By Marilyn Pribus –
Central Virginia is widely recognized as a home to wineries and, more recently, craft breweries and cideries. Less well known, but increasing in popularity, are local distilleries that produce hard alcohol like gin, vodka, rum, liqueurs, whisky, and whiskey.
What? No, that’s not a typo. While the Scottish spelling is whisky, the Irish spell it whiskey. The “e” apparently made its way to the U.S. with Irish immigrants several hundred years ago and whiskey with an “e” now generally refers to American whiskies as well.
What Exactly is Distilling?
The distilling process begins in the same way as making beer—combining various ingredients such as grains and water with yeast. This eventually converts the mixture to alcohol but then the distiller goes further.
The spent grains are discarded and the remaining liquid is poured into a still and heated. Since the boiling point of alcohol is lower than that of water, the alcohol vaporizes first. It is then captured and cooled and usually aged for a period of time. The resulting liquid is known as hard alcohol or spirits.
There are a number of distilleries in Virginia. Here are some thumbnail sketches of several in or close to Charlottesville.
Vitae Spirits Distillery
Right in town, Vitae has a wide range of products and aims to create spirits as “faithful expressions of their botanical origins.” To achieve this, they use a 250-gallon custom copper pot still and temperature-controlled fermentation tanks. They store their spirits only in wood, glass or stainless steel—never plastic.
Their products include several varieties of rum, two types of gin, and some special spirits including coffee, pawpaw, and orange liqueurs and anisette. The first in a projected series of local collaborations is Champion Brewery Collab #1. This is a one-time release of spirits distilled from a beer produced by the Champion Brewery, also in Charlottesville.
Spirit Lab Distilling
This Charlottesville in-town micro-distiller incorporates art into its high-end, limited-run products. Their website describes their current products as a single-malt whiskey which is hand-made from mash to bottling and Forage Amaro incorporating more than a dozen local botanicals including foraged blossoms, pecans, elderberry, gentian root and pawpaws.
Their handsome hand-printed and hand-numbered labels are individually created for each batch and for a final elegant touch, the bottle tops are hand-dipped in colored wax.
This distillery produces Virginia Straight Bourbon—both Whiskey-Wheated and Whiskey-Rye. Starting with corn from their own fields, they create their mash using only sustainable locally-sourced corn, wheat, rye, and malted barley. (“Malted” is basically barley that has been germinated in water to activate enzymes that convert starches to fermentable sugars.)
They explain that the grains and local water they use absorb subtle flavors from the in-ground minerals found in the local soil and create a distinctively Virginia product. They offer daily distillery and barn tours.
Barn tours? Yes, indeed. An interesting wrinkle is that they feed their herd of 50-100 cattle with the mash from their distilling process to produce Ragged Branch Bourbon Beef.
Located in Afton, this establishment boasts one of the few mother-daughter distilling teams in the nation and also seeks to be an “exemplary steward of the environment.” To this end, all their grains from corn to winter wheat are Virginia grown and they use “green” distilling and production methods to minimize energy use and environmental impact.
A large part of this effort employs geothermal technologies for chilling and heating water during the distillation process. This uses only about 20 percent of the energy required for traditional heating and cooling.
Their products include Strange Monkey Gin, Blackback Rye Whiskey and Blackback Bourbon. All are created from Virginia grains, mountain water and “good ole American craft(woman)ship.” Local farmers “recycle” the spent mash for animal feed or to fertilize their fields.
Virginia Distillery Company
This distillery concentrates exclusively on what they term their “Virginia-Highland Series” produced entirely from malted barley. These days they “marry” the whiskey produced at their Lovingston facility with whisky from Scotland. (They expect to have their own Virginia-produced spirits by 2020.) An interesting wrinkle is their focus on cask finishing.
Many of the casks used for aging have previously been filled with other locally produced products such as wine, beer, cider and even coffee. The whisky ages in these casks for between 8 and 20 month to provide subtle taste variations.
Distillery Tasting Rooms
Yes they have tasting rooms. Note, however, the Virginia Beverage Control Board has strict rules for tasting spirits and these are strictly enforced.
First, of course, you must be 21 with an ID. Tastings are limited to a total of 3 ounces per day, which may be in any combination of single half-ounce pours or 1.5 ounces of spirits in a cocktail.
Most distilleries have hours for touring or tasting and some host private events—from rehearsal dinners and birthday parties to weddings. Note that since distilleries may not produce food, caterers must be employed for special events with food and many distilleries have established relationships with local catering enterprises.
Check individual distillery websites for more complete information on the distilling process, locations and products.
Some websites also offer merchandise and recipes for cocktails using their specific products, and—just in case you were wondering—explanations about pawpaws.
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville.