Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville, Virginia is not your average craft spirits distillery. While many craft spirits makers start out with a white dog or are quick to jump on the bourbon bandwagon, Catoctin Creek is none of those things. The Virginia based distillery looked to history to discover and embrace their colonial roots. This distillery is a 100% rye whiskey distillery. It’s all rye, all the time with zero plans to make a bourbon. It’s a distillery that sticks to its nearly 10 year old knitting – Rye.
Distilling with rye around Virginia is nothing new. Virginia is one of the birthplaces of American rye whiskey. In fact, the country’s earliest and most famous rye whiskey distiller is none other than the Father of our country, General George Washington. Soon after Washington retired as our nation’s first President, he started a rye whiskey distillery on his farm. In 1799 the George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill at Mount Vernon produced nearly 11,000 gallons, making it one of the largest commercial distilleries in America at the time.
As is true with most states in the 1920s, Prohibition shuttered thousands of distilleries and rye whiskey production around the Colonial states all but dried up. If you visit Mt. Vernon today, you can see an operating distillery that was re-built between 2005 and 2007 on the same foundation that was once Washington’s distillery back in 1797. It’s a working distillery that operates much the way things would have been run back in the day with wood fired copper pot stills and bucket upon bucket used to transfer grains, mash and whiskey around the distillery.
At the End of the Day, You Can Say, “I made that.”
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Husband and wife team Scott and Becky Harris started Catoctin Creek Distilling in 2009. In the late 2000s, Scott had what one might call a mid-life crisis as he approached 40. “You know if I was going to construct for myself, the perfect version of hell, it would be sitting in a windowless office under fluorescent light making PowerPoint charts for people that will never read them,” said Scott. “I started to day dream about making something. I kept going back to when I was a 15 year old kid and I worked in a winery. It was cool, in a winery, you press the grapes, you bottle it, you ferment it and you do all this stuff and at the end of the day, or at the end of a fermentation period you have something in your hand, you can present it to somebody, you pour it, you can taste it and you can say, ‘I made that.'”
In 2008, you remember the low dark days back then and what happened to your 401k right? It was around that time that Scott worked on a business plan to present to the person that would eventually be his first employee, Becky and then they presented the plan to the bank. As Scott tells the story, “We took it (the plan) to the bank and about two weeks later, the bank called back and said that we had been approved. We were like holy crap, what? We had a half million dollars of bank financing in the darkest economic period of my lifetime. And, both of us were like, well crap, I think we have to do it now. And so we started to get the licensing and we started to get the equipment and put this business together in reality instead of just on paper. Within about six months, we had the first legal distillery making alcohol in Loudoun County since before 1930.”
It’s All Rye with Me if it’s All Rye with You
Fast forward to today and Catoctin Creek Distilling is a craft spirits distillery producing about a dozen 30 gallon barrels a week of 100% rye whiskey. True to their Virginia roots, all the whiskey they make is 100% rye. Even their gin is rye based.
“We make rye and we make only rye. We are never going to make bourbon (gasp!) What we want to do is tell that story of Virginia history, Virginia rye,” says Scott. “The rye is made in a Virginia style and people don’t really know what that is because we are still telling them. What that means is we are starting with Virginia grains. We source it from four different farms. Now it’s 100% rye, so nothing is in that bottle but rye. There’s no barley, no corn, no wheat. But the rye comes from four different places. If you think about something in terms of terroir like in wine, these different regions have different flavors. Some of the Northern most rye that we have has a really sweet flavor but not much depth to it. Then others taste more spicy, some of it tastes a little more grassy and by putting them together in a mashbill Becky (a chemical engineer by training) is able to make a complex flavor that’s more than a one dimensional flavor of a single grain product and still have 100% rye.”
Their mashbill is made up of four different types of rye that’s been sourced from around the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Catoctin Creek Rye Whiskey Mashbill
- 30% Rappahannock
- 30% Amish Country
- 20% Loudoun County
- 20% Eastern Shore
Distillation at Catoctin Creek takes place in small batches in a Kothe 300 gallon copper pot still from Germany. Becky prefers a pot still over a column still because she feels she can pick and choose the exact flavor profile she wants off the pot still. You can listen to the video to hear how Scott compares how you can pull the different flavors off the still kind of like how a prism separates light into a rainbow. After distillation, the hearts of the run are placed in 30 gallon American White Oak barrels from The Barrel Mill then its aged for two to four years. The heads from the run are used for cleaning around the distillery and the tails are redistilled and used as the basis for their Catoctin Gin. Barrels are aged in an unheated warehouse that allows the whiskey to move in and out of the barrels as the weather changes.
All Catoctin Creek whiskey is from single barrels, there is no blending and everything is bottled without chill filtering to preserve all the flavors.
“The only filtering we do on this whiskey is a piece of linen to catch the barrel char so it’s as close to God intended as we can get it.”
~ Scott Harris, Founder Catoctin Creek Distilling Co.
Catoctin Creek uses all organic materials in their production and they are Kosher certified.
In January 2017, Catoctin Creek Distilling announced they had received a minority stake investment from Constellation Brands. The relationship and capital infusion allowed the distillery to expand distribution, production capacity and their sales team. They now have five full-time sales people in Texas, New York, Florida, DC/Maryland and their home state of Virginia. Their products are distributed in 26 states and internationally in Holland, UK, Germany, Italy and Singapore.
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