Rye whiskey, that faintly spicy, caramel-colored elixir that goes down like honey, is in the middle of a renaissance.
A whiskey that’s required to be built mostly upon the grassy grain it takes its name from, rye came into vogue in America during the Colonial era, when rum fell out of favor; even George Washington added to his fortune by making it at Mount Vernon, turning out as many as 11,000 gallons a year. These days, craft bartenders like to serve it with bitters and sugar in customer-pleasing old-fashioneds. But at the end of the night, on their own time, they choose to drink it in a more Colonial fashion: straight up. I’ve fallen for its charms, too, in no small part because to order a good whiskey drink at a bar is to separate yourself from the average vodka-soda-sipping undergrad.
My whiskey-loving bubble was nearly burst this summer, though, when spirits fans began circulating a Daily Beast article declaring that rye whiskey may not be the artisanal beverage we all thought it was. Many distilleries turn to a large-volume Indiana company to make their supposedly small-batch (and pricey) booze, it said. But deep in the story, something caught my eye: There are a precious few that do not. Among them is Catoctin Creek Distilling, a rare spirits-making outlier in Northern Virginia’s wine country. Last year, the distillery began offering guests a chance to sip its wares as well as tour its operation.
An hour’s drive from my home to sweet, sweet whiskey? I call my friend Kathryn, who’d prefer to sip a reliable gin and tonic than drink something brown simply because it’s trendy. But she indulges me. After all, it’s the height of sundress season, and a trip to the country seems like fun.
Catoctin Creek is in Purcellville — west of Leesburg, and so close to Harpers Ferry that tubers and kayakers seek out its restaurants after a day on the water. Our drive takes us across Main Street, past drugstores, gas stations and nail salons, to the red-brick former car dealership that houses the first distillery to open in Loudoun County in decades.
Run by Scott and Becky Harris, Catoctin Creek is one of a handful of spirits producers that have blossomed since the passage of a pair of key Virginia laws: one in 2010 that put distilleries on an equal footing with wineries by allowing them to offer tastings, and another, perhaps more crucial 2011 law that allows distilling operations to sell their bottles in-house.
Those may seem like little tweaks, but, oh, what an effect they’re having: Little more than a year ago, there were fewer than 20 licensed spirits producers in all of Virginia; today, that number has grown to 28, nearly all of them the sort of small-batch producers that make cocktail fans swoon. (Eight more would-be distillers have license applications in the pipeline.) Among them are operations as varied as Sperryville’s Scotch-influenced Copper Fox and a re-creation of the 18th-century distilling operation at Mount Vernon, which only twice a year produces rye from a recipe pieced together from the former president’s records.
Catoctin Creek was motivated mostly by what Scott Harris calls his “midlife crisis.” As a teenager, he’d worked in a winery (in Mississippi, of all places), an experience that stuck with him as he explored quitting his day job. But in Virginia, he was surrounded by wineries, so he decided to enter the spirits trade instead.
A handful of years later, he has not one, but eight bottles to show for his gamble: in addition to the Roundstone rye that was his first product, in 2009, a gin, an unaged moonshinelike “white whiskey” and a few brandies.
Before our tasting, Kathryn and I — both with the tolerance you’d expect of ladies who barely graze 5-foot-6 and regularly skip breakfast — wisely decide to gird our bellies with the mammoth black-bean burgers at Market Burger, which sources its ingredients locally. It also happens to be across the street from the distillery.
Moonshine preparations out of the way, we make our way into the handsome Catoctin Creek tasting room, where dim Edison bulbs dangle above the counter and nearly every stool is full. It would all look suspiciously like a vintage Americana-themed bar if not for the picture windows that offer a glimpse into the decidedly low-glam distilling operation.
We stake out two empty seats and quickly discover another reason why this is not at all like a bar: Virginia law limits our tasting here to three half-ounce pours apiece, which adds up to the amount of liquor in a single mixed drink.
The Harrises long ago figured out that shots of pure liquor aren’t for everyone — or, more accurately, they aren’t for anyone who remembers the missteps of his or her 21st birthday. They decided to offer several options when they moved in 2013 from a Purcellville industrial park to their slick new digs.
There are mini “cocktails,” including a spicy bloody Mary and a teensy gin and tonic, that feature the spirits and encourage guests to sip a little more slowly. Kathryn chooses that option, while I go for a trio of new mini-drinks created each month by one of the area’s top mixologists. On our visit, they were dreamed up by Josh McCabe, who mans the bar at downtown Washington restaurant and music venue the Hamilton. It includes a twist on a negroni that uses Catoctin Creek’s gin and summer berries in lieu of the usual sweet vermouth.
Both flights arrive as a colorful, garnished trio of sips, served in curved glasses that look not unlike adorably tiny highball glasses. Near us, some customers pick the option of a flight of Catoctin Creek’s brandies, which come unadorned.
Choose wisely, because, well, the laws governing distilleries are different from those affecting wineries: You can try only one flight on each visit.
Once an hour, the staff leads willing guests into the distillery. I’m lucky enough to get Scott as my guide. Along with a few others, we head out of the soft light of the tasting room and into the bright, raw distilling operation.
Here we see how rye is made: not in giant, impersonal vats somewhere in Indiana, but a few dozen miles from home. Scott explains that the first step to rye, in fact, is making something not unlike a hefeweizen — a primordial stew teeming with grains that must ferment to become alcohol. The distillation happens later, in a fancy copper still, which separates the alcohol from the grainy pulp, known as mash, with heat that turns it to gas. Upon cooling, the gas is returned to its liquid form, which is now that brash stuff known as white whiskey. To become the Roundstone rye that has won the company kudos, it goes into oak barrels to age for at least two years.
As the tour wraps up, I spy Becky, a onetime chemical engineer who’s now chief distiller at Catoctin Creek. She’s dragging bins and heavy bags of grains across the floor as if engaged in some kind of demented CrossFit exercise. She stops to check a computer, then resumes the manual labor on her factory floor.
That’s how rye is made, I think.
And I’ll be thinking of it the next time I order a rye old-fashioned.
Purcellville is about 50 miles from Washington. Take Route 66 west to Virginia Route 267 west to Va. Rte. 7 west.
The Town’s Inn
179 High St.
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Homey seven-room inn in the heart of downtown Harpers Ferry, with a full-service restaurant and a shop. Rooms from $90.
145 W. Main St.
Loaded burgers, shakes and fries, with gluten-free and vegetarian options in a
casual setting. Burgers start at $7.50.
Magnolias at the Mill
198 N. 21st St.
Reservations suggested for this American restaurant housed in a restored turn-of-the-century mill. Options include steaks, crab cakes, pizzas and gluten-free choices. Entrees start at $13.
Catoctin Creek Distilling Co.
120 W. Main St.
Monday-Friday 1-5 p.m., Saturday noon to 7 p.m., Sunday 1-6 p.m. Tasting, $5 for spirits flight; $10 for cocktail or brandy flight. Tours on the hour until one hour before closing, $5.
Adroit Theory Brewing
404 Browning Ct. Unit C
Tiny new brewery and tasting room in a tucked-away industrial park, specializing in small batches of a myriad quirky brews. Thursday-Friday 4-8 p.m., Saturday noon to 8 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Most 3-ounce pours are $3 each; 10-ounce glasses start at $8.
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