Scott Harris is taking visitors around the building at Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, Va., on this early spring day, pointing out details of the stills and the bottling process. But even with a fermenting brandy mash bubbling and blurping in its tub like the Dagobah swamp, it’s hard to focus on the distillery when, in the tasting room, 14-year-old Luke Harris is practicing with his yo-yo.
His mom, Becky Harris, says he hasn’t been into the toy that long. But he’s gotten obsessed, and he’s always teaching himself new tricks.
He might have picked that up from his folks. The Harrises, both in their mid-40s, haven’t been at their whiskey crafting for that long, but in five years, they’ve gotten deep into it. Back in the mid-2000s, they started talking about doing something different. Scott had been going stir-crazy working in the government IT sector. Becky, his wife, was a chemical engineer. While Scott jokes that 20 years of government contracting had given him a great love of drinking, really, he says, it was memories of a teenage stint at a winery that made him think about having a job where, at the end of the day, you could hold something in your hands and think, “This is good.” There were already more than 30 wineries in the area, so they went for the stronger stuff, risking their life savings to start Catoctin Creek in 2009.
They were sweating it for a while. “If we’d failed, it would have been that homeless-with-two-kids kind of failure,” Scott says. But their spirits began to get a foothold, and they’re bringing their craft distillery into adolescence with a new trick of their own: The release of a premium, 92-proof version of their award-winning 80-proof Roundstone Rye Whisky, hitting shelves in May, is recognizably Roundstone but intensified, with the caramel, maple, and spice tones highlighted and pumped up into something richer.
Catoctin Creek has done some cask-strength special releases, but this will be a standard offering. It’s been in development for years. A while back, Scott says, they were having an event with the folks at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, the Adams Morgan bar that serves as a temple for hundreds of whiskeys from around the world. “And once you’ve had a few whiskeys, you start talking about life and what you want to be when you grow up,” Scott says. “We kind of decided that we were going to stay small — that we didn’t want to just keep growing and growing and become some monster distillery shipping spirits nationwide and internationally.”
At the suggestion of Jack Rose Dining Saloon’s own in-house whiskey obsessive, Harvey Fry, the Harrises started planning for a higher-proof, more premium version of their rye. Popular as the original Roundstone is, Scott says, “one of the points that I think most of the whiskey nerds will make is that everything at 80 proof is kind of — well, ‘Kool-Aid whiskey’ is what they call it. Your big industrial whiskeys — you know, Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam — they’re always at 80 proof.”
Given that whiskey by its very nature is diluted, the question of proof is a curious one. Higher-proof whiskeys tend to have a higher price, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better. What it does indicate is that the consumer is getting more of the pure, undiluted distillate that comes out of the still; hence the greater concentration of flavor, and the greater expense.
Consumers often have a blind spot about issues of proof, says JP Fetherston, bar manager at the whiskey-centered Southern Efficiency in Shaw. “Most people don’t think of high-proof whiskeys beyond thinking, ‘Whoa, that stuff must be rocket fuel,’” he notes. “But there are specific reasons that distillers bottle at different proofs. . . . This is where they think their whiskey drinks best.” (If you think such a difference is too small to matter, remember Maker’s Mark, which in 2013 announced plans to lower its 90-proof whiskey to 84-proof, setting off a hue and cry among fans that resulted in a quick reversal.)
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how alcohol level and dilution will affect flavor, Fetherston says. “They all change a little differently. I’ve had Scotches that are super smoky and dry at the proof they’re bottled at; then you add a little water, and all this fruit comes out.”
Catoctin Creek has been curating the barrels it has tucked away, tasting and selecting a few hundred that seemed to be developing deeper and more interesting flavors, and holding them back to use in this release. As a result, the new rye is not only less diluted, but also, at just under four years in barrel, a bit older than the current Roundstone.
That said, Becky says that many old-school whiskey buffs put too much emphasis on barrel age. “I kind of compare it to taking your dog to a dog show, right?” she says. “When people evaluate a rye whiskey, they want it to taste like other whiskeys they’ve had — the ‘breed standard.’ . . . I like to think the craft distilling movement is trying to bring some new dogs to the show, but the show that’s out there — and I’m just rolling with this metaphor now — is run by the people who are deeply invested in a very old stock style of whiskey.” Many younger craft brands, she says, don’t have very old whiskeys. “But they are amazing whiskeys. They may not be a purebred English mastiff, but it’s an amazing dog in its own right.”
Fetherston says that he’s had many good, even great whiskeys bottled at 40 percent, but that he does sometimes wish those producers had released their whiskey at a slightly higher proof, to bring out a little more character.
Maybe whiskey draws out dog metaphors: One particular bourbon, Fetherston says, has released some lines at higher proof, and once you try those, “the lower-proof one just tastes a little neutered.”
“Neutered” certainly doesn’t apply to the new whiskey from Catoctin Creek. On its own or in the accompanying riff on an old-fashioned, in which sugar is replaced by a maple syrup aged in Roundstone barrels, it’s a dog that’ll hunt.
Look for Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Whisky (92 proof; 750-ml, $52.99) at Weygandt Wines, Schneider’s and Calvert Woodley, among other District liquor stores. Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.