What does the swelling craft distilling movement in Virginia say about us?
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Belle Isle moonshine.
Photos courtesy of Amy Ciarametaro
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Boar Creek Kegs.
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Belle Isle cold brew coffee-infused moonshine.
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Selections of gin from KO.
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Boar Creek Appalachian whiskey.
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The tasting room at KO.
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Boar Creek whiskey taste test.
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In the barrel room at Filibuster distillery.
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Filibuster's "Boondoggler" whiskey.
The Virginia distilling industry is poised to follow the successful path blazed by Virginia wines. The proof is partly in the numbers – there are now 42 distillers scattered across the state, with another seven licenses pending. But it’s also in the diversity of high-octane craft spirits that distilleries are making.
At the recent Virginia Craft Spirits Showcase in Roanoke, we had a chance to try them all (small sips, we promise!). After five hours of day drinking, we discovered some interesting insights about Virginia’s spirits preferences. Here’s our take on what the local craft distilling movement says about Virginia’s drinkers and the future of craft distilling in the region.
Virginia Brunches Hard
Distillers know that we love a good Bloody Mary on Sunday morning. Or Sunday afternoon. They’re responding with lots of spicy options. Ashburn Sauce Company makes a crab-flavored mix reminiscent of its Virginia Beach provenance. They also make a Porky Mary mix that would satisfy any Virginia bacon or cured ham lover.
You can spike that brunch cocktail with Honey Habanero moonshine from Belle Isle Craft Spirits, the Oster Vit from James River Distillery or the fiery new Ghost Pepper Vodka from Chesapeake Bay Distillery.
We Love to Shine
One couldn’t be blamed for thinking Virginians were raised with backyard stills, what with all the moonshine being made and sold locally. At the Craft Spirits Showcase we sampled ‘shine from Belle Isle, Five Mile Mountain and KO Distilling, and found various levels of kick. The alcohol punch ranges from low warming flame to blowtorch spike.
Not that plain moonshine is your only option. Dry Fork Distillery makes a whole line of fruit flavored moonshine. You might be led to believe that moonshine is the new vodka, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
We Go for Creative Flavors
Craft distilling means crafting some creative flavors. Those include the smoky cherry and apple wood aged rye from Copper Fox; minerally oyster-shell-infused Oster Vit from James River Distillery; rich elderberry moonshine from Five Mile Mountain Distillery and Cincerity Cinnamon Whiskey from MurLarkey.
Kopper Kettle of Belmont Farm makes a dark chai spiced rum, and several distillers offer various fruit-flavored vodkas. Belle Isle recently debuted a coffee moonshine, infused with coffee beans from Blanchard’s in Richmond.
Gin Is In
White unaged spirits are quick to distill and quick to market, helping distilleries earn a return on their investment while the bourbon and whisky age. At Copper Fox, they use the “tails,” or the last (and strongest) part of each batch of distilled rye. They filter the tails, flavor them with giant tea bags of botanicals, and dilute them to the correct proof.
Legally, gin is required to contain juniper as its primary flavoring. But few Virginia gins highlight that piney herb. Instead, we tasted anise, orange, cinnamon hints in several locally made gins. We even found oak in KO’s barrel-finished gin. In other words, Virginia’s gins are branching out.
We’re Testing Young Whiskey
Perhaps it’s just that Virginia’s craft distilling industry is still young, or perhaps we’ve found a secret shortcut to aging cask spirits. Some Virginia distillers claim that they can achieve the same long-aged results as distillers in Kentucky, but in a shorter time frame. They say that the key to mellowing whiskey in bourbon barrels is more about heat than time, and Virginia’s hotter summers speed up the process.
Reservoir Distillery takes another angle. They age their bourbon, whiskey and rye in small five-gallon barrels (versus the standard 53-gallon size). The smaller size exposes more surface area per volume to air, which Reservoir says shortens the aging period.
Whatever the reason, we couldn’t find a Virginia-made whiskey older than two years. Taste them and judge for yourself.
We’re Winning Awards
Virginia craft spirit producers have won more than 100 awards, including top prizes from national and international competitions (see our Made in Virginia Awards here). The most lauded local spirit is Catoctin Creek, with 68 awards for its various iterations of rye, gin and moonshine-like Mosby’s Spirit. Catoctin Creek, Virginia Distillery Company and Filibuster Distillery all have spirits rated 90 points or higher from Wine Enthusiast.
Many craft distillers are focused on using the best ingredients and treating them as carefully as possible. Copper Fox, Belmont Farm Distillery and Catoctin Creek use 100 percent Virginia-grown grains, and Copper Fox flavors its smoky rye with Virginia fruitwoods. James River Distillery only uses non-GMO corn in its gin products. Five Mile Mountain sources local elderberries for its elderberry moonshine. Virginia Distillery Company ages its whiskey in barrels from Virginia wineries, cideries and breweries.
More distillers say they would love to use local ingredients, but Virginia’s farmers aren’t yet growing enough grains to supply the growing industry (read our story “Amazing Grains” here). Look for that to change as demand increases.
Location Doesn’t Matter
Unlike wine, there doesn’t seem to be an issue with distilleries finding the right “terroir,” or land and climate. They’re all over the place.
From Upperville to Meadows of Dan, distilleries are popping up wherever there is a good source of fresh water. In fact, distilleries are now becoming destinations. With law changes in 2016 from Virginia ABC, distilleries can now have tasting rooms, just like wineries and breweries. Most have added one, even if it’s simply an empty barrel with a few glasses and bottles on top.
Virginia Distillery Company has a comfortable lounge with a central fireplace and bar. Downstairs is a folksy museum devoted to the history of Virginia distilling, particularly whisky. Catoctin Creek’s tasting room is a full bar, where they not only offer small shots of their whisky and gin, but they’ll mix tiny seasonal cocktails that highlight the spirit flavors.
Give Us Another 10 Years
Distilling industry insiders agree that our craft distilling movement is about where Virginia’s wine industry was 10 years ago. While many producers are winning awards, the industry overall is still a little uneven and rough at the moment. But distillers are learning quickly. Virginia will be a powerhouse in quality spirits production sooner rather than later.