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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)

On his blog, Erskine writes this of Wasmund's: "A peculiar sweetness from the combination of fruit woods gives me a hint that this could be something interesting if it were allowed to mature longer." That idea was echoed last month by the Wall Street Journal's Eric Felten, who also wished for longer aging and found Wasmund's "lacking in the deeper, more complex flavors that give fine whiskeys their structure."

Wasmund now produces about 200 cases a month of the 96-proof single malt. It is on the shelves in about 60 of Virginia's state Alcoholic Beverage Control stores at $37.35 for a 750-ml bottle. It is also available locally at some D.C. liquor stores, including Pearson's and Schneider's, and is served at area restaurants, including Clyde's, Nora, the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Inn at Little Washington.

McCann's Cirrus Vodka, too, can be found behind the bar at some well-known eateries, including Equinox and branches of Ruth's Chris Steak House, Champs, P.F. Chang's China Bistro and Sine Irish Pub. Cirrus is made from potatoes, a quarter of them grown in Virginia. With the use of what McCann calls "deep-aquifer artesian water" from a "secret" source, the vodka is triple distilled for clarity and smoothness. Some vodkas can be distilled up to nine times, he says, but that can "remove all the character of the spirit. We don't want to, or need to, process Cirrus further."

Even before Cirrus was available to the public, it had won awards in international competition for its taste and its packaging: a frosted bottle with a logo of a yellow sun intersecting with two blue-edged clouds. The Beverage Testing Institute gave Cirrus a "highly recommended" rating, describing it in rather fanciful language as "soft and silky," with the flavors of banana taffy, minerals and white pepper.

McCann is bottling 50 to 100 cases a month of the 80-proof Cirrus, which retails for $22 for 750 ml at about 100 ABC stores. It also was recently picked up by Ace Beverage in the District. McCann's plan is to move into Tennessee and North Carolina soon, and he has ambitions to go nationwide.

This certainly would seem to be the time to think big about vodka. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, vodka accounts for 27 percent of all distilled spirits sold in the United States, making it America's favorite hard liquor.

Chris Richeson's vodka, Spirits of the Blue Ridge, will be distilled from corn, not potatoes. Vodka can be distilled from any starchy or sugary plant, including grains such as corn, rye and wheat and vegetables such as soybeans and sugar beets, but most premium vodkas are made from a single ingredient, writes Pat Couteaux, a master distiller, on the Web site Cocktail Times. Vodkas made from corn tend to be more neutral-tasting than those made from wheat, soy or potatoes, he writes, while smoothness depends on filtration and distillation.

Pending label approval (he likens his appearance before the ABC Board to "a parole hearing"), Richeson hopes to have Spirits of the Blue Ridge in at least 60 ABC stores by next month. He plans to import partly processed alcohol and then "rectify" it, or complete the distilling, at his facility in Virginia Beach, housed in a utilitarian office park in what he calls "the crash zone" of the Oceana Naval Air Station. His goal, when he finds a master distiller, is to segue into making the vodka from scratch in Virginia. That would be in keeping with his proposed label, which features a profile of the mountain chain and a cardinal, the state bird.

Richeson says he expects to produce 100 cases a month of it to start and to price it at $21.95 for 750 ml.

Like McCann and Wasmund, Richeson had to make substantial investments of capital and time before producing even one bottle of liquor. All will face stiff competition for the up-market dollar, as a stroll through any liquor store makes obvious.

Joe Dangler, master distiller for A. Smith Bowman, is supportive of the new distillers and has been helpful to them, yet he knows from his 29 years of experience with Bowman that they face long odds. The Bowman company started off as family-owned but a few years ago was bought by Sazerac, a New Orleans-based company.

"Distributors are merging," he says. "That makes it tough for the little guys."

M.J. McAteer is a former Washington Post staff writer who lives in Purcellville.

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