Sometimes you kick yourself. I am currently researching this Catoctin Creek interview and discovered that it is no more than twenty-five minutes from my close friend, Heather, in Sterling, Virginia. I have visited many times, but she has never taken me there. Naturally, I immediately sent a text saying this has to be remedied ASAP, as we are both heavily into food, whisky and wine.
Located on Main Street, Purcellville, Loudoun County in Virginia, it is surrounded by lush plains intersected by rivers which flow through the rolling hills which emanate from the mountains in the distance. It is said that Virginia is the birthplace of American Whiskey, with ships having been sent to North America in 1606 by King James I of England, to establish a permanent settlement. The London Company had created a permanent colony at Jamestown on the Chesapeake Bay by 1607. Local farms using small pot stills (essentially domestic size) started to craft whisky using local grain (rye) for the sale to the local residents, who would ride by and pick up a bottle. I love this picture in my mind!
Catoctin Creek, pronounced Ka-Tock-Tin, was the first distillery in the county to open once prohibition ended. Respecting historic methods, it was decided to use pre-prohibition techniques in the production. Today, the owners, Scott and Becky Harris, continue in this vein but utilize modern technology to produce their range of whiskies. In fact, they have recently invested over $1m in new equipment (including six fermenters) tripling their production capability. It was two years in the planning and took 3 weeks to install, the process well documented on their Instagram (@catoctincreek).
David Pearce of Clandestine Whisky Magazine chats to Scott Harris of chief distiller at Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purceville, Virginia, USA on the birthplace of American whiskey, the unknown historic popularity of rye and community spirit. Transcribed and written by Annie Bowles.
‘I want this, this is what I want to do,’ exclaimed Scott Harris, arms spread, on a visit to Bushmill Distillery in Northern Ireland. It was when visiting the distillery with his wife, Becky, as tourists gazing at the pot stills in the huge facility, that Scott decided to make a change from his white-collar desk job and begin his own whisky production.
However, Scott’s wife, Becky, who is now the chief distiller at Catocin Creek, brought the fantasy back to reality. Having graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, Becky would be able to produce the whisky itself, Scott imagined. Becky could make the whiskey, but asked of her husband, ‘But can you make money making whiskey?’ She implored that Scott write up a strategic business plan and prove that this would be a profitable business venture. Each one of the fifty states in the US has a different set of laws on the selling of whisky. Thus, it was not a proposition to be taken lightly.
Scott took up the challenge – he convinced Becky that his business plan was feasible. They gathered all their life savings from the past twenty years and took it to the bank. This was in 2008, during the economic recession, so they expected the banks to refuse them. Shockingly, their loan of $250,000 was approved – now they actually had to do it. Initially starting in a small warehouse with one pot still and one mash tank, their first distilling production was not much bigger than an American moonshine operation.
In 2009, there were only nine distilleries in Virginia – now there are around seventy. It was a local community bank that lent the Harrises their start-up loan. The success they achieved opened up opportunities for other distilleries to begin from initial bank loans. Rather than a faceless multinational bank, the locals are able to talk to people who live within the community.
Distillation started in January 2010, producing gin and moonshine as well as rye whiskey. Before any products could be sold, they had to be listed in Virginia ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority). At the time, Catocin Creek’s whiskey had only been barrelled for six weeks, but they had to be taken and tried. Another shock – to their surprise, the agency called back and said they wanted it.
In Virginia, there are limited opportunities to get products on the shelves – if the Harrises didn’t take this shot, they would have run out of cash. The whiskey they sold was a month and a half old, ‘brown and tasty’, says Harris, and good enough to sell. As time passed, the whiskey aged to a point where Harris was pleased with it, bagging multiple awards. The youth of the whiskey in the early batches was out of pure necessity, and in November they were able to get their gin on the shelves, which greatly improved cash flow.
History is an important part of the Catocin Creek story, and Scott certainly knows his stuff – Virginia being the birthplace of American whiskey. The first permanent English settlement was in Jamestown in 1607, where colonist George Thorpe started producing whiskey there immediately. For nearly 175 years, rye whiskey was the ‘King of Whiskey’ in Virginia, dominating the mid-Atlantic – Maryland, Pennsylvania, spreading into New York, while down in the southern states consumers were drinking products like peach brandy. However, in 1776, the American Revolutionary War meant that King George III cut off supply of molasses, sugar cane and rum to the young country, rum being the predominant spirit of the time. Rye whiskey therefore had a tenfold production increase in a decade and became the number one whiskey in America throughout the 19th century. This was a key time for popularity as new cocktails, such as the Manhattan, were being developed – rye whiskey being a prime ingredient in all of them. According to Scott , if you were drinking whiskey in Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City, it would have been rye, not bourbon. He claims no one knew this crucial part of whiskey history in the US in 2009 – that is the story he wants to tell with Catocin Creek, which is true Virginia-style rye whiskey, using local grain, barrels, and water.
The barrels used are made from oak from Virginia and Minnesota, where the wood is surprisingly similar, despite the distance and difference in climate. The northern wood is different to where most whiskey wood comes from, as Missouri provides for big names like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. The Minnesotan wood’s tighter grain provides a different flavour profile, with a softness interlaced with caramel, vanilla, and toasted nuts. As the barrels contribute half of the flavour to the product, Scott is particularly choosy about this key ingredient.
As newbies in the whiskey industry, Scott and Becky Harris had a lot to learn, and a lot of support. In the early days, they needed to run something through their pot still for the first time, not having the time necessary to make a rye mash. Local winemaker Doug Fabioli came to their rescue – with fifty gallons of pear wine. He stayed for the entire six hours of distillation, and when Harris wanted to pay him for his generous contribution, he said, ‘Scott, I don’t want you to pay me a single dollar – I just want to work with you for twenty years,’ Scott recalls, citing the moment as the hallmark of the wonderful relationships forged within the whiskey industry.
After expanding from their tiny warehouse, Catocin Creek Distillery is now producing in an ex-car showroom in the main street of their little town of Purceville. It’s an historic building, built in 1921 – an interesting time for a modern distillery, as it was the first full year of prohibition in the US. A time of great change, the building would have been selling cars when people were still using horse and carriages. Harris loved the history of the place, and feels that it’s fitting that the space is being repurposed as an industrial distillery, keeping in character with the historic nature of the building.
Now, Catocin has had a complete revamping of their equipment, costing another million dollars – their original pot still, mash tank and six fermenters all went to a new distillery in West Virginia, making room in the building for their new 2000L pot still, mash tank and fermenters. Harris reports that they are very pleased with their new make spirit; their new system was custom built to be as close as possible to the original, just producing to a larger capacity – however it will take years to hone in on perfection.
Their flagship line is their Roundstone Rye, which is a Virginia rye whiskey in the style of the 1800s, potstilled using local grain and virgin wood barrels. Unlike whisky from Scotland, the virgin wood and the hot Virginia climate impacts the whiskey heavily, which imparts a lot of wood flavor and color into the whisky. Catoctin uses a new cask every single time, which is the law for all whiskey in the United States. That process puts the fresh wood flavor into the whiskey consistently. The Roundstone Rye is aged for a minimum of two years, whilst the Rabble Rouser product, which is bottled-in-bond, starts out at four years and older.
As well as expanding financial opportunities for local Virginian distilleries, Becky Harris has her own project, Step Up, an organisation which helps young people from disadvantaged communities get into craft distilling. The distillery also has a free bottling workshop for thirty people per month, which the local people love. Catocin Creek not only hails back to history, but provides opportunities to expand and grow the whiskey industry in the present, for the future. https://catoctincreekdistilling.com
If you enjoyed this Catoctin Creek Interview you may like to read this one on Teeling Whiskey
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