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."
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.