A Visit to Virginia Distillery Co.
Virginia Distillery Co. opened its doors in 2015 in Nelson County, Virginia, just south of the college town of Charlottesville. The distillery was the dream of its late founder, the Irish businessman and whisky enthusiast Dr. George C. Moore. There wasn’t any family lore inspiring its founding and Dr. Moore didn’t intend to make traditional American whisky. Instead, he saw the potential in the Virginia terroir and climate for making the whisky he preferred to drink, his native single malt.
The distillery sits off a windy stretch of highway in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s an impressive campus for such a young distillery, evidence of Dr. Moore’s success in other pursuits. Visitors are greeted by plenty of stacked stone, wrought iron, and one particularly elaborate fountain as they drive past the distilling hall on their way to the visitors center.
On my recent visit, the tour began with a stop at their whisky museum which focuses on the origins of whisky in Scotland and Ireland and how that influenced the growth of American whisky. The exhibit explains how that particular corner of Virginia was chosen by Dr. Moore for its optimal maturation climate, and it also provides a little local moonshining lore complete with a very unique, homemade still reportedly used in the nearby hills.
From there, we moved to the distillery, a large, rectangular building set in a small, scenic valley on the property. The first order of business was to visit their bright red, antique Boby mill which is one of only a few used in America. At already 100 years old, it will probably outlive everyone working there. Two custom-designed Forsyths copper pot stills (a 2,600 gallon wash still and 1,600 gallon spirit still) are situated at the far end of the two-story building while eight stainless steel, 1,600 gallon washbacks line the rest of the hall. It’s probably one of the more attractive distillery floors I’ve ever visited (and sparkling clean), but it’s clearly no show piece with a steady back and forth of watching, smelling, and computer monitoring criss-crossing the floor during my visit.
After a peek inside a small dunnage style warehouse (two more traditional rickhouses are on site with 6,000 to 7,000 barrel capacities), I was taken back to the visitors center to commence with the imbibing portion of my visit. The visitors center is an exceedingly comfortable space with overstuffed sofas and chairs, a towering, stacked stone fireplace, and a large tasting bar. It’s more mountain house than tasting room, which makes having a dram, or three, here all the more appealing. Like a lot of craft distilleries today, Virginia Distillery Co. offers samples of their products either neat or in cocktails. I’ve found that, at most distilleries, these “cocktails” are pretty rudimentary and clearly designed for those on the tour who don’t actually like whisky. Virginia Distillery Co. is an exception, using bitters and syrups that actually add layers to their drinks and complement the whisky. This is one of the few distilleries where I would actually encourage you to forego at least one neat pour in the tasting in favor of a mixed drink. But that’s not to say that their single malt is best for mixing.
Since 2015, Virginia Distillery Co. has managed a brisk pace of production for their not-yet-ready-for-prime-time whisky, a 100% single malt dubbed Courage & Conviction. The name comes from one of Dr. Moore’s favorite sayings: “Have the courage of your convictions.” This future flagship brand is made using unpeated barley and two different yeast strains. After a three-day fermentation and careful distillation it goes into the barrel at 120 proof. The ageing barrels used are primarily ex-bourbon casks, with a smaller number of sherry (a mix of Pedro Ximenez, Oloroso, and Fino) and “cuvee” wine casks that have been shaved, toasted, and re-charred. In anticipation of this upcoming release, the distillery bottled a sneak peak appropriately called Prelude: Courage & Conviction, which gives fans a glimpse at the almost final product (review coming soon!). The blend here, however, is mostly ex-bourbon and ex-sherry, with only a small portion of the “cuvee” cask that will comprise 25% of the Courage & Conviction blend. I was fortunate enough to taste the “cuvee”-aged whisky straight from the cask during my visit, and it was exceptional with luscious dark berry notes that will no doubt distinguish Courage & Conviction from its precursor.
Anticipation has been high at the distillery for the first in-house whisky releases. Prelude hit shelves in Virginia this month and will move to other markets in October while Courage & Conviction won’t be released until April 2020. Even without these offerings, Virginia Distillery Co. has already managed an impressively large portfolio of whiskies. Since 2011, it has relied on aged, unpeated single malt from an undisclosed Scottish Highland distillery for several labels, the current star of which is their Port Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Malt. To add their own touch to that whisky it was finished in a mix of Virginia and European port barrels. Having tasted progressive batches of this whisky (most recently Batch 11), the flavors and balance have only continued to improve from an already respectable start in our Batch 3 sample.
Beginning with their fifth batch release of that whisky, Virginia Distillery Co. took the plunge and began adding some of their house-distilled stock. The latest release contains whisky from their warehouses up to three years old (Courage & Conviction will be four years at bottling). That may seem on the young side for single malt, but the Virginia climate reportedly helps to mature their whisky four times faster than in Scotland (even faster than Kentucky owing to the proximity to the coast). In addition to the Port Cask Finished, the distillery has a handful of periodic special releases, all using the same blend of sourced and in-house single malt but showcasing different finishes. These have included Cider Cask, Chardonnay Cask, and their beer barrel-finished Brewer’s Batch, all of which use finishing barrels primarily from Virginia wineries, cideries, and breweries.
I concluded an enjoyable day of touring and tasting at Virginia Distillery Co. with a wee dram each of their Charity Cask (Batch 3) and the inaugural release in the Journey Cask Collection, both of which are only available at the distillery. The Journey Cask Collection is a series of single cask releases meant to celebrate the mentor distilleries from around the world that inspired Dr. Moore to go off and make American Single Malt in Virginia’s hill country. The Charity Cask is a uniquely finished bottling of their base single malt blend, the net proceeds from which go to a local charity in their community. Tasting notes on both bottles follow.
Virginia Distillery Co. Hibernia Irish Single Malt Whisky 11 Years Old – The first Journey Cask Collection is fittingly a selection from Dr. Moore’s homeland. It’s an 11 year single cask sourced from Ireland’s Great Northern Distillery which commemorates the role of that distillery’s owner, John Teeling, in the life of Dr. Moore. On the nose, Hibernia is full of sweet, honeyed cereals, crème brûlée, and a little salty ocean spray. The palate is bold and rich, but even at cask strength, the flavors are well-balanced. A creamy beginning with honey candies and vanilla ice cream gives way to a juicy mix of fruits: apricot, blood orange, and grilled peach. Those fruits dry out a little on the finish but linger with hints of caramel sauce and ginger beer. A very fine start to this journey. 114 proof.
Virginia Distillery Co. Coffee Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Whisky – For their third Charity Cask release, Virginia Distillery Co. took their core blend of sourced and house-made single malt and finished it for 14 months in a barrel previously used to hold nitro cold brew from Charlottesville coffee bar Snowing in Space. On the nose, the coffee nicely complements the roasted malts in the whisky, but it doesn’t show nearly as much coffee aroma as you might expect. The whole thing comes across more like hot chocolate mix with a creamy vanilla edge. The palate is light but oily, and sweet but not cloying. Like the nose, the coffee influence has evolved from brewed java to melted chocolate and sweet biscuits. It gets more savory heading into the medium-length finish with a little roasted walnut and toffee to round it out. A Jumble cookie in a glass. 92 proof.