Virginia has a handful of distilleries making whiskey, bourbon and vodka. Some have been around for decades, and others are upstarts in an industry where craftsmanship and taste matter.
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Robb Scharetg and Tyler Darden
Proof in the Barrel
Laid & Co. apple brandy barrels
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Parched Group distillery owner Paul McCann
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Russet potatos ready for grinding
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Parched Group distillery product
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The Parched Group distillery still
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Apples at the Laird & Co. apple brandy distillery
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Laird & Co.'s apple brandy products
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Copper Fox Distillery's Sean McCaskey testing the proof level
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Copper Fox Distillery owner Rick Wasmund
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Wax-sealing a bottle
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Bottles ready to ship
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This is a big day at the Copper Fox Distillery. With owner Rick Wasmund looking on inside the firm’s spacious facility in Sperryville, colleague Sean McCaskey uses a forklift to position an oak aging barrel over a stainless steel tank. With a claw hammer, McCaskey pries the wooden bung out of its hole—and suddenly an aromatic, honey-colored whiskey comes glugging out of the barrel and splashing down into the tank. A few minutes later, as the barrel empties, a palpable sense of expectation rises in the Copper Fox spirits room: It’s tasting time.
McCaskey drops a ladle into the tank three times, and moments later, three small glasses are half full of 125 proof Wasmund’s Single Malt Whiskey, batch number 24. Wasmund, who started his craft distillery four years ago, eyes the whiskey, smells it, then pronounces, “This is a beautiful thing.” Who would disagree? McCaskey pours a little water into each glass to dilute the hooch, and we all sip a product that Wasmund, 49, glibly describes as “the rebel offspring” of scotch and bourbon.
The whiskey is in fact much like scotch—except that Wasmund doesn’t use peat to flavor his product. Instead, in what is an innovation, he uses fruit wood (both apple and cherry) when drying his malt, and then uses wedges of toasted apple wood and toasted oak to give character to his brew during its brief, roughly 14-month aging process. He calls the process “chipping” the whiskey, which simply entails submerging charred wedges of wood and oak in the barreled spirit for several months, both to flavor the whiskey and hasten the aging process. It’s an idea born partly of inspiration and partly of necessity: Most startup makers of wine and spirits don’t have the money to support an operation for the three or more years it would take to age their products before putting them on the market.
Does Wasmund’s chipping idea work? Many experts have been impressed with his whiskey, though some have asserted that it would benefit from more aging. The entrepreneur does not dispute that—and in fact has been gradually adding months to the aging process—but he also notes that when a representative from the Edinburgh-based Scotch Whisky Research Institute recently tasted his whiskey, he guessed its age at seven years. It was six weeks old. Jay Erisman, a whiskey writer and manager of one of the nation’s largest liquor stores (The Party Source in Bellevue, Kentucky), says that Wasmund’s use of fruitwood is “totally unique in the whiskey industry, and definitely lends a special flavor to his product. The wood chunks greatly accelerate the maturation of his whiskey, but his house-malted and smoke-dried barley is even more important to its character. It’s a one-of-kind, love-it-or-hate-it sort of spirit.”
Wasmund, who is the only distiller in North America to malt his own barley, is more craftsman than businessman. “We love making whiskey,” he says. He started his firm after quitting his career as a financial planner and insurance agent. “It was either this or buy a sports car,” he quips. He is one of a handful of distillers in Virginia who are not just making spirits, but making a go of it in the highly competitive liquor industry. In addition to Copper Fox, they include The Parched Group in Richmond, which produces Cirrus vodka, and Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpeper County, owned by Chuck and Jeanette Miller. It has been making and selling Virginia Lightning moonshine for 21 years. It’s not aged at all—“fresh out of the pot still,” says Jeanette Miller.
Virginia Beach-based Chesapeake Bay Distillery, which sells Blue Ridge vodka, is not actually a distillery. Owner Chris Richeson, whose firm is in an office strip in the Beach’s Lynnhaven district, buys distillate from an outside source, “cleans it up” and then bottles it. He produced about 10,000 bottles of corn-based Blue Ridge vodka last year and sold them in about 100 of Virginia’s ABC stores. “Most local products are perceived as not as good as something made by a big company,” he says, “but with vodka, I found that we could actually make it better. The downside is that vodka is hard to differentiate in the marketplace.”
That’s not a problem for Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, which is also in the whiskey business. Washington was a successful producer of rye whiskey after his presidency (he made 11,000 gallons in 1789, which he sold for 50 cents a gallon), and in 2007 Mount Vernon opened a replica of his distillery mostly to demonstrate 18th-century liquor-making techniques. The distillery is permitted to sell a limited quantity of its colonial-era liquor, and visitors with a thirst for history have been buying it.
Virginia has two distilleries that are not only more established than these upstarts, but they have some of the deepest roots in the industry. A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg, founded in 1935 and maker of Virginia Gentleman and other products, was the oldest family-owned bourbon maker in America until 2003, when it was sold to New Orleans-based Sazeric Inc. Bowman now gets its first-run distillate from Sazeric-owned Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, then redistills the mash at its Fredericksburg facility (a process called “doubling”). The bourbon is then stored in barrels for four to 12 years. Whatever the process, the taste is winning praise. According to master distiller Joe Dangler, Virginia Gentleman has won three “double gold” medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in the last six years.
The other graybeard is the Laird & Company distillery in North Garden, 12 miles from Charlottesville. It has been making apple brandy in its quaint roadside complex since the early 1940s. Like Bowman, it has an out-of-state owner: Laird & Company is a private, family-owned New Jersey company that can trace its heritage to 1730.
Late autumn is a busy time at Laird & Company. Master distiller Lester Clements spent November doing what he’s been doing for the firm since 1962—grinding, pressing and distilling about 2 million pounds of apples. This year, the apples will yield 225 to 250 barrels of apple brandy, which after at least four years of aging at the distillery will be trucked north and go into the company’s various brandy products. Some years, the operation will produce upwards of 350 barrels, Clements says, but brandy consumption in America has fallen off over the last 20 years or so. Lisa Laird, a vice president of the company and ninth-generation family member, agrees but says there has been a slight resurgence in brown spirits recently as “retro cocktails” such as manhattans, Rob Roys and old-fashioneds have made a comeback.
When it comes to the apples he uses, the 64-year-old Clements has no favorites. Practically every kind will find its way to the plant—red or gold delicious, York, pippin, Virginia gold, winesap, Stayman, Macintosh, you name it—and many sit piled in ground-level bins from which they are funneled into canals (for cleaning) and then carried up a conveyor belt to the grinder. “All our apples are purchased locally,” says Clement, “mostly from Albemarle County. We can use anything, and [the mash] makes good cider when it’s all mixed up.” Clements, who grew up in nearby Schuyler, says that in the 1960s he was paying 80 cents for a 100 pounds of apples; today, he buys the same quantity for $8.
There is plenty of history at the little Laird facility, which essentially consists of four buildings—the cider mill, the still house, the brandy deposit room and the barreling warehouse. They’ve all been operating seasonally, with little sprucing up, since the last days of Prohibition. Three metal fermentation tanks sit outside. “We used to use wooden ones, but the red wood eventually gave up,” says the distiller. The surrounding property used to be full of apple orchards, but they’re all gone, too. Only one little apple tree, growing next to the mill, remains. North Garden used to be a railroad depot, and tracks run directly past the mill. Back in the day, trains would stop at the mill to deliver coal, glass and oak barrels. Clements, an amiable man in jeans, work boots, blue jacket and cap, works out of a low, concrete, circa-1950s building. Hazy photos on its walls show the plant in its heyday.
Tomorrow, Clements says, he will fill about 55 white oak barrels with brandy, then store them in the brick warehouse—a large, dark room where some 800 barrels are stored, five rows high and 10 barrels deep. The walls are covered with a dark residue where evaporated brandy spirit collects over the years. “They call it the angel’s share,” he says.
The veteran distiller usually has a little time on his hands after the distilling season, and he used it a few years back to pen his “Ode to Captain Applejack” (excerpted):
From the juice of the apple,
ripened on the tree,
A spirit is distilled
called Apple Brandy
It is made on a hill,
by the old Southern Line,
In an ancient distillery,
well weathered by time
In an old column still,
with its gauges and such,
’Tis made by a ’stiller,
with a very gentle touch
… So try Captain Applejack,
if you ever get the chance
Get a bottle or two, and
take it to the dance
But don’t be surprised,
if you’ve had too much,
To be looking at the table,
from the bottom side up
Starting and running a distillery is no easy task. For one thing, getting licensed and registered to produce liquor can take upwards of two years. It’s also hard for small distilleries to find distributors, without which it’s difficult to get into stores. The job is labor-intensive—and yet, because their output is modest, most of Virginia’s distilleries are tiny. Bowman’s, the state’s biggest operation, will produce about 1,000 barrels of whiskey this year with only five full-time employees. Laird has three workers; the Copper Fox, two; and both the Parched Group and Chesapeake Bay Distillery are one-man shows. It is also a business where experimentation is part of the process of refining the taste.
“You learn things,” says Chesapeake Bay’s Richeson. “I could hardly bring myself to drink from our first batch, but that was a year-and-a-half ago. Now, we’re doing batch 20 and 21, and I’m shocked at how good we’ve gotten. The trickiest part is knowing when it’s ready to go into the bottle—you are constantly tweaking at the margins. The difference between smooth vodka and not-so-smooth vodka is minuscule.”
Richeson admits that he has “no experience” selling or marketing vodka. Fortunately, he found some interns from the Virginia Commonwealth University Brand Center eager to work on a real account. They put together a marketing plan for the firm, which Richeson has followed. He calls it “a life preserver.”
Parched Group owner Paul McCann seems like he could use a little intern help as well, if only to have someone with whom to talk. He stands beside a paper-strewn desk in a gray warehouse in a Richmond neighborhood called Old Manchester, the scene quiet and anything but glamorous. A few days earlier, McCann finished making his last batch and then went off on what he calls “a marketing tear.” He’s just returned from a trip to Memphis, where his distributor put on a trade show and got Cirrus, which he describes as a “low-premium vodka,” onto the bar shelves at the stately Peabody Hotel—a bit of a coup. The work is solitary, the 50-year-old McCann says, “but when I’m busy I don’t think about it, and I crank up the music on the radio.”
Nearly all vodkas are made with wheat, corn or barley, but McCann has opted to go against the grain, so to speak. He makes Cirrus out of potatoes because that’s the type of vodka he prefers. He may also be something of a traditionalist, since, he says, “vodka originated in Poland and was first made from potatoes.” Russians, he adds, believe that they were the first to make vodka (and did so out of wheat). The two countries apparently bicker about the issue.
McCann is clear about how he got started in the business. He was sitting in a Richmond bar one night with some buddies when he had an “epiphany.” Why, he asked the group, were few, if any, premium vodkas made in America? He did some research, bought the equipment necessary for a commercial operation, “and I haven’t turned back.” Cirrus has been on the market for about two years, selling in about 170 Virginia ABC stores at $23 a bottle.
McCann says he produces between 50 and 100 cases a month, depending on demand. He does nearly all the work himself—from grinding the potatoes to putting the smoked glass bottles into boxes at the end of the process. His brother, Ray, whom McCann credits with coming up with the product’s name, pitches in occasionally. McCann recently hired a Chinese firm to tweak his bottle design and to produce his bottles.
He uses, on average, 2 to 3 tons of russet potatoes a month to make his vodka, depending on sales and production levels. Russet potatoes are starchier than other spuds, McCann says, and thus yield more alcohol. He distills his mash three times through a copper pot and “rectifying column” to produce 194 proof ethanol (a so-called neutral spirit), cuts it with “deep aquifer soft water” and—poof—80 proof vodka. McCann, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from VCU and a master’s in industrial hygiene and environmental health from Old Dominion University, says, “you have to know your chemistry” to be a good distiller.
Starting the business has been tough. “It’s an expensive industry to get into … and there were a lot of late nights early in the process, many instances when I was here [at the plant] until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning.” McCann is married and says his wife has been very supportive. He is making money—“as long as I’m not taking a salary”—and, perhaps most important, he’s “happy,” if only to be on his own and no longer a state employee. He worked previously as a policy analyst for the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
The vodka market is crowded, maybe overcrowded. There are some 60 vodkas on store shelves in Virginia, and more in other states. But McCann is undeterred. “How many wines do you see?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s a matter of producing a good product and getting people to try it.” He’s proud that Cirrus earned medals from the San Francisco Spirits Competition in 2005 and 2006, as well as “good scores” from the Beverage Testing Institute. There’s also been a fair amount of favorable publicity.
McCann points out that most vodka companies don’t distill the booze themselves but buy cheap vodka from large commercial distilleries and then package it. Operating your own distillery is more work, “but it allows us to control the quality of the product.” Two years ago, he says, a Richmond art gallery had an exhibit of Russian paintings. A senior counsel from the Russian Embassy in D.C. showed up and drank his vodka. What did he think? According to McCann, the Russian not only liked it but said it had “character.”
The same could be said for Rick Wasmund’s Copper Fox distillery, and his whiskey. On a blustery November day, it’s comforting to spend some time inside his Sperryville plant, down a little dirt road across from the Copper Fox Antique Store. Outside the ocher-colored cinderblock building sits a vintage Ford truck, a Wasmund’s delivery van and a Camry sedan with a license plate that reads, “Malt Mom.” Wasmund’s mother, Helen, works at the antique store and, when time allows, will slip over to the distillery to help with the malting work. Just inside the entrance are two sitting areas, one halfway formal and for guests, and another that is much more casual. Wasmund and Sean McCaskey obviously spend a little down time there—it’s got a wood stove, four chairs, a coat and cap rack, and an old TV sitting atop an oak barrel. Nearby is a stuffed fox, some copper pots, a bike and a sleigh dangling from the ceiling. A white mutt named Acacia makes the place his home. The atmosphere is perfect for not just making whiskey but later sipping it with, perhaps, a good cigar.
Wasmund, dressed in jeans, gray Merrells, a burnt-orange shirt and a brown corduroy jacket, is a native of Rochester, New York. He attended the University of Massachusetts, spent 16 years in Florida, then came to Virginia in 1996—“an opportunity with a lady that didn’t work out.” He became smitten with the mountains and Rappahannock County, and began looking for a way to support a lifestyle in the country, he says. “I wanted to be one of those guys who loves what he does every day—and in that sense, I’ve been successful.” He owns 60 percent of the company; 16 investors own the rest. “Our cash flow breaks even. We reinvest everything we can, and I take a little bit of income, but not much.”
He buys a winter variety of barley from a grower in the Northern Neck—1,200 pounds for every batch—then soaks it in water for three days to start the process “of tricking the barley into growing.” When cooled, an enzyme in the barley will begin to convert its starch into sugar. The barley is then spread on a concrete floor in the malt room, where it will air out for five days. The barley must be raked frequently, turned over five or six times a day to prevent clumping. “It’s a lot of shoveling,” says McCaskey, who has worked with Wasmund since the firm was started. “A lot of work—good work.”
The next step is to move the barley to the kiln for drying. The enclosed kiln has two levels, a lower one containing a wood stove burning apple wood, whose smoke and heat drift up and through a perforated steel floor—the second level. Spread across that floor is the barley. Wasmund takes me up his “stairway to barley Heaven” to have a look. After three days of drying, the barley is typically stored in sacks until needed—about six to eight months. “We make whiskey year round,” says Wasmund, but the firm only malts during the fall/winter barley season.
Then the action begins. The barley is milled into flour, which is mixed with 155-degree water and then cooled. The resulting substance, called wort, is then pumped into a tall, steel fermenting tank, where yeast is added. We climb steps and look down into the vat, where the wort bubbles like a witch’s brew. “We cooled [it] yesterday, so it’s just starting to get active,” says Wasmund. The yeast consumes sugar to make alcohol. After five days of fermentation, the brew has essentially turned into 7 percent alcohol beer, without the hops. Next, the mash is twice run through a copper still (hand made in Portugal) and closed steam system, along with a condenser, to obtain 80 gallons (roughly two barrels) of grain alcohol. After the first run, the whiskey is 110 to 115 proof; after the second, 152 proof. Along the way, the “heads” and “tails” from the mash—byproducts that accumulate from the first and last drippings in the distillation cycles—are pulled out. Wasmund and McCaskey use a hydrometer and temperature readings to check the whiskey’s proof levels.
Wasmund did not enter the business casually. In 2000, he spent six weeks on the isle of Islay in Scotland, working as an apprentice at the Bowmore distillery, which malts its own barley. It’s one of eight distilleries on an island with 1,500 people. “That and sheep are the economy there,” says Wasmund. He received no pay but plenty of brewing expertise and lived in a cottage with a front door leading out to the town and a back door leading into the distillery.
Life in Sperryville is different, but the satisfaction that comes from producing a good batch is clearly the same. “Anyone who likes great whiskey and is open to different things wants to try our product,” says Wasmund. “And most like it a lot.” In the spirit room, after a sip or three of whiskey batch number 24, Wasmund and McCaskey put the finishing touches on batch 23, which is in the final stages of bottling and labeling before it’s pushed out the doors. McCaskey pulls a bottle from a crate and dips it, neck first, into a pot of burgundy wax to seal the cork. He also gives the bottle a quick twirl in the wax—what Wasmund calls his “magic thing”—to create a distinctive spiral C atop the bottle. “The C is for our logo,” says Wasmund. “Or it’s a C for quality—or wait a minute, it’s a C for can’t spell.”
The man has not lost his sense of humor, which is crucial when you and a colleague produce about 1,800 cases of whiskey by yourselves. Indeed, he personally writes the batch number in ink on every label—and on every 10th or so bottle, he draws a little smiley face, “just to prove that there is no machine stamping these things out.”
Wasmund wants to expand sales, he says, but tries not to think too far ahead. He plans to introduce a rye whiskey next year, notes that his whiskey is available (in stores or approved for distribution) in 14 states, and says that he just got his first overseas order—from Liechtenstein. “We would like to grow, but we don’t want to be crazy. We’re having fun and doing things our way—and to get away from that would be a shame.” And with that he’s off for a lunch in town, where he will spread the word about the new batch and invite friends over to the distillery to taste his whiskey and talk about life.