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Interview: Catoctin Creek’s Becky Harris

True Craft, Inspired by Tradition

For the first in our new online interview series, we caught up with Becky Harris, chief distiller at Catoctin Creek.

Since opening the distillery in 2009, Becky and Scott Harris, general manager at the Distillery, have utilized their skills and love of distilled spirits to make some of the finest in Virginia.

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Photo credit: Catoctin Creek Distillery

Firstly, what experience did you have in the world of distilling in the build-up to starting your brand?

I’m a chemical engineer with experience in contact lens manufacture, copper and nickel plating on plastics, and polystyrene foam extrusion. I felt very confident that I would be able to navigate the technical side of production, however, the sales and financial side of the business was much more intimidating. To be quite honest, this side of the business still remains the most challenging part.

Could you explain the processes you went through to become the first legal distillery in Loudoun County post- prohibition?

We started our company relatively early in this new wave of craft distilleries. In 2009, there were only six distilleries in Virginia, versus 70 today. We also started very small as a self-financed entity, with a 100-gallon still and a single full-time unpaid employee, which happened to be me.

We were assisted by the Town of Purcellville, which has always helped us find ways to start and then to grow our business locally. To establish ourselves in a rural county setting, we would have been required to be located near Dulles airport, far from the rural west of the county where we live, which is where wine tourism and farming was prominent. State and local issues can be the biggest stumbling blocks to a new distillery, even though many people think that the federal process is more intimidating.

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Photo credit: DJ Glisson II, Firefly Imageworks

Focusing more now on the spirit itself, how did you go about deciding on your product range?

We were inspired by the history of spirits in the region, and specifically in Virginia. If you visit the distillery at Mount Vernon you can get an excellent sense of the deep roots of the business here. We ultimately decided that we wanted to focus on rye whisky, it was a crucial piece of whisky history in this country, as well as being under-represented in the marketplace. We had a vision of making rye, 100 per cent rye, from grain to bottle, with a focus on local content and small batch, pot still production.

Our first whisky, the Catoctin Creek 80 proof Roundstone Rye, has always been made from organic, or organically raised rye grain and has a spicy and fruity flavor profile with a kiss of mint. This is a youthful rye, aged in 30 gallon barrels to create a profile balanced between the influence of the oak and the grain spirit itself.

Following on from that, how has the range grown and adapted since you were first established in 2009?

We added a couple of different expressions of the Roundstone Rye first: our 92 proof Distilller’s Edition, which has a spicier profile than the original, and our Cask Proof, at 116 proof, which really balances the spice and intensity with a lovely viscosity and weight.

On a slightly different note, your team is great at creating innovative events for the brand, held either at your distillery or those surrounding. Could you tell me a little more about that and the thinking behind it?

Our team of great people are always trying to come up with ways to bring people out to the distillery. And since the distillery is in a small town, about an hour from Washington DC, we also try to create a number of opportunities to introduce ourselves to people beyond the tour and tasting. Our bottling workshops have been a perennial favorite and we host dinners and cocktail classes at the distillery.

Further afield, we partner in events with restaurants like Dinner on the Rooftop, with The Wine Kitchen in Leesburg, or Feast in the Forest with The Inn at Patowmack Farm. Pairing whisky or cocktails with food can create events that build community and deepen friendships. Isn’t that the best part of this industry?

Absolutely! Are there any plans in the pipeline for new releases or expressions that you can tell me about?

All of our whiskies are single barrel whiskies, using barrel selection to create the three different expressions. Barrels that don’t fit those profiles, along with different finishing projects, are all part of our Barrel Select program.

Our finishing barrels can come from our own brandy barrels, or wine and beer barrels from a number of different industry friends and partners. This set of barrels are available for customers to make a store pick, or a whisky for a bar or restaurant. I like to find barrels that I can source locally, or through relationships, it’s fun and keeps our selections unique.

Are there any ongoing projects that you are particularly excited about?

A few years ago, we added our Rabble Rouser, four-year-old whisky, to the family. This year’s edition was the first we labeled as bottled-in-bond. This whisky is distilled differently than our flagship, with less reflux, sending more flavor elements through the still to stand up to the four years in oak.

Until 2018, I was barreling this whisky in 30-gallon barrels like our flagship, but the losses have been so brutal, about 30 per cent, that last year I have started putting that product in 53-gallon barrels. I can’t wait to taste this product as it matures.

I had only about 360 bottles of the release available this year, but for 2020, I hope to be able to triple that.

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