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The product line Photo by Emily Landsman, EHL Creations
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the still at Catoctin Creek Distilling Co.; Becky Harris on bottling day; Scott and Becky Harris Photos courtesy Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, LLC
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volunteers assist with bottling
Of course I got lost, but it was a lovely three hours driving around Loudoun County. I recommend it, really: rolling hills, green farmland, sunlight filtering through tall trees.
I was trying to find my way to Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. for a bottling workshop. I'd been given a bottle of their Roundstone Rye for Christmas, and though I hadn't been a whiskey drinker before that, the smooth, fragrant fire of Catoctin Creek's version converted me. Every month or so, owners Becky and Scott Harris invite people to come in, take a tour of the facilities and help them bottle the organic rye whiskey, gin or white whiskey (like moonshine, if you dressed it up in a tux) they create there. They've produced a pear brandy in the past, and they also have a grape brandy planned for next year, in conjunction with Tarara Winery in Leesburg.
Because of my detour, I missed the instruction and explanation portion of the morning. Instead I was thrown into label applying, which is actually trickier than you would think. Really. In fact, I was quickly re-routed to the actual bottling. I've been to wineries, breweries and even a cider factory, and all of them have been automated. Bottles come down a long conveyer belt, and the machine does the rest. It's a noisy but smooth process, and the only real labor involves removing the filled bottles from the machine and packing them into cases.
At Catoctin Creek, you sit down, someone hands you bottles, and you place them under the dispenser. You start the filling process, yank them off when they're full and then pass them along to other folks who individually plunge in the cork/cap combo and heat-wrap it in foil. (I didn't do that. I'm too short to get my arms up high enough for maximum plunging power.)
A distillery business is a big upfront commitment of capital. The equipment alone can cost up to $500,000, and for the Harrises, it took about 11 months to write the business plan, buy equipment, establish the facilities and obtain licensing. They also had to educate themselves. Becky is a chemical engineer, and Scott works in IT and software management. "There are only a few distilleries in the U.S., so getting a job in one, especially since I don't have any experience, would be unlikely," Scott says. "The best way to get that job was to make it myself."
A lot of other people seem to have come to the same conclusion, because the number of small, artisan distilleries in the United States has risen dramatically in the last few years. Here in Richmond, we have Cirrus, a vodka-maker, and Reservoir Distillery, which produces bourbon, rye and wheat whiskey.
Reservoir's batches are the smallest of all. "We use 3- to 5-gallon charred-oak barrels, while the big distilleries use 60-gallon barrels," says Jay Carpenter, co-owner with David Cuttino. "That way our bourbon will be the equivalent of an 8-year-old bourbon in just eight months." Reservoir's products came on the market this past fall and can be found in most local ABC stores, as well as in restaurants such as Comfort, Balliceaux and Can Can, among others.
The Harrises chose rye whiskey as their liquor because they love the taste. It's also a spirit with a pedigree in Virginia. "People weren't drinking bourbon in the past in Virginia — it was rye," Scott says. "George Washington started his own rye distillery." They also chose it for more practical reasons. Like the bourbon that Reservoir Distillery makes, "Rye can age a lot quicker than other grains," Scott says. Although the couple is working with the Virginia Department of Agriculture toward sourcing exclusively local ingredients, there's one big impediment.
"We can find local rye, but we need to get it milled before we distill it," Scott says. "And there's no organic mill in Virginia." To buy the grain, ship it out of state to be milled and then to ship it back is too costly. "It's a problem that we're working on as we go," he says. "If we waited for everything
to be perfectly in place, we wouldn't have
They're committed to staying organic, and they've found a constructive way to get rid of what's left over from the distilling process. "When we start with a 100-gallon batch, 90 gallons of it is non-alcoholic," Scott says. The rest — nearly all of the 90 gallons — goes to a local cattle farm to be used as organic feed for the cows. "There's no landfill from the entire process; it [all] ends up as something useful," he says. "We give it to the farmer for free, and since he comes to get it, it solves our disposal process."
Last year, Catoctin Creek produced 10,000 bottles, and they expect to double that amount this year. As the popularity of craft bartending continues to rise, the demand for artisan-made spirits also expands. That same demand will also increase the amount of leftover mash that will go to feed the neighboring farmer's cows. "I like to say that I'm really in the cattle business," Scott says. "Producing rye is just a hobby."
Catoctin Creek's Roundstone Rye, Mosby's Spirit (white whiskey) and Watershed Gin are available in Richmond ABC stores. Some may have crooked labels.