For Ian Glomski, 2012 was a watershed year. He turned 40 and narrowly escaped a massive wildfire while on a birthday fly-fishing trip in Wyoming. He served as a juror for the George Huguely trial and fought cancer for the first time.
“All of that added up,” he says, and with mortality on the mind, he started thinking about what he wanted to do with his remaining years. He had a good job as a professor of microbiology specializing in infectious disease at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, but knew he’d regret it if he kept doing what he was doing.
But his midlife crisis wasn’t a red Porsche or a young girlfriend, he says with a laugh. It was a distillery.
Glomski left his professor gig to open Vitae Spirits at 715 Henry Ave., next door to Ace Biscuit and Barbecue. Since 2015, he’s been making high-quality rum and gin to better serve the Virginia cocktail community, which has a cornucopia of local beers and wines, but few local liquors.
Glomski says he initially got into alcohol production to skirt the law—when he was 18, he could buy hops and yeast, but not beer, so he started making his own while a student at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Frustrated with the “crappy beer” he was brewing, he took a microbiology course to learn how to isolate and remove the microorganisms that were ruining his brews.
For a scientist interested in alcohol, he says distilling was the next mountain to summit, and he started with rum. In his opinion, there’s “no better spirit to pair with fruit juice than rum, especially white rum.”
Glomski says the production of Vitae rums (and gin) begins by fermenting sugar cane molasses into a molasses beer that’s about 8 percent alcohol (Glomski estimates Vitae uses about 27,000 pounds of Louisiana molasses every three months). They load the molasses beer into the custom-built copper pot still and heat it. Compounds in the beer that boil at low temperatures transition from liquid into vapor, and the vapors rise out of the top of the still. Once outside the still, the vapors are cooled back down to room temperature and turn into a liquid. Glomski says the very first vapors to boil off the molasses beer taste awful, but once they’ve boiled off completely, most of what’s left in the beer is water and ethanol (drinking alcohol). With continued heating, ethanol is next to vaporize, and those are the vapors cooled into a liquid to make rum.
The Alley Light bar manager Micah LeMon uses Vitae’s Platinum Rum in his Rose Hill Ruby cocktail; it’s different from most other white rums (e.g., Bacardi) in that it’s not filtered through charcoal, a process that can strip flavor from rum. “When you taste the molasses and then you taste the rum, you understand why people call liquor ‘spirits’: It is the fortified essence of molasses,” says LeMon.
The Golden Rum, infused with sugarcane grilled on Ace’s hickory next door, “is a great component for a split-spirit-based tiki cocktail” for its strong char, oak and molasses flavors, he says.
Glomski explains that to make gin, the Vitae team loads the still with ethanol drinking alcohol, and adds 17 different botanicals before heating it up. The vaporizing ethanol carries the aromatic oils from the herbs and spices out of the still and into drinking gin, while leaving the bitter flavors of the herbs and spices behind. Vitae’s gin is unusual in its molasses base: Glomski estimates that of the 800 craft distilleries making gin in the U.S., only about half a dozen of them use molasses, instead of corn and wheat, in the alcohol to make gin.
“The molasses is more muted in the gin [than in the rums], but still present, and complimented by lemongrass, lavender and pepper on the palate,” says LeMon.
All three liquors are available at Vitae’s tasting room, which opened October 15. The Platinum Rum hit ABC shelves April 1 of this year, but the Golden Rum and Modern Gin are special order bottles.
Per Virginia ABC laws, Vitae can serve a maximum of 3 ounces of liquor per person per day (that’s about two full-size cocktails), and can only serve alcohol produced on the premises. If Glomski wants to mix and serve a cocktail with a complementary alcohol, he must make it himself.
For those purposes, Glomski has a few other products in the works, including an orange liqueur made with local trifoliate orange zest, a coffee liqueur and an anisette made with fennel and Buddha’s hand zest. But for now, Vitae’s small bar serves up single-alcohol cocktails, such as the Gold ’n’ Stormy (Golden Rum, muddled lime, Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew), the Platinum Daiquiri (Platinum Rum, lime juice, vanilla bean-infused simple syrup) and the Modern Tonic (Modern Gin, muddled lime, Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic).
Vitae will sell about 3,500 cases of spirits per year, and while that’s enough to make it a successful business, Glomski expects the output to evolve as he incorporates more products and distillers reserves (like those liqueurs and some barrel-aged rums) into the repertoire.
He doesn’t plan to match big-distributor output or visibility, but he does plan to invite the community in. He’ll test plenty of products on adventurous tasting room customers and offer tours of the facility. He’s open to hearing tasters’ ideas and even doing custom production runs for those who have the means.
“We can’t beat the big guys on production, on quality control,” says Glomski. “So we have to offer something else—and that’s the direct connection to people who are vested in the product. We can adapt quickly, and we can be creative.”
Contact Erin O’Hare at firstname.lastname@example.org.