James River Distillery makes its Commonwealth Gin from organically grown Virginia corn. (Tyler Darden)
Columnist, Food

There’s something about drinking with people you’re fond of that makes lighting out for the territories seem not only appealing, but possible. You’re just buzzed enough to think, “Hey, let’s not go in to work tomorrow. Let’s go to the beach instead! Let’s start a rock band! Let’s become stand-up comedians, because we are the funniest people in town or at least within hearing distance, especially now that all the other patrons have inexplicably moved away from our table!”

There’s probably at least one great band out there that started after a night of sweet drunk talk. The rest of the dreamers, though, go back to their day jobs, their chatter leading to nothing but a mild hangover and more comforting sweet drunk talk later on.

Count Jonathan Staples and his partners at James River Distillery among the talkers who have actually followed through.

For years, Staples — a Richmond native who now lives in Frederick, Md., and has had a long career in fundraising and real estate, plus several restaurant ventures with his wife, Hilda — had been talking with some of his friends in the beer and restaurant industry about opening a distillery. They’d even scouted some locations in Maryland. And then last year, preparing to take his daughter to field hockey camp down in Richmond, Staples heard from his father, who still lives in the city, that a distillery was being auctioned off right down the road. (The distillery is the former home of Cirrus Vodka, which lost it to foreclosure.)

“When my dad called me, it was like, okay, do we want to do a distillery, or do we want to sit around bars and talk about doing a distillery?”

Staples called one of his fellow sweet drunk talkers, Matt Brophy, brew master at Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, and told him he planned to check it out the next day. Brophy hopped in the car and headed down to meet Staples.

One auction and $375,000 later, “at the end of the day, we had a distillery,” says Brophy.

Staples’s teenage daughter — now in college — placed the winning bid on what’s now James River Distillery. The group handed her the paddle knowing that Brophy had been recognized; they feared that a well-known beverage guy bidding would drive up other bidders’ confidence. “I don’t know that it worked,” Staples, 48, says ruefully. “I hadn’t been thinking about the fact that macho guys bidding on a distillery might have been more willing to lose to Matt than to a teenager.”

Though the group initially planned to move the distillery north and make rye whiskey (historically a major spirit in Maryland), partner Kristi Croxton helped persuade them to stick to Richmond. They decided to home in on gin. To produce their first, they talked to bartenders in the District and Richmond who provided feedback about what they’d like to see coming out of the stills.

Their first product, Commonwealth Gin, is made from organically grown Virginia corn, which the crew hand-mills. Staples says he hopes down the line to produce a gin that’s “as close to 100 percent Virginia” as possible; he’s putting in hops at a family farm in Lucketts, Va., for future use.

The company’s commitment to Virginia agriculture has personal roots. “My mom’s family is from out in western Virginia — Botetourt, Floyd County — and I always felt one of the biggest tragedies in Virginia history was the temperance movement,” he says. “So many of my ancestors had small farms in the Roanoke mountain areas, and the way they were able to survive on a 10-acre farm was by making spirits, making them legally. . . . And the temperance movement kind of squeezed them out, and all those relatives of mine and everyone else ended up going to work at the sawmill or the coal mine, and all those farms were lost. So I’ve always had a special hatred for the temperance movement, because I feel like it destroyed a part of Virginia agriculture.”

Commonwealth’s incorporation of hops is still a relatively new trend in spirits, though they’re a natural botanical for a gin produced by a team that includes brewers. But don’t expect the hoppy punch of an IPA here. “We’re getting the essence of the hops without capturing the bitterness that you’d get in a beer,” Brophy says. “What we pull away from the hops is some floral and citrusy notes that complement the other botanicals.” The result is a clean, citrusy, peppery spirit with a more subtle juniper note.

For Staples, one of the best payoffs so far came when he stopped by Society Fair in Alexandria and shared Commonwealth with one of its co-owners, Todd Thrasher, who is also the general manager and “liquid savant” at Restaurant Eve. Thrasher liked it enough to use it as his spirit when crafting cocktails for the Chefs for Equality fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign this past September.

“It was such a cool moment, because Todd didn’t know me from Adam. Kind of like if you got a band together and made a CD, and a DJ you really loved played your song,” Staples says.

Find Commonwealth at a growing number of D.C. and Virginia stores and bars, and you can taste a little ray of hope for sweet drunk talkers everywhere. It might even make you think about practicing your guitar skills.

Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.