Whisky town: Can a craft distillery movement make a permanent home in Central Virginia?

Made in Nelson
Drive 40 minutes south on 29 into Nelson County and just north of Lovingston, you’ll reach an Excel gas station. Look left and there’s a nondescript industrial barn in the middle of a field. The building is about to change the face of craft distilling in Virginia, because in a couple of months it will begin producing whisky at a rate that will allow it to pump out 100,000 12-bottle cases per year of Virginia single malt, 10 times as much as either Copper Fox or Catoctin Creek.

Pat Jones-McCray and her husband John McCray were original investors in the Virginia Distillery Company way back in 2007, but in 2010 along with other investors they bought their way into control of the stalled venture that was teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy.

The McCrays spent their careers in the communications and management fields in the health care and pharmaceutical industries, respectively. After a decade running her own health care communications firm in Boston, Jones-McCray sold the business to Ogilvy Worldwide in 2000 and she started looking for a new project.

Joe Hungate, her friend from college, was Scotch-obsessed and Jones-McCray credits him with pulling her and her husband into the distillery business with the notion of making authentic Scottish-style single malt in Virginia. In 2009, two gigantic copper stills, made in Scotland, arrived on a slow boat from Turkey. They’ve been sitting around since, in part because the original ownership made the common mistake of underestimating the amount of capital they’d need to put them in action.

“When you decide to make single malt, authentic single malt, you make a decision about scale,” Jones-McCray said. “You have to have two large copper pot stills. That equipment dictates the size of the distillery.”

Wasmund is one of only two distillers in the country to malt his own barley, a process that involves partially germinating the grain, turning starches to sugars. Photo: John Robinson

Single malt Scotch whisky is, by definition, made in batches, distilled twice in copper pots. The bigger the pots, the bigger the batches. In contrast, bourbon whisky is distilled in a continuous production process in column stills. Virginia Distillery has big copper pots, so it needed everything else to be just as big. The mash tuns, the tanks, the pipes, the storage areas.

“It needed different project management because it’s not a micro-distillery. It’s a serious operation. We’re right at the edge of what you could call a craft distillery with a straight face,” Jones-McCray said.

With an infusion of capital from a new group of partners that includes George Moore, Hunter Reichert, and Charles Lundsford, Virginia Distillery is on track to begin production in a few months time, but it is already selling whisky.

The company has a unique solution to the production gap that aging whisky presents. Instead of figuring out a process that moves quicker from start to finish, Virginia Distillery imports a 6-year-old Scotch vat whisky and finishes it in Virginia wine barrels to produce Virginia Highland Malt Whisky, which hit the retail market early this year.

“It has a profound effect on the whisky. It adds the color and more importantly it brings all these new flavors,” Jones-McCray said. “You only have so many options. You can buy somebody else’s whisky, stick your label on it, and call it yours. Instead, we looked for a whisky we’d be proud to sell and then we truly did put the taste of Virginia in it.”

Paul Ting, by day an anesthesiologist at Martha Jefferson and at most other times a globetrotting foodie and whisky fiend, had this reaction to tasting Eades Virginia Highland Malt for the first time:

“The aging in wine barrels adds a nice dark amber color to the whisky, a lot of berry and currant flavors overlayed on the cigar smoke base and even some green apple high on the palate. The finish is long and sweet with hints of cooked orange and some Christmas spice. It is hard to know how future products from this distillery will be based on this product, which has its origins in Scotland, but this is a really nice introduction to the market while we wait to see what truly local product will come from them.”

For clues about how their Virginia whisky will end up, Jones-McCray points to Jim McEwan, who was an early and committed consultant to Virginia Distillery and who is the driving force at Bruichladdich, which has been making Scotch since 1881 in the Scottish Highlands.

“He inherited a company with gaps in its inventory so he couldn’t rely on age statements to sell his whisky,” Jones-McCray said. “He began experimenting with wine finishes, which allowed him to make great tasting whiskies that are younger.”

As Virginia Distillery reaches the final chapter of its startup process, there are still some big decisions to make. The size of the operation puts it into a category more in line with longstanding operations like Laird & Co. in North Garden, which has been making apple brandy since the 18th century and A. Smith Bowman in Fredericksburg, which makes Virginia Gentleman bourbon.

But the soul of the business is firmly in the experimental craft market.

Should the company build its own distribution network by targeting markets and hiring foot soldiers to go door-to-door? Or should it buy its way into a relationship with a broker managing an existing national distribution network?

Either way, Jones-McCray also has plans to capitalize on the company’s location as a retailer. Nelson County’s commitment to prioritizing alcohol tourism as a tool for economic development and her own experience touring distilleries in Kentucky have shown her the potential of selling place and product together.

“One thing that really impressed me is that the distilleries work together because they believe if everybody in Kentucky is making great bourbon then everybody wins,” she said. “They won’t share their yeasts, but they’re just extremely helpful and collaborative and you can see the results of that in the Whiskey Trail. I think Virginia can do that too and with a lot more variety.”

Virginia Distillery plans to begin producing a new make clear spirit this year, but it will be two years at least before their own all-Virginia Scottish style single malt hits retailers. She can’t wait.

“Single malt is like wine. Each one has its own terroir and I think our Virginia climate and soil is going to be a really interesting addition to whisky,” she said. “My current favorite single malt is Japanese, and it has flavors that you don’t find in Scottish whisky.”

Whisk(e)y dreams
Right up the road from Virginia Distillery, in a pasture overlooking the banks of the Rockfish River, Jim Taggart and Jeff Fletcher are putting the finishing touches on their own distillery in a partly converted hay barn that still looks like cows, not whisky, are the top priority.

Taggart, a consultant engineer, was hired in 2007 to work on site preparation at Virginia Distillery. After building the access road, he took on the project of installing the stills, so he called in a longtime associate, professional fabricator, and Nelson County neighbor Jeff Fletcher. The two men spent the better part of five years on the job and along the way, they not only became good friends with Jones-McCray, they caught the whisky fever.

“I’ve been doing welding and fabricating for 20 years. It’s something I enjoy but I’m kind of looking for something different,” Fletcher said. “I’m almost 50 years old. I could either make the change now or keep doing what I’m doing ’til they throw dirt in my face.”

John McCray, one of the owners of the Virginia Distillery Company, stands in the company’s production facility just north of Lovingston in Nelson County. Photo: John Robinson

Taggart was born and raised in Crozet and moved to Nelson County in the late ’70s. Fletcher’s family is from Nelson County, going way back on his mother’s side. While Wasmund and Jones-McCray left behind white collar careers, Taggart and Fletcher are country boys. Both volunteer firemen, tinkerers, engineers, and problem solvers, their project is bootstraps to the core.

Woods Mill, the name of the label under which they’ll be producing a corn-based whisky, is the name of Fletcher’s grandfather’s farm. Since that land is in a floodplain they couldn’t put the distillery there, but they wanted to tap into the spirit of their heritage.

“I like the allure of mountain whisky and I think we can do it pretty daggone well,” Taggart said, before adding, tongue firmly in cheek, “We have no firsthand knowledge of any moonshining activity that’s ever occurred in Nelson County.”

The duo has already retrofitted a hay barn for their operation, fabricated their own still, dug a geothermal cooling system, and purchased barrels for aging. They have their TTB permits, distiller’s license, and are awaiting a final site visit from Virginia ABC. Their biggest hangup has been their inability to get VDOT to approve an entrance to their facility from Route 6, which will preclude them from selling retail on site. They plan to begin making a clear new mix spirit this year, with the aim of creating an aged Bourbon-style whisky as soon as possible.

“We’re going to spend whatever time we need to at the start of the project to stabilize the recipe to where it’s something that’s really good,” Taggart said. “I’m not normally a fan of new-mix spirit. You got to find just the right stuff and we don’t want to be in the business of making bad whisky that ages into O.K. whisky. I know it can be done and we’re going to take the time to get it done right.”

Woods Mill, they said, will produce between 1,000 and 1,500 gallons this year and they hope to scale up to 10,000 gallons next year. Ultimately, they envision becoming an attractive stop on Nelson County’s growing alcohol tourism map.

“The model for that has been really well established right here in Nelson County with all these breweries. Their approach was that a rising tide lifts all boats. It happened with the wineries. It happened with the breweries, and I believe it will happen with us,” Taggart said.

The latest arrival to the local craft distilling scene, Adam Glick moved to Charlottesville from Chicago with his wife, some savings, and a dream three months ago. Having lived in the Windy City for over a decade selling insurance and working as a web developer, he got sick of the hustle and bustle. Glick and his wife began shopping around for the perfect place to live. They looked at Burlington, Charleston, Portland, Asheville, Nashville.

“All those towns are nice, but we decided we liked Charlottesville the best,” Glick said.

He’s been researching and planning to open a distillery for over two years. He recently met with city staff about locating it in Downtown Charlottesville, a conversation, he said, that was positive and encouraging.

When I asked him why he wanted to start a distillery, his answer was philosophical, echoing Lloyd Dobler’s career rant at the dinner table in Cameron Crowe’s classic film Say Anything.

“My entire adult life I’ve been doing things that are intangible. Web design: There’s nothing physically there. Insurance: You give someone a piece of paper,” Glick said. “I want to do something where I actually make something with my own two hands that’s tangible that people enjoy. I want something that people actually want to seek out and get. Not something they’re forced to buy. Or that they know they need but they don’t really want.”

Glick volunteered at Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois to learn the basics of the business.

“It’s kind of hard to learn. It’s not legal to do it at home and you need some pretty decent equipment,” he said.

Then he started visiting distilleries around the country. His idea is to create a nanodistillery similar to New England Distilling in Portland, Maine, where owner Ned Wight produces gin, rum, and rye. He hopes to make around 1,000 cases in his first year.

Adam Glick, a former insurance agent and web developer, moved to Charlottesville with his wife a few months ago with the intent of opening a craft distillery Downtown. Glick is currently in the process of finalizing a location for his business and rounding up capital, but believes Adam Gregory Spirits could be producing by the end of 2013. Photo: John Robinson

“None of this stuff is impossible and it’s getting easier. That’s the thing. There are 400-and-some craft distilleries in the country,” Glick said.

Glick said he plans to decide on a space in the next two months, and he believes he could have his distillery running before the end of the year. He is still actively looking for partners and he also plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign “in the next few weeks.”

“You’ve got to supply something different and you have to concentrate on the craft. I’m going to be making it myself. We’ll be trying different things all the time,” Glick said. “You’re looking at a premium product that has a story behind it, that’s made locally, and provides something that people aren’t used to having.”

Back at the tasting party, Kirsty Harmon, winemaker and general manager at Blenheim Vineyards, is sipping whisky with a pen and a notecard in her hand. On the table Eades Virginia Highland Malt sits across from Jura, the 10-year-old Islay. Wasmund’s Copper Fox Rye is toe-to-toe with Bulleit Rye. Tough business. Just like it was for Virginia winemakers a decade ago. When your bottle is in the store, the customer cares about the story the label tells, but they care more about what’s inside and how much it costs.

“It’s awesome to see the passion that our local distillers have for their craft and I look forward to learning and tasting more. It is hard, afterall, to drink wine day in and day out,” Harmon mused in her tasting notes. “Standouts for me were the Bulleit Bourbon and the Copper Fox Rye. I liked the black tea-ness and smokiness of the Copper Fox and found the brown sugar and licorice of the Bulleit definitely tasty.”

Evan Williams, co-owner of The Wine Guild of Charlottesville and a 10-year veteran of the beverage industry, agreed. In his notes, he rated Bulleit Bourbon and Copper Fox Rye 91 out of 100, only giving Evan Williams Single Barrel a higher score. No relation, he swears, and had this to say about the Copper Fox:

“Great spice, obvious rye, a lot drier and more balanced with the smoke than the regular Wasmund’s. I’ve always preferred this over the Wasmund’s, and tonight is no different. It’s just much more enjoyable, something I’d like to pay for,” his notes read.

As I reflect on my own experience at the tasting, the thing I remember most distinctly is sitting across from FitzHenry and Wasmund, young upstart and seasoned veteran. As they tasted each other’s whisky, they were polite. Warm even. But the light of competition shone in their eyes, like old moonshiners who knew they had something I’d like to pay for.

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