Four hours from Baltimore, nestled comfortably in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Central Virginia, sits the 100-acre whiskey wonderland that is home to the Virginia Distillery Company. Turning up its curvy driveway, we pass a field of barley so picturesque that I start to hum about “amber waves of grain.”
Our three-day distillery tour has begun, and Virginia Distillery Company, in scenic Lovingston, is an ideal starting point. Dave is our host for the afternoon. Tall, jovial and quick-witted, he leads us from the visitor center downstairs to the Whisky Museum. The cozy basement space is mindfully comprehensive with highlights of the history of distilling. We learn of the deep Scottish roots that run through the region and the importance of mountain water quality.
A quick review on whisky/whiskey: Whiskey distilled in Scotland is “whisky.” In a true American melting pot, Virginia Distillery marries whiskey made on-site in Virginia with whisky from Scotland. Hence, “whisky” in some of the names.
After our enlightening crash course, we move to the production house. Outfitted with two imported, towering cooper stills, the room is warm and buzzing with fermentation, barley wafting through the air — the whiskey equivalent of apple pie on a window sill. From there, the aging house, and here we learn how the Blue Ridge Mountains’ warm days and cool nights accelerate the maturing process by expanding and contracting the barrels.
Along a smaller wall in the aging room we discover a selection of private-label barrels — space purchased by adventurous individuals, clubs and groups of friends patiently waiting for their $10,000 barrel to mature for bottling.
Please Try: Port Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Whisky is made from 100 percent malted barley. Cask finishing in port-style wine casks adds depth and complexity.
Take Home: Cider Cask Finished Virginia-Highland Whisky is a must. This whiskey is cask finished for eight to 12 months in cider casks coming from producers such as Potter’s Craft Cider. With notes of apple, vanilla and pear, this expression is decidedly different from the Port Cask. Available for a limited time in the fall.
Fun Fact: You can host your private event with Virginia Distillery. Handsome and well appointed, the property features outdoor spaces, including a wrap-around porch, a stone patio, fountains and two bars. It is ideal for weddings, retirement parties and corporate events.
A Richmond Gem
In the rear of the least-assuming industrial parking lot, there is a footpath over a walking bridge to Stone Brewing’s newest facility. Opened in Richmond, Virginia in 2016, this location produced 100,000 barrels of beer in its first year and is now responsible for providing many of Stone’s expressions for most of the states that are east of the Rockies. The design is a hybrid of surrounding manufacturing and the beauty of the neighboring James River. Oxidized metal, woods and unfinished stone anchor the visitor center and tasting room.
Our tour guide, Joel, provides a quick overview of Stone’s history. Founded in 1996 in San Marcos, California, Stone has grown to be an international company and one of the 10 largest U.S. craft breweries in just over 20 years. The staff is intimately familiar with and takes great pride in their product, allowing visitors to get an in-depth look at all stages of Stone’s production process during their tour. It’s not until we step into the production area that we begin to understand the scope of their operation. A pristine sea of glistening stainless steel and waves of packaging materials stretch ahead as we peer down on the manufacturing floor. The canning line is like a high-speed, live-action “How It’s Made.” The plant floor also holds an in-house lab, where the beers are continually tasted for freshness, carbonation levels and consistency. I joke with Joel that this should be a required middle school science field trip to show kids where science can take you.
After our time on the production tour we move to the tap room. Stone offers one of the best selections of IPAs in the country, and here, you can sample its well-known expressions such as Arrogant Bastard and Stone IPA or explore new products such as its East Coast-only release, Fear.Movie.Lions Double IPA, and the fantastically clever Tangerine Pineapple Express IPA.
Please Try: The sampling options in the tasting room are abundant. Talk with the staff about your preferences and have them guide you through new experiences. Be forewarned: Stone’s ABVs range from 4.8 percent to a whopping 10.8 percent.
Take Home: The retail section is impressive. Growlers, glassware,
mustards and T-shirts are available to round out your experience. (I strongly endorse the Stone Groovy tee.)
Fun Fact: The Richmond location will soon expand to include Stone
Brewing World Bistro & Gardens. They also have landscaping goats. Goats!
A short turn off of New York Avenue leads to one of the city’s greatest hidden treasures. Tucked in an unassuming side street surrounded by warehouses is New Columbia Distillers, the first distillery in D.C. in a century when it opened in 2012. Now its flagship product, Green Hat Gin, is a regular feature on premium back bars throughout the region.
Entering the distillery, I am taken aback by the intimate size. Knowing the popularity of the line, I am amazed this production capacity can meet demand. Michael Lowe, one of the founders, met us for a tour. Kind and soft-spoken, he speaks humbly of their success and shared their product expansion plans. The distillery’s name comes from Washington’s most famous Prohibition bootlegger, George Cassiday, known as the Man in the Green Hat, who provided booze to members of Congress.
We also taste tested with Lowe. The namesake gin is “smooth with a mild juniper profile, herbal and savory celery, sage, fennel and coriander notes and a spot of grapefruit,” according to New Columbia’s handy information sheet (I agree), and the Green Hat Navy Strength Gin has juniper and ginger spice and is bottled at traditional Navy proof of 57 percent ABV.
I am most intrigued by the Summer Cup, which is an American take on the English tradition of cordial summer and fruit cups, a local favorite made from Navy Strength Gin, Capitoline White Vermouth and botanical infusions New Columbia offers hands-on, weekly bottling sessions and is available for private events. Be certain to plan in advance. There is a lottery process for the bottling sessions and an impressive lead time needed for parties.
Please Try: Be certain to stop by the in-house bar for shockingly affordable craft cocktails with politically inspired names that change weekly.
Take Home: A large selection of spirits is available for carry-out, some of which are not available outside the District. We eagerly await the bottling of its apple brandy, which will likely be released solely on-site. The shirts are cute, too.
Fun Fact: From New Columbia’s history: “A week before a crucial mid-term election in 1930, the Man in the Green Hat wrote a series of front-page articles for The Washington Post. He detailed his 10-year career supplying bootleg liquor to four-out-of-five lawmakers — and exposed the hypocrisy of a Congress flaunting the rules it imposed on America.”
Planning Your Trip
Where to Stay If you want to repeat our three-day tour, Quirk Hotel is the belle of the accommodation ball in Richmond and sister to Baltimore’s own newly opened Hotel Revival, Quirk is like a cross between a Sofia Coppola daydream and a Wes Anderson sketchbook: a bath of grays and pinks with smatterings of florals. The lobby is outfitted with original artworks, thoughtfully chosen furniture and a darling coffee counter. The rooms are similarly thoughtful and cozy with well-preserved features of the historic building.
Where to Eat Quirk’s in-house restaurant, Maple & Pine, offers a seasonal menu with fresh fusion features from chef David Dunlap. The Q Rooftop Bar is a hotspot for guests and locals alike.
Off the Beaten Path Richmond’s Lunch. Supper! offers fresh, decadent, truly Southern food. Rich in character and keen on service, you will soon understand why it occupies two adjacent addresses and a beautiful beer garden. Fried green tomatoes, golden mac and cheese, crispy fried chicken, brisket and $3 sides including mashed potatoes, grits and bacon-parmesan Brussels sprouts make for enjoyably challenging decisions or opportunities for lots of sharing. My only regret on the trip was not venturing back for its breakfast offerings.