Luxury Whisky Sipping In Virginia
World-class whisky sipping in Virginia.
Over the past decade, no other spirit has grown in popularity among luxury circles quite like whisky. It has surged ahead of craft vodkas and gins as the most prominent of libations in all discerning cocktail corners of the globe, with connoisseurs and true enthusiasts preferring it neat. The experts will agree usually, sipping the best whiskies in the world neat (without ice or mixers) is the only way an artisan whisky should be enjoyed. From the hallowed malting houses of the Scottish Isles to the unlikely mountain distilleries of Japan, award-winning whisky is emerging around the world, and Virginia is no exception to this trend. The first whisky ever produced in North America was in Virginia, a fact filled with tradition and history that many Old Dominion natives take to heart, especially the master distillers producing some of the finest whiskies in the world, just a short drive from Washington, D.C.
Virginia is no stranger to craftsmanship and artisan production, as settlers expanded throughout the Commonwealth they brought European traditions to every corner of the state. And over time, those traditions evolved and took on their own unique shape. The story of Virginia whisky is no different, and owes much credit to the first president of the United States, George Washington, who planted rye on his Mount Vernon estate in the late 18th century that was used to make whisky. The famous founding father even turned quite a profit from his distillery, and right up to his death in 1799 it’s estimated that he had nearly 150 gallons of whisky left in storage.
While fine Virginia whiskies can be purchased around the world now, there is nothing quite as enjoyable as going straight to the source. Experiencing the true creation of such a glorious product not only offers a newfound appreciation for its luxuriousness, but it also provides a glimpse into the craft itself. Sampling some of the best whisky Virginia has to offer is easier than you may think, and while there are several incredible options in the state, these three distinct distilleries are producing award-winning products that every D.C. whisky aficionado, from Senators to CEOs, should experience firsthand.
A. Smith Bowman Distillery
Officially producing spirit since 1934, A. Smith Bowman sets the gold standard for whisky and bourbon in the area. There unofficial beginnings are likely prior to the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, when the Bowman family used excess grain from their family farm to distill spirits. Once legal again, the operation was in full swing, ultimately outgrowing their traditional distillery in Fairfax County decades later and in 1988 they relocated to a more modern facility 60 miles south in Fredericksburg. Master Distiller Brian Prewitt shared insight on the history, the whisky, and the joy of producing world-class spirits for discerning clientele.
LH: Did you apprentice somewhere first? How did you end up in distilling?
BP: My background is in Food Science, and while finishing my degree I worked at a craft brewery and got hooked on the process. I attended Master Brewer’s programs at universities, worked in a major distillery that produced various spirits, and really got to dabble with all aspects of distillation. Learning from industry legends is how I discovered A. Smith Bowman, and I couldn’t be happier about that discovery.
LH: What has been the proudest moment thus far?
BP: Probably our back to back wins of “World’s Best Bourbon in 2016 for our Abraham Bowman Port Finished Bourbon and again in 2017 for our John J. Bowman Single Barrel at the World Whisky Awards.
LH: As whisky has grown as a luxury product, and reigns in popularity, how have you seen the industry change?
BP: I think many of us in the industry are continually surprised and delighted to see the continued interest in whiskey and brown spirits. Yes, the industry has been changing, especially with all of the new faces that have been coming into the arena. It really makes us focus in on what we feel are the most important things – make a great product at a great value to the consumer. The increased competition is a good thing for the industry and the consumer – we have to deliver day in and day out or someone else will try to take our place.
LH: What makes your product or distillery experience unique?
BP: We strive to make everyone who comes into our distillery feel like family and leave a raving fan. We want our passion to shine through the products and unique experiences that we provide. We are proud of our products and feel that they are beautiful representations of what a spirit can be. That being said we will not sit back and think that we don’t need to continually improve and evolve our spirits to meet the demands of our fans and visitors.
After nearly a century of spirit making, A. Smith Bowman still remains focused on pushing boundaries and evolving the incredible world of whisky making, focused on being known as one of the world’s most preeminent distilleries. And just an hour’s drive from D.C., it’s well worth the day trip to experience this one of a kind product.
Virginia Distillery Company
A newer kid on the block of fine spirit making, Virginia Distillery Co. is just a few years old, but its roots begin in Ireland, where whisky is as revered as St. Patrick. When Dr. George G. Moore first immigrated to Virginia in the 1970’s from his native land, he likely didn’t know that one day his family would produce award-winning whisky in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just south of Charlottesville. His son, Gareth Moore, carries on the legacy of his father by reinventing American Single Malts, blending time-honored tradition with their own practices; they rely on the unique natural climate of the region to help them age their perfectly distilled whisky. The result is flawless, and in their brief history they have been garnering more acclaim as one of the premier distilleries in America, not just Virginia.
LH: Why Whisky?
GM: Single malt whisky was my late father’s passion, and it became my own as well. His vision for a whisky that took the best of the old world and the best of the new world was something that I knew I had to carry on. Our production team was mentored by two industry legends from the Scottish single malt industry, the late Dr. Jim Swan and Harry Cockburn. Together, they helped engineer the facility and fine-tune the distillate and wood profile to leverage the local Virginia climate. Our production team now proudly carries on the traditions handed down to them.
LH: Tell us a little about the history of the property and its beginnings?
GM: Our property is known as Eades Hollow - named for an owner of the property from the early 1800s. Across the last 200 years it has been home to a general store, an apple orchard, and now a distillery. The site was selected for its great views but also importantly for its abundant supply of pure well water.
LH: You recently won a big award, what does that recognition mean to you?
GM: It’s very rewarding. Earlier this year, our Virginia Highland Whisky was awarded “Best American Single Malt” by the World Whisky Awards; it was a wonderful surprise and very humbling to be recognized on a global level.
LH: What makes Virginia Distillery Co. unique?
GM: I think the fundamental thing that makes our product and experience unique is that we are taking the best of the old world and the best of the new world in our product - traditional distilling techniques, maturing in a non-traditional climate. We’re not re-inventing the wheel, rather we’re taking something traditional and making it our own - and making it better. That is an American tradition - taking food, beverages, and other crafts from our forefathers and making it uniquely American.
LH: What’s on the horizon for the distillery?
GM: Ten years from now I’d like the distillery to be a part of a thriving American Single Malt industry. While the category is still in its infancy today, the amount of work going into it across the US is promising for years to come, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be a positive part of it.
Visiting Virginia Distillery Company from the D.C. area will yield one of the most picturesque drives in the state. A rural setting, with mountain views and lush trees makes for the perfect whisky exploring experience. There were no mistakes made when Virginia Distillery chose their coveted location, it’s remarkable and breathtaking, luxurious and rustic, with a calming sense that makes you feel truly at home. The hospitality, and of course the whisky, will have you planning your return trip before you can say Highland Single Malt.
Due west, about an hour, from the nation’s capital lies the bucolic town of Purcellville, Virginia. It has charm, and history, and it also houses the first legal distillery in Loudoun County since Prohibition. Catoctin Creek was founded almost a decade ago by Becky and Scott Harris. The latter was a government contractor for nearly 20 years before going all in on this new whisky venture. With the help of his wife, and chief distiller, Becky, they have produced masterful spirits that have won more awards than any other Virginia whisky. It’s the level of detail and care that the whisky making couple will always tout as their unique differentiator, and they do it all with huge smiles on their faces. High quality spirits are their passion, and they are not only producing them with great success, they also are an enormous reason why Virginia whisky has grown in popularity and prestige.
LH: I heard it was the history of whisky that really pulled you into spirit making, is this true?
SH: Becky and I chose to make whisky because, first of all, we love it! But yes, that’s very true, the history of whisky in the United States starts in Virginia. Virginia is the birthplace of American whisky, and so we wanted to tell that story with an authentic craft whisky of our own. That’s where our passion comes from, honoring tradition.
LH: What did you two do when you decided, “OK, we are going to really do this.”?
SH: We did some time visiting distilleries in Scotland, Ireland, and worked for a weekend in Chicago. But most of our experience comes from the fact that Becky, my wife and our chief distiller, is a chemical engineer. When I told her that I wanted to make whisky, she casually remarked, ‘Oh, I can make your whisky. But you need to make sure we can make money making whisky!’ Smart woman!
LH: Your building is a fixture in the middle of Main Street Purcellville, how did you end up there?
SH: Our home is the historic Case Building on Main Street in Downtown Purcellville. It was built in 1921 on the ruins of the old Purcellville National Bank, which burned down in 1914. The building opened in 1921 as the Joseph Lodge Motor Company selling Purcellville's first Buicks. For 51 years it was a Buick dealership, eventually becoming Case Motor Company, and then closing in 1972. After that, it passed down the Case family to become a furniture factory, and eventually a home for the Purcellville Marketplace. We purchased it from Mrs. Case when her husband, Sam Case, the furniture maker, passed away. It took us a remarkably short four months to renovate the building and make it our home for the distillery.
LH: You believe firmly in making things from scratch, is that what sets you apart?
SH: I think it is. We actually make our own whisky from scratch. Many "craft" distillers are buying bulk whisky from big producers in Indiana and selling it as their own and calling it craft. We never do this. I didn't quit a perfectly good day-job to bottle someone else's whisky. Every single day, we create a mash of 100% organic rye grain, ferment it, and then distill it into whisky, aging it in our warehouse, and then bottling it on site: grain to glass in our distillery. Every single drop is pot stilled by my wife, Becky, and this ensures the highest quality spirit available.
LH: How have you seen the consumer change? Is whisky more synonymous with experience and now seen as a more refined and extravagant drink?
SH: We're seeing lots of Millennials drinking like their great-grandparents did. People are shifting away from wine and big-brand beer, it’s just not as popular as it used to be - and they are moving into craft spirits and craft beer. Cocktails are popular once again, you see it everywhere you go now, and the best restaurants have incredible cocktail programs with heavy emphasis on whisky drinks, both classic and new. This is a good thing for our business.
At Catoctin Creek, the dedication and passion is palpable. The knowledge and enthusiasm is authentic, just like the whisky. In just 8 years, the distillery has managed to produce spirits of the finest quality and represents the future of Virginia whisky and where it continues heading. Creating premium American Single Malts by hand, to be shared and sipped around the world, that is the Catoctin Creek way, and they won’t settle for anything less.