The Basics Drinking Out

How to Drink Like a Pro in the Birthplace of American Spirits

Visit these Virginia distilleries for a real taste of history.

Vitae Spirits interior with view of bar and guests.

Vitae Spirits

Virginia’s wine scene is getting a lot of attention these days, but the state’s distilleries shine bright, too. American whiskey was born on the shores of Virginia’s James River in 1620, after all, investing the commonwealth with a rich distilling heritage that is holding strong.

Today, there are more than 45 distilleries in the state making some of the country’s best gin, vodka, whiskey and moonshine. Visiting them all would take a season. These seven are an excellent way to start your journey through Virginian spirits.

  • A. Smith Bowman (Fredericksburg)

    A. Smith Bowman barrel woom
    Tyler Darden

    This distillery’s award-grabbing bourbons include John J. Bowman single barrel, recognized as the World’s Best Bourbon at the World Whiskies Awards in 2017, and its Abraham Bowman port-finished bourbon, which took home the prize in 2016. The distillery is housed in a large brick warehouse, with free tours available Monday through Saturday. Best of all, there are a few Bowman spirits that are only served at the distillery itself.

  • Belmont Farm (Culpeper)

    Belmont Farm's lineup of bottles
    Chris Brown

    Before the craft spirits revival, Virginia’s distilling scene was mostly associated with moonshining in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Belmont Farm Distillery combines the best of both worlds, operating as a craft distillery that makes unaged corn whiskey. Founder Chuck Miller, the grandson of a Prohibition-era moonshiner, opened the distillery in the 1980s, making it the first registered craft distillery in the county. Located in Culpeper, on Miller’s family farm, it’s open seasonally with ample outdoor space for sipping in the sun.

  • Catoctin Creek (Purcellville)

    Catoctin Creek interior with view of bar
    Kristen Dill

    An hour outside of Washington, D.C., Catoctin Creek is part of the great rye rebirth in American distilling. Its flagship Roundstone, which the distillery calls a “pre-Prohibition” rye, is made of 100% organic rye. Its brandies, made with 100% local fruit, are also superb, including peach, apple and pear spirits––all great on their own or mixed into a cocktail. Tours and tastings take place Tuesday through Sunday in a brick-lined room featuring a formidable central bar that overlooks the warehouse where the distilling takes place.

  • James River (Richmond)

    James River Distillery's spirits bottles

     James River Distillery

    If you’re a gin lover, Richmond’s James River has you covered. Its flagship Commonwealth gin can be found in bars and stores across Virginia and beyond. Positioned as a “new Western” style, it uses two types of hops and fresh cantaloupe, among other botanicals. Continental gin offers a more juniper-forward London dry style. James River also pushes the boundaries with its Øster Vit, a play on aquavit that’s steeped with oyster shells from Virginia’s famed Rappahannock Oyster Co. The tasting room is open Monday through Saturday.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • Silverback (Afton)

    Silverback exterior with view of gorilla statue

     Silverback Distillery

    Come for the large silverback gorilla statue out front, then stay for the delicious spirits. Located along Virginia’s Route 151—dubbed Alcohol Alley for its five wineries, three breweries, cidery and distillery—this is one of the state’s hidden gems. The surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains make it one of the prettiest Virginia distilleries to visit.

    Silverback’s Strange Monkey gin wins over the most skeptical drinker with its approachable character. Blackback honey rye marries amber rye with honey sourced from local farms. The tasting room, open Thursday to Monday, serves craft cocktails using local ingredients and the distillery’s full array of spirits.

  • Virginia Distillery Co. (Lovingston)

    Virginia Distillery Co. exterior with view of gate

    Virginia Distillery Co.

    While in the Blue Ridge region, it’s also worth visiting Virginia Distillery Co. Its flagship Virginia-Highland whisky achieved national fame by winning best American single malt at the 2017 World Whiskies Awards. But particularly fun are the seasonal spins of the Commonwealth Collection. During fall, the Virginia-Highland is finished in craft cider barrels; in spring, it’s finished in chardonnay barrels. The tasting room, open seven days a week, is furnished with comfy leather chairs and a large stone fireplace.

  • Vitae Spirits (Charlottesville)

    Vitae Spirits bottles

    Vitae Spirits

    Just a few blocks from the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville is Vitae Spirits, which makes a variety of outside-the-box spirits. Its anisette, a Mediterranean-style spirit, can be poured over ice with a splash of water or used as a substitute for absinthe in cocktails like the Sazerac. Its orange liqueur makes a perfect upgrade for any Margarita. And the Golden rum uses sugar cane grilled on house-made charcoal at the barbecue joint next door, Ace, imparting a subtle smoke. Visit Wednesday through Sunday, then hit up Ace afterward for a mind-blowing brisket biscuit.