At Nelson County’s Virginia Distillery Company
When George Washington started a commercial distillery in the late 1700s, it was at the urging of his Scottish farm hand James Anderson. Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon became the largest in the nation of its time.
The Virginia and American whisky tradition continues today in Lovingston, with Scottish malted barley and the vision of another George.
“We found the southern highlands,” said Guest Experience Manager Amanda Beckwith when talking about how early Scottish immigrants described the Blue Ridge Mountains. Beckwith was our guide on our mid-winter visit to Virginia Distillery Company.
The late Dr. George Moore came to the United States for new opportunities in the 1970s. The Irishman’s two great passions were single malt whisky and his adopted Virginia home. A marriage of the two gave birth to Virginia Distillery Company in 2011. Moore’s son and wife continue the vision he did not live to see come to fruition.
The distillery opened in late 2015. Tours and tastings began the following summer. Guided tours start with a brief history of single malt whisky in the distillery museum. A moonshine still, generously donated by a neighbor, sits in the corner. It’s non-working, licensed as a museum piece to keep it legal.
From there visitors have the opportunity to see modern-day whisky making in action on the distillery floor and cask house. The guide describes the science of making the beverage, though they consider it an art.
Virginia Single Malt, an American Malt Whisky, is produced on-site using malted barley from the United Kingdom and water from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Guests unknowingly walk right over freshwater springs as they move from the museum to the distillery.
Inside the distillery, there’s a working 1920s Boby Malt Mill. Copper pots, handmade by a fabricator in Scotland, are used for their even conduction of heat, removing the things that would give the whisky an undesired flavor. The spirit safe, which looks like something you’d see in a mad scientist’s lab, assists the distiller in making the cuts between heads, hearts and tails.
When the cask house doors swing open, the strong yet gentle aroma of whisky sneaks out from 700 carefully stacked former Kentucky bourbon, sherry and wine casks, patiently resting inside since November 2015.
“It’s a beautiful smell, but it also breaks my heart because it’s evaporation,” said Beckwith.
That evaporation occurs at a rate of six to eight percent per year, and there’s always the devastating chance a barrel will end up bone dry inside. The resources and surroundings of the Blue Ridge Mountains are reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, though the weather in Scotland is much more consistent than the four seasons we enjoy. The distillery does not employ artificial climate control.
“Climate has a huge impact on our whisky,” said Beckwith.
The bottling date for the Virginia Single Malt will be determined through tasting. The finished product may come from a single barrel or samples from different barrels could be “married” or mixed for the perfect flavor and finish. Either way, the finished product can bear the single malt label. The expected release date is three to six years from the time of the 2015 casking.
While we wait on Virginia Single Malt, guests can already enjoy the distillery’s Virginia Highland Malt. The aged whisky is brought over from Scotland and cask-finished in port-style wine barrels that once held Virginia wine. It’s finished over six to 12 months.
Virginia Highland Malt was waiting for us at the conclusion of our tour. In another toast to Scotland, Beckwith meticulously poured the beverage into traditional Glencairn whisky glasses, emblazoned with the distillery’s split-V logo.
“It’s the best way to experience whisky,” said Beckwith.
It’s meant to be an experience, not just a drink. When trying the whisky neat, Beckwith shows us how to hold the glass, depending on the season. She suggests letting the whisky hit the tip of your tongue and slowly roll back, so you’re able to taste the individual notes.
“It breaks my heart to see people throw it back,” said Beckwith.
There’s no need for that with the distillery’s bar offerings. Bartenders will serve it neat or with a splash or cube. Tasting options also include seasonal cocktails, both hot and cold, served full-sized or in a choose-your-own flight. This whisky can be both a manly drink or the surprise in a girly drink with a twist.
“It has a backbone,” said Beckwith. “You can put it in a cocktail and not lose it.”
The cocktail menu changes the first Friday of every month. Cocktails are selected based on what ingredients are available by season, getting as much as they can from local farms.
Virginia Highland Malt is available for purchase on-site and in ABC stores. The delicious hot and cold cocktails served at the distillery bar are easily recreated at home using the whisky and the cocktail recipes found on the Virginia Distillery Company website.
For the distillery, Virginia isn’t just in its name, it’s in its business model. In addition to purchasing cocktail ingredients such as lavender and honey from local suppliers, the distillery is working with local farmers toward sourcing some of the barley used in the whisky making process. A test patch is growing on a hill near the site.
Albemarle Baking Company uses the distillery’s flour by-product to bake bread. Early Dawn Dairy in Crozet feeds cattle with spent grain from the distillery.
Charlotteville’s McCharen’s Bitters makes bitters to complement the distillery’s whisky. They’re used in the cocktails made on-site and are available to take home with a bottle of whisky. Gearhart’s Fine Chocolates, also in Charlottesville, created Virginia Highland Malt Whisky Truffles in conjunction with the distillery. The chocolates are also sold in the distillery’s shop.
A late fall forest fire crept over the hill, dangerously close to the distillery operation, cask house and visitor center. To thank the firefighters for saving the facility, Virginia Distillery Company will sell a one-barrel, limited release, coffee finish whisky. Proceeds will benefit the county’s first responders.
In an area some call the Fruit Loop, once wiped out by Hurricane Camille, spirits are starting to rise both literally and figuratively. Virginia Distillery Company is a welcome addition to Nelson County’s popular and growing beverage tourism industry.
While they won’t bottle the whisky until it says “I’m ready,” there’s no better time than now, even for non-whisky drinkers, to try something new, perhaps something against the grain.
Learn more at www.vadistillery.com
By Angela lynch