Creating a Buzz in Virginia

Sean McCaskey (left) and Rick Wasmund check the color of a batch of whiskey at Copper Fox Distillery.
Sean McCaskey (left) and Rick Wasmund check the color of a batch of whiskey at Copper Fox Distillery. (Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

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By M.J. McAteer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

SPERRYVILLE, Va. -- Rick Wasmund climbs a seven-foot ladder and carefully steps into his kiln, where barley for 500 bottles' worth of whiskey lies several inches deep on the floor. It's hot in there, sometimes 150 degrees, and Wasmund's eyes are reddened from the sting of smoke, which seeps through holes in the steel floor buried beneath the barley.

In Scotland, the air would have the earthy smell of peat, but here at the Copper Fox Distillery it smells fruity: Wasmund is using apple and cherry wood to dry his malted barley. It's an unusual choice that is producing an unusual whiskey.

Wasmund is one of a handful of new distillers to create a liquor made solely in Virginia. Last summer Paul McCann of the Parched Group shipped the first batch of the Cirrus Vodka that he is making, from start to finish, in Richmond. And this spring Chris Richeson plans to begin selling Spirits of the Blue Ridge Vodka, eventually to be made wholly at his Chesapeake Bay Distillery in Virginia Beach. Like Wasmund and McCann, he intends to create a premium potable for a niche market.

With the arrival of these small-batch distillers, the Old Dominion may be more spirited than at any time since Prohibition.

They join three longtime distillers of liquors that could be considered native to the state: Laird & Co., which makes apple brandy and a blended liquor called Apple Jack, all from apples grown in the Shenandoah Valley; A. Smith Bowman, best known for its Virginia Gentleman bourbon; and Belmont Farm Distillery, whose signature spirit is a legal version of moonshine called Virginia Lightning. Laird & Co., in North Garden near Charlottesville, has been distilling since 1780; Bowman, once of Fairfax County and now of Fredericksburg, since the 1930s; and Belmont Farm, outside Culpeper, since 1987.

So why this bubble of interest in distilling in Virginia now?

Although overall consumption of alcohol in the United States has been largely flat, hard liquor's share of the market is climbing, from 28.7 percent in 2001 to 32.8 percent in 2006, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And within the spirits market, sales of "super-premium" (read: top-dollar) brands were up 17.5 percent in 2006 from 2005, after increasing by more than 20 percent from the year before. "The more expensive the product, the faster the growth," says Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the council.

Wasmund is hoping that his Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky will appeal to consumers who have shown a growing thirst for deluxe tipples.

He begins with "thoroughbred barley," developed by Virginia Tech and grown in the state's Northern Neck. Then, with the help of his mother, Helen, and a friend, Sean McCaskey, who assists with "everything on the production end," Wasmund does the malting. The process involves soaking the grain three times, spreading it on the floor, raking it every four hours for five days until it germinates and then drying it in his kiln over wood smoke. Wasmund says he is the only distiller in the country to do his own malting.

Bourbon, which must be made from at least 51 percent corn, is required by law to be aged in oak barrels for at least two years. Scotch, which must be made in Scotland from malted barley and other whole grains, must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Premium bourbons and Scotches generally are aged years longer. But Wasmund's single malt spends just four months aging in oak. So how can such a callow whiskey avoid having a bite like a Rottweiler's?

Wasmund says his secret is "chipping," a process in which bags of charred chunks of apple, cherry and oak wood are suspended in the liquor as it ages in the barrel. That accelerates the flavoring -- and mellowing -- of the whiskey, he says. Wasmund apprenticed with Scotch distiller Bowmore on the Isle of Islay, but Kevin Erskine, who is the author of "The Instant Expert's Guide to Single Malt Scotch" and writes on the subject at http://www.thescotchblog.com/, says Wasmund's product is "very much not Scotch."

"Rick is on to something," Erskine says on the phone from Ireland, where he is visiting the whiskey maker Bushmills. "But I would like to see Wasmund's after two years in the barrel. It takes time for wood to interact with liquid."


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