by Eric J. Wallace
I was introduced to the whisky made by the Virginia Distillery Co. at the 2018 Fredericksburg Brewfest. I had tagged along with a friend who was pouring samples at the company’s table and it didn’t take long to see that the spirit was a hit.
For every 10 people we served, other vendors had maybe one. And by 3 p.m. our line was out of hand, with prior visitors reappearing with friends, family members and newly met drinking buddies.
“You won’t believe it till you try it,” a middle-aged man told his wife, practically dragging her by the hand. Sipping a half-ounce sample of Port Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Whisky, a single malt, she came alive. “I’ll be damned,” she said, smacking her lips. “That is incredible.”
The couple told me that they were single-malt enthusiasts and that their top shelf featured celebrated, 100-plus-year-old Scottish, English and Irish brands like Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Highland Park, Bowmore, Macallan and others. “This is up there with the best of ’em,” said the man. “And at that price point? $65 is a steal.”
Founded in Lovingston in 2011, Virginia Distillery released its first batch in November 2015. The port-finished whisky gained national attention with a 92-point rating in the Wine Enthusiast spirits guide. Since then, the company has won an incredible 21 awards – including best American single malt at the 2017 World Whiskies Awards. With more than 3,500 casks – about 1.5 million bottles – set aside for aging, it is now Virginia’s largest distillery and America’s biggest producer of single-malt whisky. Its products are available in 17 states and counting.
Astonishingly, the company nearly didn’t happen. The distillery was originally meant to be a retirement project for George G. Moore, an Irish-born businessman who purchased the assets of a failed Nelson County distillery after selling his McLean-based tech company, TargusInfo, for a reported $650 million in 2011. But he died of a heart attack just 18 months later.
“Dad was in his early 60s, so we were blindsided,” says Gareth Moore, VDC’s 37-year-old CEO and co-owner. “Though he’d mentioned a Virginia-based ‘distillery project,’ that was essentially all I knew.”
George had been a lifelong entrepreneur and had his hands in numerous startups, including a few Irish distilleries. Gareth, a partner in his father’s Washington, D.C., angel investing firm, Ravensdale Capital, figured the Virginia project was business as usual.
At the urging of his mother, Angela, he visited the site in 2013. Situated in a rural hollow on 100 acres some 30 miles south of Charlottesville was a half-finished, 15,000-square-foot building. Inside was a collection of modern distilling equipment flanked by a pair of magnificent, hand-hammered, Scottish longneck copper pot stills dating to the 1920s.
“Clearly Dad had taken this seriously and intended to make huge amounts of whisky,” Gareth says. The experience was emotional. “With the project barely underway, I didn’t know whether we should sell or try to adopt this thing as our own.”
An enthusiastic collector of single-malt whiskies, George had dreamed of establishing a world-class distillery in America – particularly in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Toward that end, he’d enlisted the help of two old friends, both industry titans. The now-late Jim Swan, who held a Ph.D. in chemistry and biological sciences and was known internationally as “the Einstein of Whisky,” had agreed to advise about fermentation and maturational processes. Harry Cockburn, the former manager of the famed Bowmore Distillery, one of the oldest in Scotland, was signed on to engineer the distilling and production systems. Together they had nearly a century of experience working with the world’s most prestigious single malt producers.
“I was astounded by their investiture,” Gareth says. Like George, the men believed Virginia could birth a true, place-made single malt capable of competing with the industry’s biggest names. “Their enthusiasm was incredible,” he says. “And that piqued my interest.”
Having published numerous scientific papers about the effects of climate on maturation, Swan was fascinated by the area’s weather. Compared to Virginia, Scotland featured mild variations in temperature. High northern latitudes make for less distinct seasonal transitions and longer maturation times for whisky. Though the minimum aging period is three years, a premium Scotch typically matures in oak barrels for 12 to 18 years. The most coveted bottles age for 25, 50, even 100 years.
Swan said Nelson County’s seasonality was ideal – the temperature swings from winter to summer would lead to greater expansion and contraction in the casks, thereby speeding and uniquely affecting maturation. But with smooth transitions and peak temperatures rarely reaching extremes, negative effects would be nominal. In theory, a 6-year-old whisky matured in Nelson could have the qualities of one aged for 18 years in Scotland, Ireland or England.
Of course, says Gareth, Swan’s Scottish peers scoffed at the claims – there are no shortcuts to making world-class highland-style whisky, they grumbled. But Swan was, after all, one of the world’s most highly regarded whisky experts. And he had apparently taken on the Virginia Distillery Co. as a pet project.
There were additional positive factors. Pristine spring water was available on-site. Not only did Virginia farmers have a rich history of growing barley – single malt’s primary ingredient – but Virginia Tech housed the country’s largest agricultural research program for malting varieties. And with the would-be distillery just miles from Route 151’s winery and brewery corridor, customers were primed and waiting.
“I started thinking about my father’s collection of single malts, by far the finest I’d ever seen,” Gareth says. “I thought about how his vacations often entailed visiting the world’s best distilleries. How he knew the industry’s key players by name. And it dawned on me: What better way to memorialize his legacy than bring this dream to life?”
Gareth soon formed a partnership with Angela, his mother, and his wife, Maggie. Together they decided to give the business a go.
The goal all along was to create a brand that would become synonymous with Virginia whisky and in the process define American single malt as a category and help bring it to the world stage.
This is no easy thing. In fact, even naming a product is troublesome. VDC this summer settled a dispute with the Scotch Whisky Association that forced the company to eventually stop using the term “highland” for its liquor. The SWA felt the label was meant to trick people into thinking the product was from Scotland. VDC was, however, allowed to keep calling what it makes “whisky.”
So, if making a label can create headaches, imagine trying to establish the official standard for American single malt. Unlike bourbon, rye and other whiskies, U.S. law doesn’t recognize the category and therefore offers no regulatory definition. While competitions use standards established in Europe, U.S. makers don’t have to. To create consumer confidence and compete at the international level, Maggie says, “we need exemplary products and a playbook similar to what they’re using in Scotland or Ireland. Until we get both, (American single malts) won’t be fully respected.”
The pursuit began with constructing a premium production facility. Meanwhile, Cockburn and Swan trained a team of distillers and helpers that included current distillery director Ian Thomas, a degreed microbiologist who’d helped found Big River Distilling Co. in Memphis.
Next came getting products into the hands of consumers. “We wanted to make true Highland-style whisky, and that takes at least three years,” Gareth says. Rather than rely on spirits like vodka or rum (which have quick turnarounds), the Moores contracted with a Scottish distiller. Like many newly opened bourbon makers, they imported aged whisky and finished it in oak port casks from Virginia’s best wineries. “That let the climate put its stamp on the product and brought additional local flavors,” Gareth says. The strategy was aimed at building brand recognition in the lead-up to the release of the distillery’s first made-in-Virginia whiskies in 2020.
A tasting room was added to attract visitors. An on-site museum delivers interactive, whisky-centric history lessons.
“Irish and English immigrants brought single malt whisky with them to America and established new traditions here,” Maggie says. This was especially true for Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Unfortunately, Prohibition eradicated much of that history. “We wanted to educate customers about what they were drinking, where it came from, how it was developed, and provide context for its appreciation.”
The result is a visit that rivals the best of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail and the Old World alike. Housed in a large, modern-plantation-style building with wraparound porch, the tasting room feels like a luxury cigar shop meets a great American inn. Soapstone tiles, plush leather sofas, vaulted ceilings, indirect lighting and a stone, floor-to-ceiling fireplace punctuate the main space. Adjacent is a seating area with tables overhung by exposed rafters. In its corner sits an elegant, copper-wrapped bar. At capacity, the space holds about 100 people.
The museum is downstairs and offers a guided, 75-minute Virginia Whisky Experience tour. Along the way, expect tales of Old Country legends, Founding Father spirit-makers, a local Prohibition-era shot house, moonshining and more.
From there, tours take to the grounds. Traverse a 2,000-square-foot stone patio replete with a fire-topped fountain flanked by two 36-ton grain bins (filled with malted barley). The nearby production facility brings glimpses of distilling equipment like antique pot stills and a 1920s Scottish-made Boby mill, which cracks and grinds malted barley for fermentation.
Then comes the 600-barrel “cask house.” Tuned for aging whisky, the building is engineered to buffer against extreme temperatures and humidity. It mirrors two neighboring 16,000-square-foot warehouses, which hold about 4,500 barrels each (a third will likely be added by 2021). A discussion of maturation and aging concludes with tastings amid the casks that once held bourbon, port and sherry.
Thomas, the distillery director, guides drinkers through a sip of Port Finished. He points out the whisky’s deep amber hue and rich, campfire-smoke and caramel profile. “Note how it finishes dry and with a touch of heat,” he says, “with lots of spice, and a hint of sarsaparilla.”
An additional three varieties are offered – including the Cider Cask Finished, which ranked 13th on Whisky Advocate’s 2018 list of world’s best whiskies. All blend Scottish single malt with whisky made on-site.
Looking back, Gareth calls the past five years a whirlwind. On top of everything else, he and Maggie helped found the Virginia Distillers Association in 2016. Gareth became the group’s first and current president. That same year, the couple helped launch the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, which now boasts 117 member-distilleries.
The goal is to pass federal legislation defining American single malt as a category – preferably before the release of Courage & Conviction, the VDC’s first whisky to be made and matured completely on-site. Though dates depend on taste, bottling is expected to begin in March.
Maggie and Gareth envision a moment like the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when California wines first outmatched their French counterparts in a blind tasting. If that happened, the visitor center would become a world-renowned destination overnight.
“We’re committed to being the standard-bearer for American single malts,” Thomas says. “And I think we’re well on the way to achieving that. From ingredients, to processes, to maturation, that goal has and will continue to inform every decision we make.”
Like their Scottish precursors, the Moores imagine a day when patrons will enjoy 50- and 100-year Virginia Distillery reserves.