Everything You Need to Know About Virginia’s “Spirited” Distillery Culture

Image: VAD / Kate Magee

Image: VAD / Kate Magee

What do you and George Washington have in common?

You both like a nice, finely crafted spirit on a Friday afternoon. And hey, we don’t know, perhaps you like a good powdered wig as well. But for now, we’ll go with the drink thing.

While for many people the words “spirit” and “liquor” conjure up images of Russia, Mexico, Scotland or Kentucky; it just so happens that the Commonwealth has one of the oldest and most robust distilling traditions in the United States. Whiskey, gin, rum, vodka and brandy all make an appearance in Virginia’s history, as well as several lesser-known liquors and liqueurs.

Overall, Virginia’s early dedication to distilling, from our founding president onward, paints a picture of excellence that’s hard to ignore – and frankly, with more than 70 licensed distilleries to choose from, why would you want to?

So, before you whip up that next Manhattan or plan your holiday gift for Grandpa, take a look at Virginia’s “spirited” distillery culture (yes, we went there). We guarantee it will improve your sense of American pride, or at least make you more interesting at the next cocktail party.

Images: Belle Isle Shine - Dan Currier / Ironclad Distillery - Dan Currier

Images: Belle Isle Shine - Dan Currier / Ironclad Distillery - Dan Currier

A History of Passion and Excellence

Bourbon has an earlier start than most people imagine. Made from corn mash, the recipe for bourbon is based on the Old World tradition of distilling spirits from barley. When Jamestown resident George Thorpe arrived in the New World, however, he took a good look at his options and went another route.

We’re assuming the thought process went something like this: “Wow, there’s a lot of corn here. I should probably figure out how to make alcohol out of it.”

Thus, a beautiful tradition was born. Thorpe never achieved any major liquor laurels, however. That honor goes to none other than George Washington, backer of Virginia’s first serious foray into commercial distilling. Technically (and surprising no one) it came at the literal hands of a Scotchman, James Anderson, who was following a highland tradition of whiskey-making that began in the 15th century. Their venture soon became the largest distillery in the States at the time.

Naturally, such history couldn’t be quelled with such a trifling matter as Prohibition, so Virginia’s proclivities remained alive and well throughout the embargo – even earning Franklin County the epithet “Moonshine Capital of the World” for its famously illegal white whiskey. Yep, that’s right: Virginia was that committed to keeping the “spirits” of the people alive. (Sorry, we really just can’t help ourselves.)

Images: Copper Fox Distillery - Dan Currier

Images: Copper Fox Distillery - Dan Currier

A Distiller's Agricultural Paradise

Lending additional distinction to the state’s excellence in distilling is the fact that Virginia has a unique climate, which is perfect for growing the grain that forms the raw ingredients and inducing inimitable flavors in the aging process. While terroir is an idea usually associated with wine, the concept is equally true for spirits, which take their unbeatable smoothness, finish, and taste from the regions in which their ingredients are grown.

The mountainous agricultural zones, temperature swings within and throughout seasons, and humidity much of the year all combine to produce a hardy grain with a wonderful depth of flavor. This is only enhanced by the singular characteristics imparted by the barrels in which spirits mature.

Images: Virginia Distilliery Co. - Jay Paul / Eight Shires Distillery - Dan Currier

Images: Virginia Distilliery Co. - Jay Paul / Eight Shires Distillery - Dan Currier

The Tradition Continues

Over the next three quarters of a century, Virginia’s love of liquor inspired the emergence of distillery after distillery. Today, the culture holds its own among craft brewing and vinification, both in the public imagination as well as on the shelves of stores and kitchens across the state – not to mention the nation and world. You can enjoy bourbon, rye, single malt and moonshine at a range of restaurants, pubs, bars and speakeasies – a tradition as alive and well as whiskey itself.

Now the state known as the “Mother of Presidents” boasts more around six dozen distilleries, with new ones cropping up all the time. We’re not talking small fry, either. So far the state has racked up honors such as World’s Best Bourbon and Best American Single Malt Whisky from the World Whiskies Awards, presented by Whisky Magazine.

So enjoy the “spirit” of George Washington and other trailblazers (last pun, we promise) every time you sit down with a bottle of Copper Fox, Ironclad or good ol’ Jamestown. Chances are you’ll experience more than warmth, camaraderie and deep, rich tastes; you’ll also relish the living history of the fine state of Virginia.

Check out some of the many great distillers in Virginia below. For a full list visit virginiaspirits.org!