The Hard Stuff 

Local breweries may be booming, but Richmond-based distilleries are preparing to give them a run for the money.

click to enlarge A glass of Reservoir Distillery's wheat whiskey spends more than two years in a charred white oak barrel before it can be bottled.

Scott Elmquist

A glass of Reservoir Distillery's wheat whiskey spends more than two years in a charred white oak barrel before it can be bottled.

Inside the ABC store on West Broad Street, I’m surprised at how small the top-shelf gin selection is. It’s mostly Tanqueray and Bombay with a few other brands thrown in. I’m here to buy a bottle of Continental gin, the newest offering from Richmond’s James River Distillery. I see its Commonwealth gin, but no Continental.

But when I inquire, I learn that a special order is possible — that is, if the gin I want is included on the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s list. The clerk goes to another part of the store and slowly flips through a loose-leaf binder. Her finger goes down the page and there it is — Continental gin. She pulls out a form from a stack and asks me to fill it out with my contact information. She’ll call when the order comes in.

Yes, the ordering process is paper-based. No, the clerk doesn’t look online or call another store to see if the gin is in stock somewhere else — there turns out to be one bottle at the Carytown liquor store. And yes, a product that’s made less than a mile and half away, near Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, can take up to three weeks to get to me.

Distilleries are growing across Richmond. But before they reach the kind of boom experienced by local craft breweries, there are unique hurdles they must overcome.

All new spirits made in Virginia start out as special orders. It’s up to the distilling company to prove that there’s enough interest in their product to put it on the shelves of stores across the state.

This means distilleries, whose staffs usually number around two to four employees who are also owners, must hit the streets with samples to convince enough bartenders and anyone else they can find to call or go to an ABC store and order their liquor. Once the department is convinced there’s enough demand, individual store managers decide how much they’ll stock and where it’s located.

“I love Virginia and am so happy to be making this product here,” says Jonathan Staples, co-owner of James River Distillery. “But it can be a little disheartening to find out how much hard work it takes to get it on the shelf.”

 

click to enlarge Distiller Paul McCann began producing vodka in 2006, one of the first in the movement to make small batches of craft spirits. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Distiller Paul McCann began producing vodka in 2006, one of the first in the movement to make small batches of craft spirits.

Cirrus Vodka’s Paul McCann has been through this process before. His hard-to-find distillery is near West Leigh Street and Hermitage Road — and within walking distance of his old plant near Hardywood Park Craft Brewery.

His former building went into foreclosure and, along with its equipment, was sold at auction nearly two years ago. He won’t talk about it — actually, he says, he’s not allowed to legally. But he retained the Cirrus brand.

McCann is a wiry guy wearing baggy jeans, moving through middle age with pale hair and a deep voice that mirrors a neutral expression on his face. It’s hard to get him to smile.

His old Hardy Street plant, now the site of James River Distillery, is about a third of the size of his new one. On Ownby Street, shiny stainless steel tanks rise up to the soaring ceilings of the 7,000-square-foot warehouse that houses them. Pipes connect them in mysterious ways. Stacks of empty cardboard cases line the wall, and there’s a distinct funk in the air that comes from potatoes fermenting and mixed with the occasional whiff of alcohol.

McCann began distilling potato vodka 11 years ago in Manchester and was an early pioneer in small-batch spirit production. In 2006, Cirrus Vodka was awarded a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and at its height of popularity in 2009, the company sold more than 5,000 bottles a year and was stocked in 11 states, including 74 Virginia ABC stores.

McCann plans to slowly work his way back to that kind of wide distribution. Quick expansion — too quick — is one problem with the old company that he’ll talk about. Times were tough after the demise of Cirrus vodka. McCann went through a divorce and almost moved to New Mexico to resume his former career in the regulatory industry. Instead, he was approached by an investment group that wanted to restart his company — on a larger scale.

During my recent visit to the distillery, McCann is working the kinks out of his new system. When the equipment is running at its optimal speed, he says, Cirrus will have the capacity to produce more than 100,000 cases per year.

click to enlarge For the newest incarnation of Cirrus vodka, McCann refined the logo, but kept the bottle the same. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • For the newest incarnation of Cirrus vodka, McCann refined the logo, but kept the bottle the same.

Craft distillers, at least in this town, take a circuitous route into the business and it’s a second career for most. McCann started as a policy analyst for the state of Virginia at the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Why did he leave?

“You can only work with legislators and politicians so much,” he says, giving me one of his rare smiles. “Eventually, either I was going to put a gun to my head and blow my brains out — or do something else.”

With his regulatory and science background, and stints working at restaurants while attending Virginia Commonwealth University, distilling seemed like a good fit. Vodka, one of the easiest spirits to make with no aging requirements, was a way to get up and running quickly.

Potato vodka is smoother and sweeter than other varieties made from grain. And there aren’t an abundance of them on the market. The Polish-made Luksusowa and Chopin vodkas are probably the best known. The rest, more than 95 percent of all vodka, is made from just about any kind of grain, and even beets or grapes.

“We’re very careful about retaining some of that [potato] character,” McCann says. “We don’t want it really, really neutral — because if we do that, it’s going to be just like every other vodka out there.”

It takes about three and a half hours to cook down about 2,200 pounds of potatoes — more specifically, potato flakes until the growing season starts again — to break down the sugars that will prepare the batch for fermentation.

Then a week is spent waiting for those sugars to convert to ethyl alcohol. The result is pumped into a long, gleaming silver column in the room next door. It must be monitored carefully, and McCann interrupts our conversation several times to check gauges and flick switches to bring the pressure down. Unwanted byproducts are removed, and after passing through a charcoal filter, the 110-proof liquid is cut with filtered water to 90 proof — 45 percent alcohol — and bottled.

And there you have it: In a little longer than a week, between 11 pounds and 13 pounds of whole potatoes have been transformed into one 750-milliliter bottle of vodka.

 

click to enlarge Dwight Chew, head distiller at James River Distillery, started as a brewer at Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewery. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Dwight Chew, head distiller at James River Distillery, started as a brewer at Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewery.

Down the road at McCann’s old distillery, Dwight Chew is watching the gauges on his distillation column. He’s making a batch of Commonwealth gin, a spirit that can also get to the buying public rapidly. The process is similar to vodka production, with one important extra step.

Gin gets its flavor from an assortment of herbs and other botanicals that are infused during distillation. Each company has its own secret recipe, but the juniper berry is the ingredient that gives gin its distinctive taste. At James River, another uncommon element is added to the mix: hops.

This makes sense. Chew began as a brewer at Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Maryland. Matt Brophy, chief operating officer and brew master at Flying Dog, is also the managing partner in the distillery.

“It’s a classic gin recipe,” says Chew, a young, rangy man in a bandana and T-shirt who looks like a college student. “Juniper berries, coriander, with some cardamom in there — when it’s mixed in there with those hops, it does create a difference.”

When you make beer, you boil hops with malted grains at the beginning of the process. That’s how you get hopped beer’s characteristic bitterness. The hops in Chew’s gin, along with the rest of the botanicals, are infused while the alcohol is still a vapor. The plant’s bittering agents aren’t released at that temperature — only aromatics remain.

The addition of hops doesn’t overwhelm the traditional gin flavor. “Our goal is to make a gin that will be a tool for bartenders,” Staples says.

A lot of the new American gins that have come out in the last few years are deliberately distinctive and classic recipes need to be re-jiggered to accommodate the different flavors. And Staples says that creates too much work for a bartender. “Even the slightest change [in the botanicals] is a super different gin,” he says.

Staples’ entry into the distilling business came about accidentally. A Richmond native who now lives in Maryland, he was dropping off his daughter at camp when he heard the Hardy Street warehouse and its equipment were up for auction. He thought he’d stop by to take a look. Brophy and Rappahannock Oyster Co.’s Travis Croxton agreed to come along.

“When the bidding got higher,” Staples says, “I turned to them and asked them if they were still in.” They were, and he walked away owning a hunk of real estate and the equipment needed to make liquor.

click to enlarge James River Distillery's three kinds of gin include Continental, a dry London-style variety; Commonwealth, infused with hops and botanicals; and Navy Strength, an overproofed spirit that clocks in at 57 percent alcohol but not yet available in Virginia. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • James River Distillery's three kinds of gin include Continental, a dry London-style variety; Commonwealth, infused with hops and botanicals; and Navy Strength, an overproofed spirit that clocks in at 57 percent alcohol but not yet available in Virginia.

After he formed the company with Brophy, Croxton and Croxton’s wife, Kristi, Staples and Croxton discovered that they had a big problem. According to ABC regulations, restaurant owners can’t own a company that also makes and distributes alcohol. Staples, a venture capitalist, is married to Hilda Staples, co-owner of Volt, Range, several locations of Family Meal and both locations of Graffiato, among others. They were invested in 17 different restaurants throughout Virginia and Maryland. He had to make a choice.

And so did Croxton, owner of Richmond’s Rappahannock and a host of restaurants from Washington to North Carolina. Croxton chose to get out of the distillery business. For his wife, Kristi, this didn’t change things. She always planned to be involved directly with the business, helping to devise the gin’s flavor profile, making design decisions and ensuring that the proper paperwork — piles of it, required by the ABC Board and distributor Southern Wine & Spirits — was submitted properly. She left the restaurants to her husband.

Staples decided to divest himself of his restaurant holdings, and in addition to owning a distillery, start a commercial hops farm, Black Hops Farm.

“It’s sad, but it’s kind of like kids leaving home,” he says of his restaurants. “They’re all places I’m super proud of, and they’ve all done great things. But I’m also excited to be creating Virginia agriculture products.”

It’s a regulation in stark contrast to the way breweries are allowed to operate. Legend Brewing has had a restaurant attached to it since its opening more than 20 years ago. Mekong owner An Bui, who is co-owner of Commercial Taphouse and recently launched the Answer Brewpub, can brew his own beer to sell on the Answer’s premises.

In addition, distilleries are allowed to offer only three half-ounce tastings per day to each visitor — and cocktails are out of the question. But wineries and breweries can sell full glasses. This makes profit margins — and marketing opportunities — more generous than those in the Virginia spirits industry.

 

click to enlarge Reservoir Distillery owners Jay Carpenter and Dave Cuttino are childhood friends who decided during a Virginia Tech football game to go into the whiskey-making business. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Reservoir Distillery owners Jay Carpenter and Dave Cuttino are childhood friends who decided during a Virginia Tech football game to go into the whiskey-making business.

Across the Boulevard in Scott’s Addition, Jay Carpenter and his partner, Dave Cuttino of Reservoir Distillery, are engaged in a much slower process than either Cirrus or James River. Bourbon, wheat and rye whiskey are sitting in rows of charred oak barrels throughout the distillery’s main production area, waiting and maturing until the smooth amber spirit is ready for the public.

Depending on the size of the barrel, white whiskey, the product that comes out of the still’s spout when the distilling process is over, takes an average of two to four years to mellow into whiskey. This means Carpenter and Cuttino had to commit to a product that, had something gone wrong at any point during the process of making it, might not even be drinkable after several years of investment.

“When we put stuff in the barrels, and it sits for two years, guess what?” Cuttino says. “You don’t get paid back.”

They used 5- or 10-gallon barrels, producing only small batches, which result in about 32 to 35 cases. One case equals about one and a half gallons of liquor. By sticking to those amounts and obsessively monitoring the process, Carpenter and Cuttino were able to start their distillery and have their bourbon ready for purchase only two years later. It went on to win a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

The men have been friends since second grade, graduating from Collegiate in 1990. After college, Cuttino became a New York bond trader, but was unhappy with his job. He started researching the craft spirits industry. At a Virginia Tech football game, he and Carpenter started talking about running a distillery together. “Never in a million years would I think I’d be doing this,” Carpenter says.

But Cuttino was dead serious. He quit his job and took an unpaid, six-month internship at Tuthilltown Spirits, a company that pioneered small-barrel-aged spirits and is known for Hudson Whiskey.

click to enlarge Reservoir uses an old-fashioned pot distiller to make its award-winning whiskey. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Reservoir uses an old-fashioned pot distiller to make its award-winning whiskey.

Carpenter, who was working in sales, returned to the Richmond area to care for his aging parents. Plans began to solidify, they found a space, bought the necessary equipment for a pot still, and in 2008, had their first batch of whiskey in barrels.

You’d have to climb a stepladder to reach the top of Reservoir’s big, round pot still. It’s a slower, more old-fashioned process than the way vodka or gin is made.

Barrels are one of the biggest expenses when producing whiskey — a 5-gallon version can cost $180. They’re handmade, and by law are made of white oak and can be used only once. Heat and humidity can affect the aging process while the barrels expand and contract, which means you can’t set a timer and start bottling when it rings a few years later. Carpenter and Cuttino taste each barrel at intervals and bottle it only when they think the batch matches the flavor profile of previous ones.

One problem Reservoir Distillery has is keeping up with demand. The men have taken their product to restaurants, festivals and competitions — a primary marketing strategy that’s been extremely successful. But by the very nature of small-batch distilling, now that people want to drink Reservoir there isn’t enough to go around. You can’t open a barrel before it’s ready.

“I used to drink bourbon occasionally,” Carpenter says. “But I never really realized how bad a lot of it was until I started making it.”

 

click to enlarge Belle Isle Craft Spirits owners Alex Wotring, Brian Marks and Vince Riggi discuss how to market their newest product, honey habanero moonshine. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Belle Isle Craft Spirits owners Alex Wotring, Brian Marks and Vince Riggi discuss how to market their newest product, honey habanero moonshine.

Inside the enormous warehouse in Manchester that houses Belle Isle Craft Spirits, there’s a table in the middle. On it is a container piled high with bright orange habanero peppers. Owners Brian Marks and Vince Riggi are hand-punching holes in each small pepper, and when they finish prepping 60 pounds of them, the peppers will infuse the latest offering from the distillery, a spicy moonshine sweetened with honey.

Every distiller talks about start-up costs. Marks, Riggi and their partner Alex Wotring were bourbon lovers, and that’s what they originally thought they’d make at Belle Isle. The three came up with the idea during an event held at Hardywood. They wanted to re-create what they saw around them, only with bourbon instead of beer. They traveled to distilleries across Virginia to see how the business worked.

“We realized very quickly that it was cost-prohibitive for us just to even open a distillery,” Marks says.

Marks, the founder of Bonfire Funds, and Riggi and Wotring, owners of Smoothie King franchises in Richmond, realized they’d have to rewrite their business plan — “How can we get something very quickly to market,” Marks says, “test the theory and see if we can move forward?”

An ABC license to start a distillery takes about 18 months, Riggi says, and all of the equipment must be purchased up front. Even a label takes 90 days to get approved. They wanted to start small, bottle their product in Richmond and distribute it from here.

They stumbled onto moonshine — the white whiskey that Reservoir puts into barrels to make bourbon. And after a little research, they discovered that unaged spirits are on the rise. They thought that a smooth, well-made moonshine in a sophisticated bottle could find a place in the market.

click to enlarge Belle Isle’s moonshine is a smooth and strong spirit that bears only a passing resemblance to its Mason-jar siblings sold illegally. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Belle Isle’s moonshine is a smooth and strong spirit that bears only a passing resemblance to its Mason-jar siblings sold illegally.

The three traveled to Chicago’s Koval Distillery, maker of an extensive range of craft spirits, to get some advice and figure out how to start their company without a lot of capital. Koval liked their concept and helped with the recipe. And Belle Isle was able to launch with moonshine distilled in Chicago and finished in Richmond.

“I don’t think we did a good job of telling our story in the beginning and telling people how awesome Koval is — they’re legends,” Marks says. “If you talk to a winery, they don’t grow grapes at first.” Like wine, spirits are bought and sold between companies on a regular basis. When Belle Isle is able to purchase all of the equipment, it’ll start distilling on the premises. “Right now, we’re taking the bootstrapping approach,” Riggi says.

Lately the three men have been focused on launching a new product, honey-habanero moonshine. When they tested it at the Moonshine Festival last fall, they offered several different kinds of infused white whiskey, but the honey habanero was the one that kept people coming back.

They’ve received approval for the new label, and by April 27, because of the success of their initial offering, the path to the shelves became a lot easier. The new product will be available in more than 100 ABC stores.

Is it worth jumping through so many hoops to sell alcohol? “We think so,” Wotring says. “You just learn as you go.”

“There’s a certain level of stubbornness,” Viggi adds. “Like any business, you can’t take no for an answer.” S

------

Belle Isle Craft Spirits
615 Maury St.
No phone listed.
belleislecraftspirits.com
Belle Isle Moonshine: $29.90 for a 750-milliliter bottle, although the price will change on May 1

Cirrus Vodka
1603 Ownby Lane
844-724-7787
cirrusvodka.com
Cirrus Vodka: $27.90 for a 750- milliliter bottle

James River Distillery
2700 Hardy St.
804-716-5172
jrdistillery.com
Commonwealth gin: $34.10 for a 750- milliliter bottle
Continental gin: $31.70 for a 750- milliliter bottle

Reservoir Distillery
1800 Summit Ave.
912-2621
reservoirdistillery.com
Reservoir bourbon whiskey: $42.20 for a 375-milliliter bottle
Reservoir rye whiskey: $43.40 for a 375-milliliter bottle; $84.30 for a 750-milliliter bottle
Reservoir wheat whiskey: $43.40 for a 375-milliliter bottle; $84.30 for a 750-milliliter bottle

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Belle Isle Craft Spirits' honey-habanero moonshine would be available by special order only. It will be on shelves immediately, starting April 27. And Jay Carpenter's name originally was mispelled. We regret the errors.

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