This article appears in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
The American dream lives on in Virginia's Blue Ridge. Probably not a surprise, but it may be a surprise to know that it is doing very well in a little distillery in an old apple warehouse down at the end of a dusty road in a little place called Sperryville. There Rick Wasmund is trying to make the best single malt whisky in the world. I've tasted enough whisky to be pretty discerning, I think, and in my mind, he's coming damned close.
"Single malt in Virginia?" you may ask. "Isn't that something the Scots make?" Sure, but there is no reason why Virginians cannot do it just as well.
Wasmund had a bunch of sisters and no brothers, so he was responsible for splitting and carrying firewood and keeping the fires burning. He liked to experiment with different kinds of wood, and noticed the different smells produced by oak, maple, locust, and cherry. He particularly liked the way cherry smoke smelled. As he grew up and developed a taste for drink stronger than Coca Cola, he wondered if he couldn't figure out how to get some of the cherry smoke into a bottle of whisky.
Wasmund, an enterprising and friendly fellow who used to sell insurance, got a few investors together, bought the apple warehouse, and built himself a distillery. My guess is that people investing in the whisky business are probably more interested in the product than the profit, and to be sure, Wasmund told me that at his last stockholders' meeting batches of his single malt were tasted by all, and the investors went away in a very happy mood.
IT IS A SLOW-MOVING SUNDAY afternoon in July, and I am chatting with Wasmund in his distillery in Sperryville, a couple of hours west of Washington. I settle into an old rocking chair and Wasmund brings out a bottle of batch #13, his latest, which we slowly sip as we talk. We are surrounded by the kiln and the still, sacks of barley, some old woodworking machinery and a woodstove and other stuff that you might expect to find in an old apple barn. And, of course, barrels of whisky. Wasmund lights up a cigar and we talk about his American dream. What could be more congenial than that?
Bourbon and Scotch -- which make up the bulk of all the whisky in the world -- are both made from wheat, barley, and corn (maize in the case of Scotch), which is blended to make a consistent-tasting drink. But the Scots found that by using only malted barley, and making each batch in small quantities, the result -- single malt Scotch whisky -- was far superior. Being Scots, they also liked the fact that they could get far more money for each bottle.
Wasmund wanted to make a single malt, but he did not want to just make more Scotch. After much experimentation -- and being his own taster -- he got what he was looking for. He starts with barley, he tells me, purchased from a Virginia farm, which he malts himself -- a simple process of dampening it, spreading it out on a concrete floor, raking it periodically, and, when it sprouts, putting it in a kiln to dry it out and stop the germination process. Having little else to use, the Scots burn peat in the kiln, and the smoke filters up through the malted barley, leaving a musky and smoky flavor. But no peat for Wasmund. He needed to get the cherry smoke into the bottle, so some cherry wood, mixed with a little apple, did the trick.
The barley is ground into a sweet and smoky mash, hot water is added, a little yeast, and the fermentation begins. Later the whisky is distilled and distilled again, one batch at a time, and then goes into old bourbon barrels which, by law, can only be used once (that is why bourbon barrels are readily available at your local garden store for planters). Once again, Wasmund departs from the norm. Single malt Scotch sits for several years, during which the alcohol absorbs flavors from the oak barrel and blends to make a smooth and palatable drink. Wasmund thought about having barrels made out of cherry but instead submerges little bags of chips of toasted cherry and apple wood into the whisky, taking, he says, more time and passion than could be expected from a larger operation. After six months, the whisky is hand bottled, the taxes are paid, and it is sent off for sale.
Experienced whisky drinkers are skeptical about anything that cures for less than several years. By law, Scotch must stay in the barrel for three years, bourbon for two, and premium brands often sit for far longer. But Wasmund found that the apple and cherry actually accelerates the process sufficiently that six months is plenty of time. He sent a sample that he'd made six weeks earlier to the Scotch Whisky Institute and asked it to guess how old it was. The response? Seven to eight years.
The proof, of course, is in the pudding. Cherry and apple do more than hurry this whisky along; they leave a very pleasant and unique sweet and woody flavor -- one that evokes the calm beauty of Virginia's Blue Ridge. Plenty of moonshine whisky has come out of those hills before, but nothing like this lovely single malt. And when Rick Wasmund takes it to market, he doesn't even have to outrun the revenuers.
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