High spirits: A scientist and inventor perfects the art and craft of distilling

Robin Felder will go to market next year with three types of "varietal gin" and brandies made with apples, blood peaches, and Burford pears grown on his property. He says the pears are difficult to grow, because they're susceptible to disease and pest damage, so he's been fine-tuning planting patterns and maintenance: "If you don't get the farming right, you're not going to get the brandy right." Photo: John Robinson Robin Felder will go to market next year with three types of “varietal gin” and brandies made with apples, blood peaches, and Burford pears grown on his property. He says the pears are difficult to grow, because they’re susceptible to disease and pest damage, so he’s been fine-tuning planting patterns and maintenance: “If you don’t get the farming right, you’re not going to get the brandy right.” Photo: John Robinson

Robin Felder sees connections. For instance, when he installed the 250-gallon solid copper still at his and his wife Mary’s hilltop home near North Garden, he knew that the high-tech machine would need a considerable water source to cool and condense the evaporated alcohol into the final, drinkable product. The swimming pool, sunk subtly into the ground in front of their residence, is, oh, about a hundred paces away from the freestanding still house, close enough to reach with a pipe carrying hot steam, so… You can see where this is leading. Even in the dead of winter, a dip in the warm water awaits.

That detail provides a glimpse into the expansive mind of a distinguished UVA professor of pathology who is also an entrepreneur and inventor. Felder, 65, holds a PhD in biochemistry from Georgetown, did his post-doctoral training at the National Institutes of Health, and has launched nine ventures out of UVA’s business-incubator program. His list of 27 patents and patents pending—mostly in robotics and biomedical sensory technologies—starts in 1994 and runs to 2018.

Roughly five years ago, then 30 years into his “day job” at the university, Felder decided to indulge his passion. He had started home-brewing as a teenager, with his military father’s help. “He was all about self-sufficiency, a real DIY guy,” Felder says. Nearly 50 years later—next April and sometime in the summer or fall, respectively—Felder will go to market with three types of “varietal gin” (he has applied to trademark the phrase) and brandies made with apples, blood peaches, and Burford pears. Because the apple distillate lacks a distinct “nose,” it is currently gaining one by resting in repurposed bourbon barrels from Felder’s neighbor, Ragged Branch Distillery.

No prices have been set, but the spirits will demand a premium, due to the labor-intensive production and large quantity of raw materials required to make small amounts of the finished product. “Three bushels of Burford pears—that’s about 120 pounds—go into making one 375ml bottle of pear brandy,” Felder says.

Felder grows the pears on the couple’s 24-acre plot. Like the abundant 2019 grape harvest in central Virginia, Felder’s pear trees delivered a record yield of 4,000 pounds this fall. He credits the bounty to the dry, hot weather, and to the counsel of Tom Burford, the master orchardist of Vintage Virginia Apples and Albemarle CiderWorks. (Known as “Professor Apple,” Burford’s also adept with other fruits. The Burford pear is named for him.)

“Burford pear is difficult to grow—susceptible to disease and damage by pests,” says Felder, who uses only organic methods. “Tom really helped me with planting and maintenance issues. If you don’t get the farming right, you’re not going to get the brandy right.”

A slender man with clear green eyes and thick blond hair parted on the left, Felder wears pressed khakis and a crisp light-blue oxford shirt with the collar buttoned down beneath a V-neck sweater.

“I reached a certain age where I had a choice between a little red Mercedes convertible to drive around in and cheer me up, or a still,” says Felder. With a hearty endorsement from Mary, to whom he’s been married for 45 years, he chose the latter.

We are sitting in the living room of the couple’s home, Montepiccolo—which means “tiny mountain,” a wink at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The view filling the glass walls, facing southwest, displays dimming sunlight on the colorful fall foliage. Mountains ripple in the distance—the tall one, more than 30 miles away, is Wintergreen.

“The Mercedes is really not ‘him,’” Mary says. The corners of her husband’s lips curl into a little smile. “I’m a farmer,” he says. “I drive a Toyota pickup truck.”

The statement would be false modesty if it weren’t true, just as the Jefferson reference would be grandiose if Felder weren’t both a dedicated orchardist and accomplished inventor, a person, like Jefferson, interested in earthy pursuits as well as intellectual ones.

As the sun sinks into the mountains, Felder leads the way down the stone steps from the driveway to the distillery. Inside, a crescent-shaped bar curves to the left of the bulbous, gleaming still. The room is immaculate—a laboratory—and the air is redolent with the aroma of booze and fruit. Felder explains that, after taking a three-day course in Lexington, Kentucky, the U.S. mecca of distilling education and experimentation, he elected to get the same brand of still he learned on.

It’s made by Vendome, founded in Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1900s. Felder’s model is steam-heated and can distill up to 600 gallons of gin a day. “I didn’t want to be limited by the still I bought, I wanted to be limited by my market,” he says.

He steps behind the bar and pours small samples of gin and pear brandy into fluted glasses. He informs me that I am an “official pre-market tester” not a “taster,” because he’s not yet licensed for the latter. The liquors are aromatic and smooth, with pine and citrus (gin) and deep fruit flavors (brandy) that linger long after a sip.

These are Robin Felder’s next great inventions—a delicious melding of art and science—and soon you’ll be able to sample them for yourself.

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