Before Prohibition, commercial distilleries flourished throughout Loudoun County and other parts of the state.
Then came the 18th Amendment. The bootleggers returned to their hillside stills. But legitimate distillers were forced to find a new line of work.
But thanks to pushes for progress by passionate craftspeople like Catoctin Creek Distilling Company’s president and chief distiller, Becky Harris, lawful, independent distilleries are flourishing once again in Old Dominion.
From chemical engineer to distiller of American Whisky
Becky Harris, along with her husband, and Catoctin Creek Distilling Company’s General Manager, Scott are committed to making the best American whiskey possible.
“I started out making polystyrene foam plates, trays and clamshell containers,” says Becky, who established Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. with her husband Scott in 2009.
“Then I worked for CIBA Vision developing new processes for making contact lenses.”
But living in the birthplace of American spirits and Virginia whiskey, the idea of opening and operating their own independent distillery was a notion that had always appealed to the couple.
Becky was influenced by Virginia’s rich distilling history. Especially where rye Virginia whiskey was concerned.
“Rye was one of the most important products in colonial times,” Becky explains. “George Washington had one of the largest distilleries of his time. And we were inspired by that to focus on rye. Make it from scratch. And create a whiskey that speaks to the past, present and future of Virginia Rye.”
The Harrises decided on the name Catoctin Creek Distilling Company as another homage to their Virginia Roots.
“Catoctin Creek is a significant waterway in the region,” notes Becky. “It runs about a quarter mile from the distillery. And there is another Catoctin Creek across the Potomac River in Maryland.”
The only tricky part about the name for Becky seems to be teaching customers from outside the area just how the old Algonquian word “catoctin” is pronounced. But everybody ends up getting it right after a couple of tries (kə-TOK-tən).
Getting an American Whisky distillery started
Tours and tasting flights of American whisky are available at Catoctin Creek’s Distilling Company’s shop and tasting room.
These were the early days of the new craft spirit movement.
In 2009, there were only six distilleries in the state of Virginia. Today there are more than 70.
Catoctin Creek Distilling Company began life as a self-financed entity. With just one full-time employee and a 100-gallon still. That employee was Becky Harris. And she was unpaid.
The town of Purcellville, where Catoctin Creek Distilling Company is located in rural, western Loudoun County, played a significant role in the business’ success from the beginning.
“We were assisted by the Town of Purcellville, which has always helped us find ways to start and then to grow our business locally.”
And that town/distillery relationship hasn’t been abandoned now that Catoctin Creek Distilling Company is up and running. The rye used to produce their Virginia whiskey and other craft spirits is all locally sourced.
Which in turn supports the local growers who supported the distillery’s establishment in their area from the start.
Originally, the state of Virginia ruled that if Becky and Catoctin Creek Distilling Company wanted to be located in a rural setting, it would have to be on the eastside of Loudoun County, near Dulles Airport.
But Dulles is on the opposite side of the county to where you find the bulk of the farming and lucrative wine tourism is located.
“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,” discloses Becky.
Ultimately, after plenty of perseverance and lots of support from the people of Purcellville, Becky and Catoctin Creek Distilling Company were allowed to set up shop where they had wanted to, and began producing some of the best American whiskey in the country.
“The three-tier system has many advantages. But has not fully adapted to the proliferation of small brands. Getting our product to consumers and finding ways to engage with them is our biggest challenge every single day.”
“Distribution is a huge issue for new brands,” she adds.
American Whisky and other exceptional craft spirits
Catoctin Creek Distilling Company’s Roundstone Rye is a pre-Prohibition style Virginia whiskey made from 100% rye grain.
“Our first whiskey, 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.”
Since then, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company’s range of craft spirits has expanded to include a woody, anise-forward gin, three very special brandies, plus 92 Proof and Cask Proof versions of their trademark Roundstone Rye.
Becky Harris doesn’t claim that there’s anything unique about Catoctin Creek Distilling Company’s particular distilling process. But does say that it is getting rarer all the time.
“We ferment on the grain without temperature control in our fermenters. We distill the grain in hybrid pot stills. And pot still distillation takes longer, which leads to changes in the flavor of the distillate throughout the process.”
When asked which one of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company’s craft spirits or American whisky was her favorite, she was quick to reply, “It’s a lot like my children - it depends on the day which one.”
But she didn’t hesitate to note that she loved a good Sazerac when the topic of “favorite cocktails” came up. And couldn’t resist mentioning that they are, “...amazing with our rye!”
The significance of independent distilleries
At Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, their award winning Virginia whiskey is completely and truly made by hand.
“Independent distilleries are a vital part of a diversified local food and beverage scene,” Becky rightly states with conviction.
“I am personally inspired by the numerous small producers scattered throughout Europe. And quite bullish on our opportunity to replicate that here in the United States.”
Becky goes on to point out, “Consumers want a deeper connection to the foods they eat and to what they drink. We want connection to the producers and their stories.”
She’s all too aware of what happens when too much mechanical crop production and big composite organizations are overly involved in the production of our food and drink.
“Industrial agriculture and huge conglomerates almost always end up with centralized sourcing and production. And that means that flavor becomes less diverse and opportunities for work in the industry also decrease.”