Distilling craft rum is a family affair at Virago Spirits in Richmond, Virginia
In a previous life, before making true Virginia rum, Barry Haneberg was a high-ranking player in the world of corporate finance and investment banking.
He also worked in academia. German history, to be specific. He’s fluent in the language and passionate about the subject.
But today, in this life, Barry Haneberg, along with his brother Brad, manages the distillation of craft rum at Richmond, Virginia’s Virago Spirits.
Focusing their efforts primarily on rum, which has a long, albeit largely forgotten history in the Virginia area, Virago designs their spirits to be, “classically inspired, creatively interpreted.”
By blending art and science in creative new ways, Barry and his family-owned distillery help honor rum’s long and storied history. And work to ensure that it has a fruitful and always-evolving future.
Mr. Haneberg and Virago Spirits go to Richmond
It’s a family affair at Virago Spirits. Featured left to right are Barry, Vicki, Brad and Barry Haneberg.
“If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be teaching,” muses Barry. And it’s easy to believe him.
He’s a learned man. An unselfish one. You can tell by the way he describes his role at Virago Spirits.
“As owners, we don’t really focus on job titles, as the job itself varies from day to day, hour to hour. But functionally speaking, I manage distillation along with my brother, Brad.”
By the early 2010s, Barry, Brad and their other brother Barton, all found themselves at turning points in their corporate careers.
So, in Barry’s words, “We began to flirt with the idea of starting a family business. Soon thereafter, Virago Spirits was born.”
But before their first drop of rum could be distilled, Barry, along with his lovely wife and two amazing daughters, would first have to relocate from Chicago to Richmond, Virginia. An area that was carefully selected for a number of reasons.
“Richmond is a diverse, forward-thinking city with an amazing artistic and restaurant scene, full of individuals looking to push boundaries and redefine expectations,” Barry points out.
“That’s exactly what a Virago Spirit is. And the city has adopted us with open arms. We can’t say ‘thank you’ enough for that.”
There are other reasons for selecting the Richmond area. Rather practical ones for a craft rum-making independent distillery on the rise.
“Virginia has an amazing agricultural community. Our ability to partner with growers and access high-quality produce at peak freshness enhances our ability to produce truly world class spirits.”
Virginia is intertwined quite intimately with the story of rum and rum trade in America.
And for history-buff Barry, “Connecting with that history and reintroducing quality rum to the American palate is a big part of our mission.”
What’s in a name? The meaning behind Virago
Virago Spirits’ Ruby Cask Finished Rum was a Gold Medal winner at the 2019 American Distilling Institute's Judging of Craft Spirits and won Rum of the Year at the 2019 London Spirits Competition.
“We wanted our brand to be more than a simple description of who we are. Or where we are located,” says Barry.
He expounds on the Virago meaning, “We wanted our brand to represent an identity, both inspirational and aspirational. A Virago is a woman of extraordinary, heroic character. A mold-breaker, a warrior, a visionary.”
“At times controversial, a Virago demonstrates the strength, courage and determination to define herself. Rather than let the world define who she can or cannot be.”
“It is in this spirit, the Spirit of Virago, that we celebrate and promote.”
Right from the start, the team at Virago Spirits made a conscious decision not to focus on whiskey.
“Not because we don’t love it,” Barry is quick to clarify. “But rather because we love and were inspired by the creative opportunities available in other, less-well-understood spirit categories. Namely, rum.”
So distilling quality Virginia rum became Virago’s priority.
“Independent distilleries are able and willing to take risks and explore styles and approaches that larger, more traditional companies may not be willing to undertake. We have to differentiate ourselves, after all,” Barry explains.
“These novel approaches and calculated risks promote innovation and creativity within the industry. They reintroduce consumers to new product styles. And they challenge our collective notions of what a quality spirit is, can and should be.”
But a favorable outcome isn’t guaranteed in the craft rum game. “Granted, not every experiment is a success. But those that do succeed have the potential to transform the industry.”
Reaping the rewards of Virginia rum tradition and craft rum innovation
At Virago, a single distillation of craft rum can take upward of 12 hours. A complete distillation cycle requires upwards of 48 hours.
Barry describes the Virago process like this, “Virago Spirits’ production philosophy blends a deep respect for time-honored, traditional production techniques with new-world creativity, ingenuity, and innovation.”
“This approach applies to each step of the production process. From fermentation and distillation through to aging, blending, and finishing.”
When it comes to craft rum-making hardware, Barry and Co. go with something of a throwback. “Our distilled spirits are produced on a direct-fire, 2,500-liter Charentais-style alembic still. One of only a few operating in the United States.”
“The process is laborious and slow, requiring significant patience, skill, and attention to detail. But the results are spirits and liqueurs of uncompromising quality, balance, and depth of flavor.”
Virago Spirits’ flagship product, Four-Port Rum, is a hybrid of disparate rum styles like Jamaican, Barbadian, Nicaraguan and Panamanian. It exemplifies their entire approach.
No sugar or caramel added. It sips dry. And stylistically resides somewhere between the worlds of whiskey and rum. Making it a uniquely versatile spirit.
Their Ruby Port Cask Finished Rum spends months aging in freshly emptied casks of ruby port rum from Portugal's Douro Valley. Which lend it added, earthy depths. And bring out notes of campfire, brown sugar, black cherry, pipe tobacco and leather with a finishing hint of candied almond.
The team at Virago Spirits is constantly innovating and creating new product lines. A few of Barry’s favorites are their 151 High Proof Rum, their Modern Gin with Oolong Tea, and their Rum Finished in PX Sherry Casks.
Virago and the importance of loving what you do
The Virago Spirits tasting room has been serving exceptional Virginia rum to the public since November of 2018.
“I devote 110% of my time to the distillery,” Barry remarks.
“There are two aspects of my job that I find particularly rewarding. One, the creative blending of art and science that transpires when crafting a new spirit or liqueur.”
“And the bond that develops when a customer falls in love with a product. Or particularly identifies with our brand.”
But the task of distilling delicious craft rum doesn’t come without its own unique set of challenges.
In addition to there simply not being enough hours in the day, the legal legacy of Prohibition still casts a long shadow over independent distilleries.
Even 87 years after his abolition. Especially in control states where the sale of distilled spirits are controlled by government agencies at the wholesale level.
Barry argues that the single biggest issue facing Virago, and all independent distilleries, is distribution.
“We are operating in a world of ever more craft distilleries and ever fewer spirits distributors.”
Barry remains undaunted though. Exhibiting true Virago spirit.
“While it is already highly competitive, the craft spirits industry presents tremendous opportunity for innovation, creativity and growth.”
What legacy will Virago Spirits and their premium Virginia rum leave behind?
Given his druthers, Barry Haneberg would have it be two-fold.
“That we helped to raise the bar on what a craft spirit can be and is expected to be.”
And, “That we inspire others to be true to who they are.”