Drive about an hour west of the picturesque college town of Charlottesville, VA, and you’ll reach a small side road off US-29. Here, you’ll see two signs: One for a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall, and one for Virginia Distillery Co., a young but visionary whisk(e)y producer that’s helping to transform how we think of brown spirits in this country.
Because when you think of American whiskey, you probably don’t picture a single malt producer adjacent to the Blue Ridge Mountains. After all, we are first and foremost a bourbon land, and also one with a long history of rye whiskey that’s just now being revived and celebrated.
American Single Malts, however? Still not an official spirits designation, though that day will arrive soon…perhaps before summer. The category loosely shares an ideology with single malt Scotch, and it’s distinct from other domestic and recognized categories such as bourbon, rye, wheated and Tennessee whiskey — most prominently in the mashbill, which is 100% malted barley.
That mashbill initially appears limiting, but it actually offers endless opportunities. “Bourbon and rye have to be aged in new charred oak barrels,” says Amanda Beckwith, Virginia Distillery Co.’s Lead Blender. “But we have the freedom to be creative.” This is why the whisky brand, whose flagship products go under the moniker Courage & Conviction, works with an array of ex-bourbon, European red wine and Sherry barrels (Fino, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez) for maturation, allowing for a more diverse taste profile.
Review: Love Scotch? This Virginia Distillery Might Be Your Best Stateside Alternative.Courage & Conviction is a Blue Ridge take on a fine single malt
And unlike Scotch, the state of Virginia has weather on its side. “Virginia a four-season, subtropical climate,” says Beckwith. “The barrels could be exposed to temperatures as high as 108 or as low as negative 4. If this were the Highlands in Scotland, for example, it’d be more like it was 45 degrees every day. So one year of aging here brings so much depth.”
The distillery also utilizes local spring water and North American-sourced barley, while distilling in copper pot stills crafted in Scotland. Broad picture, the whiskies at Virginia Distillery Co. — the company spells it “whisky” while some other ASM brands use “whiskey” — are a marriage of old-world techniques and traditions blended with local provenance and the distillery’s own whisky prowess, led by Beckwith and a team of blenders and distillers that are primarily women.
That’s an important distinction, only because it’s an unfortunately rare one in the whiskey world. It’s also a point of pride that the Virginia Distillery Co. team wants to share and promote — hence, their latest bottle release, created in hopes of bringing more women into the spirits industry. On the day of my distillery visit at the end of March, the company launched Scholar’s Craft Coffee Cask American Single Malt Whisky, a 100% malted barley American Single Malt aged in ex-bourbon casks and finished in barrels that previously held ethically sourced small-batch coffee. The proceeds for this extremely limited annual release are going toward the Angela H. Moore – Women In Distilling Scholarship at Appalachian State: sales of the bottle will help fund $100K in scholarship aid to women looking to enter the field of distillation and whiskey production.
“It’s a project we’ve been talking and working on for more than a year,” explains Gareth Moore, Virginia Distillery Co.’s CEO. “We want to increase the exposure and opportunities for women in distilling. I think a lot of people are talking about this, but we thought it would be much better to act on the idea.”
“We’re a woman-owned, woman-led distillery in all aspects of our production. Two of our core distillers are women,” says Angela H. Moore, Board Chair at Virginia Distillery Co., during a speech at the Coffee Cask launch. “We know the disparity that exists in the whiskey industry, with over 80% of jobs going to men. We want to be a voice for change in our industry; this scholarship is our commitment to this change.”
Interestingly, Gareth and Angela Moore’s involvement in the distillery could almost be called accidental — or, as they say, inherited. Virginia Distillery Co. was actually the brainchild of the late Dr. George G. Moore, a native Irishman, who came to the U.S. in the 1970s. After a successful business career, he ended up combining his passion for single malts with his love of his adopted home state of Virginia to start the distillery. Unfortunately, he passed away while it was being built; from there, his wife (Angela) and their son Gareth (and now also his wife Maggie) continued on and expanded upon their father’s vision.
(One person of note from those early days: The late Dr. Jim Swan, who’s helped build up several nascent whiskey brands. His influence can be felt via Virginia’s use of STR casks, a unique way of giving used barrels a second life.)
Cut to today, and Virginia Distillery Co. is the largest independently-owned American Single Malt distillery in the U.S. — and the most awarded, with the brand just this month winning both Whisky of the Year and Distiller of the Year categories at the 2023 London Spirits Competition.
It also might be the most ambitious of this new breed of ASM producers. Besides scholarships and limited bottle releases, the distillery is in the midst of building an American Single Malt educational series online, an expanded Cask Society for consumers, a chocolate brand collaboration and a number of other nationwide and global initiatives (yes, global; the brand’s biggest market outside of its home state appears to be South Korea).
Our suggestion? Given that the distillery now delivers to 35 states and counting, try out a bottle or three. Each expression offers a unique profile, but the Courage & Conviction Signature Malt is the distillery’s flagship release; it’s a blend of 50% bourbon casks, 25% sherry casks and 25% cuvée casks. It may help you rethink exactly what a single malt can achieve, American or otherwise.
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