile. His measure of success?

“I like the engineering challenges. The physical production challenges of making great whisky. We’re always trying to stretch ourselves and make it better but we’re also trying to make more of it. That’s fun,” he said.

Scott and Becky Harris are already making gin at their Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville. And rye. And brandy. And a new-mix white spirit. While Wasmund’s process took almost a decade, from notion to fruition, the Harrises moved breathtakingly fast.

“It was a bit of a mid-life crisis. I was like I’ve got to get started on this now or another 10 years passes, I’ll be too tired,” Harris said.

Scott Harris, a onetime NoVA government contractor, has an engineering degree from Georgia Tech and his wife, Becky, a chemical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin. They conceived of their distillery in February of 2009 and, after taking some distilling courses, started hammering out a business plan, getting feedback from local entrepreneurs. In less than a year, their stills were cranking out Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye, their signature spirit, which won a gold medal at the 2013 Good Food Awards.

Their secret? Like Wasmund, they were able to make a brown whisky nearly right away. Whisky gets its color, character, and flavor from the aging process. Traditional scotch must be at least three years old. Bourbon four.

At the Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Rick Wasmund makes American single malt and rye varieties that get their character from barley malted on the premises. Photo: John Robinson

“One of the things they say about craft distilleries is that we fake it til we make it,” Harris said. “We do the white whisky until we can get the old stuff out to the public. And that’s a flawed business model in my opinion. The white whisky is at best a novelty. We make a beautiful white whisky but it just doesn’t sell. People in America like brown spirits. So coming up with a brown spirit that was relatively youthful but tasted amazing was a big part of us being able to grow quickly.”

At the height of the financial crisis, the Harrises got a small business loan and by year’s end 2010, all of their federal and state licensing was in place. Their first customer was Virginia ABC.

The Harrises released a local craft rye right as the old timey spirit was making a profound comeback. The company’s marketing schtick draws on local history.

“It was rye whisky country. People weren’t drinking corn liquor here until the Civil War,” Harris said.

The branding worked, and now Catoctin Creek is moving from strength to strength. The distillery is producing 40,000 bottles per year, over half rye.

“Basically when we started out the liquor we were putting out was very, very young. It has gotten older as we’ve gotten older. The spirit is just about two years old and it’s a type of spirit we like that was a style that was common during Prohibition,” Harris said.

Catoctin Creek’s gin is made from the same mash as the rye, using the tails of the rye cuttings. It’s double distilled, then infused with botanicals, distilled again and turned into gin. The Harris’ success story is the stuff distillers’ dreams are made of. Like Wasmund, they get two or three queries per week from people who want to emulate their model. There’s still room in the game, but Harris has some words to the wise:

“People don’t realize how much physical labor is involved. It is a tough, blue collar job. We’re not sitting in the office in the air conditioning,” he said. “You’re out here in the 100 degree heat pouring this boiling mash into the still.”

Then there’s the door-to-door salesmanship, the relationship building in an industry with high turnover. And the competition from giant brands.

“We work almost every hour of every day on this job,” he said. “But we love making whisky. I get to go to a party and tell people I make whisky for a living. It is really gratifying to make something with your hands and go to a nice restaurant and see that bottle on the shelf.”

Oh and one more thing to keep in mind: Being close to D.C. matters.

“We sell more liquor in D.C. than we sell in the entire states of Virginia and Maryland combined,” Harris said.