Spirited debate: Tasting and talking Virginia whiskey (and one rum)

A panel of experts and enthusiasts tasted eight local brown liquors—bourbon, single malt, and one rum. Photo: Max March A panel of experts and enthusiasts tasted eight local brown liquors—bourbon, single malt, and one rum. Photo: Max March

Whiskey goes way back in Virginia. In 1620, English settler George Thorpe made the first batch of spirits in Jamestown using corn—not barley, as was the tradition in Europe—obtained in a trade with the indigenous Powhatan people. George Washington added to the commonwealth’s whiskey heritage, distilling a rye mash in Mount Vernon in the 1770s. Of greater relevance today is Culpeper’s Chuck Miller. He rescued an abandoned 3,000-gallon copper pot still from a hillside in Nelson County, and, with his wife Jeanette, became the first licensed craft distiller in Virginia in 1988. “I feel like I started a revolution,” says Miller.

In the decades since, a growing number of new distillers have followed the small-batch path in Virginia. With the cold weather blowing in, we decided it was time to sample some of those local efforts. So we gathered a few experts and enthusiasts to try two of Miller’s Belmont Farm creations and six other brown liquors made in and around Charlottesville. See our tasting notes below, and then find your own favorite to warm up the chilly nights ahead.

Belmont Farm Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Culpeper

92 proof. Aged two years in charred white oak barrels.

Nose: “Baking spice.” “Floral.” “Chocolate.” “Fruit tart.”

Palate: “Maple-driven sweetness.” “Pears and malt.” “Heat builds on the tongue.” “Too hot.” “Rough around the edges.”

Notes: “A little cloying for my taste.” “Long finish with corn and smoke at the end.”

Spirit Lab Distilling Single Malt Whiskey, Batch 5, Charlottesville

96 proof. Cured in charred white oak and bourbon barrels, finished in sherry and port casks. Total aging of 42 months.

Nose: “Toasted pear crumble.” “Maple syrup.” “Malt.”

Palate: “A little malty.” “Complex citrus notes.” “Balanced flavors.” “Hint of cinnamon.” “Anise.” “Fig.” “Light on the tongue.” “Mellow.”

Notes: “A complete whiskey.” “Yeah, dog! There’s some serious flavor here.” “Austere sweetness.”

Ragged Branch Farm, Signature Bourbon, Albemarle County

90 proof. Aged four years in charred white oak barrels.

Nose: “Raw grain.” “Honey.” “Tangy and sweet.”

Palate: “Maple.” “Burnt caramel.” “Caramel.” “Spicy.” “Molasses.” “Continuously hot.” “Spicy.”

Notes: “Good, young bourbon.” “It’s a little like candy your grandmother would give you, in a good way.” “Interesting late-night sipper with some ice.”

Virginia Distilling Company, Prelude American Single Malt Whiskey, Lovingston

92 proof. Aged three years-plus in sherry, cuvée and bourbon casks.

Nose: “Baked goods.” “Floral.” “Smoke.” “Chocolate-covered cherries.”

Palate: “Malty.” “Orange peel.” “Tobacco.” “Toffee.” “Sharp.” “Opens up the more you sip.”

Notes: “Very good American/Virginian example of a Scottish single malt.” “Light for a malt but hard to pigeon-hole, which is a good thing.”

Ragged Branch Farm, Wheated Bourbon, Albemarle County

90 proof. Double oaked, twice barreled (no aging duration given).

Nose: “Grassy.” “Young grain.” “Caramel.” “Sweet.”

Palate: “Spice.” “Fresh wood shavings.” “Heavy wheat, less oak presence.” “Expansive.” “Smoother than the [Ragged Branch] Signature Bourbon, but still a little hot.”

Notes: “Hot on the palate at the beginning but slightly mellows at the end.” “A little on the sour side.”

Belmont Farm Bonded Virginia Whiskey, Culpeper

100 proof. Aged six years in apple wood and Virginia white oak.

Nose: “Rice pudding.” “Cinnamon-raisin oatmeal.”

Palate: “Cinnamon and smoke.” “Caramel.” “Sorghum.” “Orange creme brulée.” “Smooth, slow release of flavors.”

Notes: “Needs a drop of water to open it up. After that, you get the apple wood right away.” “Another complete whiskey.” “Has a lot of depth.” “+++!”

Vitae Spirits, Barrel-Aged Rum, Charlottesville

90 proof. Unspecified aging period in bourbon and wine barrels.

Nose: “Bright, orange peel.” “Butterscotch.” “Molasses.”

Palate: “Buttery.” “Cocoa.” “French toast.” “Round.” “Full but thins out to a peppery finish.”

Notes: “Not as sweet as I’d expect a rum to be.” “Almost like an Armagnac.”

Silverback Distillery, Blackback Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Nelson County

86 proof. Two-and-a-half years in charred white oak barrels.

Nose: “Freshly split oak.” “Caramel.” “Butterscotch.”

Palate: “Graham cracker.” “Grain—something light, like wheat, as well as corn?” “Initially bracing but rounds out.”

Notes: “A young bourbon that shows characteristics of an older one. It sips well and has staying power.”

Tasting team

Ivar Aass: Co-founder and co-owner of Spirit Lab Distilling. (Aass reserved comment on his own product.)

Joe Bargmann: Living/Special Publications Editor, C-VILLE Weekly.

Larry Bleiberg: USA Today columnist, veteran travel and food writer, president-elect of the Society of American Travel Writers.

Will Curley: Co-owner, The Wine Guild of Charlottesville.

Rebecca Edwards: Nationally recognized mixologist who works at Tavola.

Max March: C-VILLE Weekly editorial designer, food and drink enthusiast.

Jake Mooney: C-VILLE Weekly contributor, former New York Times columnist, trenchant observer of life (including whiskey).


Belmont Farm, Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Spirit Lab Distilling, Single Malt Whiskey Batch 5

Ragged Branch Farm, Signature Bourbon

Virginia Distilling Co., Prelude American Single Malt Whisky

Ragged Branch Farm, Wheated Bourbon

Belmont Farm, Bonded Virginia Whiskey

Vitae Spirits, Barrel-Aged Rum

Silverback Distillery, Blackback Straight Bourbon Whiskey

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Ian Glomski

Just FYI, Batch#1 of our Vitae Spirits Barrel-aged Rum was aged for 30 months. It was not noted above. Future batches will have different ages and finishes.


Enjoy!—-Vitae Spirits Distillery