Belmont Farm Distillery owner Chuck Miller can sympathize with the Maytag repairman.
Like the actor in the appliance company’s old ad, Miller said he was “kinda lonely” the first 10 years after he opened Culpeper Country’s first craft distillery in 1988.
All that has changed thanks to the recent boom in craft distilleries popping up across Virginia.
There are now more than 70, and the tall, gregarious Miller was on hand recently to help spread the word and pour some of his whiskey, vodka and flavored moonshine at the recent kickoff party for Virginia Spirits Month at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
“I’m glad to see so many people in the business,” he said as he poured tastings into commemorative glasses held out by eager partygoers. “I don’t feel like the Lone Ranger anymore.”
Miller was among representatives from 20 Virginia distilleries and one brewery at the event. It was designed to celebrate and promote Virginia as “the Birthplace of American Spirits” and further position the Commonwealth “as a culinary destination and as a region for high-quality distilled spirits production,” as Gov. Ralph S. Northam proclaimed in his certificate recognizing September as Virginia Spirits Month.
The annual celebration is a partnership between the Virginia Distillers Association, Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority and Virginia Tourism Corporation to educate consumers about the wide variety of spirits produced in the state, and raise awareness of the contributions of the Virginia craft spirits industry to the state’s economy. It generated more than $163 million last year.
Virginia is also home to the World’s Best Bourbon and Best American Single Malt Whisky, as rated by the World Whiskies Awards.
A. Smith Bowman in Spotsylvania County has captured that first title two years running, first for its Abraham Bowman Port Finished Bourbon in 2016 and then for its John J. Bowman Single Barrel Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey last year. The Best American Single Malt Whisky award went to the Virginia Distillery Company in Lovingston for its Port Cask Finished Virginia–Highland Whisky.
Both distilleries were at the kickoff, along with Strangeways Brewing, which has locations in Richmond and Spotsylvania. So were people in Colonial costume pouring tastes of George Washington’s Rye Whiskey, which a bill signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe made the official spirit of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
It’s crafted at George Washington’s Distillery in Alexandria, which produces small-batch spirits in a reconstruction of the distillery that once made America’s first president one of the largest whiskey distillers in the country.
Virginians have been involved in grain-to-glass ventures even earlier than that. Back around 1620, colonist George Thorpe wrote a cousin in England that, “Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that.”
Whiskey reigned as King of Beverages from the American Revolution through the Civil War. Then taxes, the Temperance Movement and Prohibition began to take a toll on distilleries.
Virginia also adopted the Alcoholic Beverage Control system in 1934, which required distilleries to be licensed and pay the cost of keeping a federal inspector on their premises. That requirement was lifted in 1978, at which time Miller and others began applying for licenses.
Virginia still prohibited distilleries from selling their products anywhere but to the ABC board, however. Miller didn’t think that was fair, so he and his state representative asked the General Assembly in 2006 to allow distilleries to sell on site.
“I remember when we gave the speech, they didn’t say a word,” Miller said. “One guy asked if we’d brought samples, and then BOOM! it passed.”
More distilleries slowly began opening, but it is recent legislative changes that have helped kick the resurgence into higher gear. They include allowing distillers to offer tastings and to serve cocktails on site.
Today, Virginia has more craft distilleries than either Kentucky or Tennessee. In fiscal year 2017, sales of Virginia spirits totaled $7,254,887, growing 20.8 percent over fiscal 2016 and a 209.8 percent since fiscal 2013.
“It’s amazing to see how fast it’s grown,” said Miller. The legislative changes, he added, have “really stimulated the business quite a bit.”
He also attributed the increased interest to consumers’ interest in buying local. Everything that goes into his products is raised on his farm, and more than 70 percent of the grains and fruits used to produce Virginia distilled spirits are grown in Virginia, according to the Virginia Distillers Association.
In addition, some distillers are sourcing finishing components for their products from other Virginia producers. Virginia Distilling Co., for example, ages its award-winning Virginia Highland Malt in port-style wine casks sourced primarily from Virginia.
A. Smith Bowman teamed up with Richmond’s Hardywood Park Craft Brewery to create its limited edition Abraham Bowman Gingerbread Cocoa Finished Bourbon, and Rick’s Roasters Coffee Company in Stafford County to craft its limited-edition Abraham Bowman Coffee Finished Bourbon.
Virginia’s craft spirits boom isn’t limited to just bourbon, whiskey and moonshine. Distilleries are also crafting gin, rum, vodka and brandy. A few are even producing aquavit, absinthe and liqueurs.
Miller, who started out producing “Virginia Lightning” corn whiskey based on his grandfather’s recipe, has expanded his offerings to include vodka, gin, spiced rum and moonshine in flavors such as apple pie and butterscotch. Over at A. Smith Bowman, master distiller Brian Prewitt has been using a custom micro still, nicknamed “George” after the father of the pioneering Bowman brothers, to produce a new line of experimental spirits since 2016. The first, Rye Expectations Gin, and was sold in the A. Smith Bowman Distillery Visitor Center.
A. Smith Bowman tour guide Art Franzen, who was offering tastings at the kickoff, said that he’s seeing an increase in the number of visitors to the distillery off Tidewater Trail every month. It is the oldest operating distillery in the state, and will likely get even more visitors when the Virginia Craft Spirits Roadshow makes a stop at its 1 Bowman Drive operation Nov. 17. It was to be this Saturday, but was rescheduled because of Hurricane Florence.
General admission tickets cost $30 for those who want to sample artisan spirits and craft cocktails provided by 20 distilleries, along with beers from Strangeways. Designated drivers will be admitted free, and complimentary tours of the distillery will be available. Pilfer Bros. BBQ and Juan More Taco food trucks will be there, as well.
The Roadshow, which started at Virginia Distillery Co. late last year, will also stop Oct. 6 at Belmont Farm Distillery, 13490 Cedar Run Road, Culpeper. Advance tickets are available for $20 at tinyurl.com/y7nehq3h.