Christine Riggleman wanted to start a business on her family’s land off Route 151. An avid home cook, she figured it would make sense to open a restaurant. She wanted to complement the craft breweries and cideries already flowing up and down the highway. But she had friends in restaurants who advised against going into the food biz, so she took her culinary talents in a different direction.
“It was just a matter of watching and waiting. We didn’t want to oversaturate the market,” she said from the production floor of her two-week-old small-batch liquor production house. She gestured to her stills. “This is cooking,” she said. “I’m just cooking.”
Silverback Distillery—named after her husband for his prematurely gray hair and sometimes gorilla-like behavior—is the first spirits-maker to join the craft beverage boom on 151. She’s been inviting guests to sample her creations since August 29, and liquor enthusiasts throughout the region will soon get a taste when Silverback alights on 100 Central Virginia ABC stores.
Riggleman and her team, which includes her husband, oldest daughter, project manager Blake Rhodes, and contractors, broke ground on the new booze shop last October. Over seven months, the team spared no expense because they wanted to produce “the best bourbon you can make.”
Now complete, save for a third bar that will be either an overflow tasting room or an event space, Silverback Distillery boasts two stills—a traditional pot still and a continuous still modeled after the one used by Maker’s Mark in Kentucky. The setup off Route 151 will allow the distillery to produce as many as 600,000 bottles of liquor per year. Riggleman said many small booze makers open with a capacity closer to 30,000 bottles per year.
The remainder of the more than $1 million price tag Riggleman ball-parked for her new business includes a carefully designed production floor (anything that can cause a spark is stored in the boiler room), two electric boilers that require less energy to run than one large boiler, and 26,000 feet of geothermal pipe running under the property. The geothermal system is the linchpin in Silverback’s mission to “Produce responsibly. Drink responsibly. Dispose responsibly.” Rhodes said it is hyper-efficient when it comes to cooling liquids, an important part of the spirit-making process.
“It was more expensive on startup, but it will pay back in about three to four years,” he said.
The only concern during construction came when a land surveyor for Dominion Resources visited the Silverback Distillery site several months back. Behind the distillery off 151 is a field Riggleman’s daughters call the “Wedding Field,” a place they fantasize about eventually getting married. It’s one of the areas being considered by Dominion for its planned 550-mile natural gas pipeline.
“I’m worried about the pipeline contaminating our water,” Riggleman said. “The surveyor came by and talked to us and told us where they want to put it, but [Dominion Resources] never contacted us. We will see.”
If you sidle up to one of the two sleekly designed bars at Silverback Distillery in the next few months, you won’t get to taste the drink Riggleman set out to make—her prized bourbon—as the spirit is aging in barrels for three to five years to take on the smoky flavor and dark hue it’s known for. But you will get a chance to sample her Beringei Vodka, Strange Monkey Gin, and Blackback White Whiskey, the distillery’s bourbon recipe made available pre-aging. Each are available as straight 0.5- ounce tasting portions or served with one of several carefully selected mixers, such as Riggleman’s homemade Bloody Mary mix.
The early returns on the product have been favorable. Riggleman said the tasting room was full in its first two weeks with both craft enthusiasts stopping by during beer tours and locals making the distillery a destination. The gin has been a surprisingly strong seller, she said, keeping up with vodka sales.
“I like the gin, and I’m not a gin drinker,” said Ron Edwards, a South Carolina resident on a Friday afternoon 151 tour with a local friend. “It didn’t taste like pine needles, which most gin does.”
The 100 percent wheat vodka is regarded by most as having a slightly sweet note, making it a good candidate for serving right on the rocks. The newly released Blackback White Whiskey is essentially moonshine, a raw-tasting grain spirit that would put hair on the back of an orangutan.
The one gorilla in the room for Silverback Distillery, the strict Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, has turned out to be “wonderful,” Riggleman said. The 100 stores the distillery was awarded more than doubled her expectations. Still, the agency won’t allow a spirits maker to serve food, and patrons are allowed only three 0.5 ounce servings per 24-hour period. That means Silverback will never be a place where paying customers will want to spend an hour or two relaxing.
Nevertheless, Riggleman mostly stands behind ABC on that measure as well.
“I live on this road and have kids,” she said. “I don’t want people having more than that to drink.”