Our man heads out on two wheels to discover Virginia’s past and present
“…wee [sic] have found a waie to make soe good drinke of Indian corne as
I [pro]test I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge Englishe beare
and chosen to drinke that…” – Captain George Thorpe, Jamestown, Virginia 1620
When I think of America’s best-known whiskey states, Tennessee and Kentucky come to mind. Both are renowned for countless legendary big-name distilleries, often dominating product news headlines.
Then I recall Virginia also boasts many a noteworthy dram these days, not to mention the Commonwealth’s compelling history of early hooch-making back in the day.
Wasn’t it Colonial English settler Captain George Thorpe (1576-1622) himself who first wrote of corn as cultivated by native Powhatan Indians, then substituted for barley
and commonly used in beer fermentation?
Thorpe sailed from Bristol to the recently established Jamestown, a settlement thrust upon traditionally Powhatan tribal lands, in 1607, there to develop British industry, tobacco cultivation and a school for native Powhatan Indians. Even a community college was planned.
Thorpe records the colonist’s first use of a pot still, his merry men happily dispensing liquid cheer while Plymouth’s pious Pilgrims still flourished their bibles.
Writing to investment partner John Smyth in December 1620, he gushes of his preference for his newly distilled corn whiskey over beer. Perhaps this was the genesis of all future corn-based moonshine, and first sample of what would later become Bourbon whiskeys. Virginia could well boast America’s earliest history of whiskey making.
Discord eventually erupted; remember Cortes versus Aztec’s Montezuma, conflicting religious zeal, and murderously usurping native beliefs. Disenchanted Powhatan warriors killed Thorpe and 347 Virginia colonists on March 22 1622 ushering in the Anglo-Powhattan Wars.
Did you know the United States has been at war somewhere for 93.5 per cent of calendar years between 1775 and 2018? That’s 228 years of warfare versus a scant 16 years without conflict. So claims a battle timeline published in Jan/Feb 2019’s Smithsonian.
It’s no wonder one feels the urge go exploring… in search of a comforting jar. Now where might one find just that?
TALES OF the RESERVOIR DISTILLERY ABOUND
Rumors of a distinctly seductive wheat-based whiskey, a product from Richmond’s Reservoir Distillery catch my ear, ‘an artisan treasure producing small batch delights, astonishing in variety, unique in taste – not to be missed!’ according to colleagues in the know.
Anyway, I’ve just taken delivery of a press demo, it’s Royal Enfield’s new Continental GT 650cc twin, a sleek café racer; the delivery waiting list is months long. I’ve ridden Triumph’s legendary T120 Bonneville, BSA’s iconic 500cc Gold Star Clubman while tearing up Scottish by-ways ton up, back in my time. Can’t wait to throw a leg over this beauty!
A sporty bike to road test, new dram or two tucked away to sample – and off we go.
The GT, impressively fast, delightfully agile, makes short work of a 295 mile ride from Charlotte, NC. Later on the same day I’m weaving past majestic Gone with the Wind era homes, fronted by white pillared porches, rocking chairs beckoning ride-tired bones while I’m searching for Summit Street; busy dodging cell phone addicted morons who barely can drive, people I wouldn’t trust with a sharp pencil let alone a hunk of steel.
Civil War reminders of Richmond’s bloody past whisper a tale or two, high rise towers replacing old world mansions.
Finally kicking the side stand down, I’m outside Reservoir Distillery, formerly a 7-Up bottling plant, where jovial partners, Dave Cuttino and Jay Carpenter and cheery staff await my arrival.
Off the bat, everyone I meet lives for distilling with an enthusiasm I found infectious. In minutes we’re all cutting up like old friends, in spite of jibes to do with the Revolutionary War, me being a Scot. Anyway, I wasn’t there.
Aromas of fermentation fill the air. Taking an enjoyable breath I follow my hosts and the fun begins. We pass a modest bottling run – each bottle cork is hand dipped in wax – before heading for Reservoir’s dedicated distillery tasting room.
A frightening regiment of bottles is lined up, awaiting my alleged expert opinion; what a dizzying display. Sixteen, perhaps 20 bottles enshrine some new wonder, a sparkling Glencairn standing to attention by each.
Hell, even during my swashbuckling Fleet Street news-hound days, regularly sharing liquid lunches with legendary tabloid drinkers, I could rarely get past six… or was it 10?
Mind you, professional tastings are accomplished with minuscule sips, and with great care.
Thankfully the crew had selected seven bottles, my aging liver quietly blessing them, unaware we’d later tap a few barrels.
Despite its brief 11-year history, I’d already heard glowing reports about their wheat, Bourbon, rye and corn offerings.
Then there’s their Maison De Cuivre (The Copper House) flagship Bourbon, a very small lot, hand selected, limited to 1,000 bottles.
I also discovered That Boutique-y Whisky Company, an independent UK bottler offering stunning whiskies from world-renowned brands and distilleries, selected Reservoir to distil four unique brands, displaying ‘graphic novel’ labels. Hmm.
Reservoir’s neat little quarter cask barrels, made from locally sourced wood, make an interesting change from the usual displays.
“With the creation of Reservoir, we set out to honor our southern heritage, but we were also determined to shake up what we knew of the whiskey world, to be the risky catalysts of fresh, innovative ideas.” Jay quips, clinking a first ‘Slainte!’ “We knew if we focused on quality rather than quantity, we could craft an unparalleled whiskey.”
Their Bourbon is 100 per cent corn, their wheat is 100 per cent wheat, and their rye is 100 per cent rye.
Judging by my inaugural sip of Reservoir’s wheat, followed by Hunter & Scott Bourbon, their so called ‘Back Porch Bourbon’ designed for the everyday sipper or back bar mixologist, the creative distilling team’s whiskies command kudos indeed.
“Instead of saturating the market with a mass amount of mediocre rot gut, we chose to focus on creating three whiskies that embodied our discerning palates, local ingredients and southern culture.
“We created a process using a customized pot still, quarter cask barrels, and each whiskey’s personal timeline of readiness to calculate aging.
“Our dedication to those goals meant sacrificing output for undisputable quality.”
I like that they’re curious folks who aren’t afraid to experiment. The proximity of the neighborhood breweries and the good relationships they have with them open a lot of doors to try new things. Same with local farmers from whom they source every grain.
I sampled perhaps a dozen whiskey varieties, each based on their three base products. Unusual blends, such as their wheat and rye, boast flavors that no one has really experienced before.
So, go find Reservoir’s tasting room. Once there they’ll pour you a dram, tell you a tale, and certainly leave you with a thirst to return for more.
The folks at Reservoir display the kind of energy and enthusiasm that makes you certain that they get up each morning saying, “Hot damn! I get to go to work today!”