While Virginia’s wine scene gets most of the acclaim, it’s the state’s distilleries that often shine brightest. After all, American whiskey was born on the shores of Virginia’s James River in 1620, investing the commonwealth with a rich, boozy heritage that still holds strong. Today, there are more than 45 distilleries in Virginia making some of the country’s best gin, vodka, whiskey and moonshine. To sample them all would take a major effort (not to mention a second liver), so we’ve whittled the list down to seven must-see stops for the boozy tourist.
Watch out, Kentucky! This distillery is knocking out the competition with its award-grabbing bourbons. The John J. Bowman single barrel was recognized as the World’s Best Bourbon at the World Whiskies Awards last year, and its Abraham Bowman port-finished bourbon 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, it has some spirits served on-site only.
Before the recent craft spirits revival, Virginia’s distilling scene was mostly associated with moonshining in the Blue Ridge Mountains region. Belmont Farm Distillery combines the best of both worlds, operating as a craft distillery that makes legalized “moonshine” out of unaged corn whiskey. Belmont’s founder, Chuck Miller—himself the grandson of a Prohibition-era moonshiner—opened the distillery in the 1980s, making it the first registered craft distillery in the county.
Not only does Belmont Farm produce its flagship Virginia Lightning corn whiskey, based on the family recipe, but it offers a whole range of flavored moonshines, from apple pie to cherry to butterscotch and more. The distillery also partners with Tim Smith, the star of the Discovery Channel TV show “Moonshiners” to make Smith’s trademark Climax moonshine. The distillery itself is located Culpeper, on Miller’s family farm, and features ample outdoor space for sipping ’shine in the sunlight. It’s open for tours and tastings Tuesdays through Saturdays starting in April each year.
An hour outside of Washington, D.C., in Purcellville, Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. has been part of the great rye rebirth in American distilling with its innovative products. Its flagship Roundstone, which the distillery calls a “pre-Prohibition” rye, is made of 100 percent organic rye. Catoctin’s brandies, made with 100 percent local fruit, are also superb, and include peach, apple and pear, which are great on their own or mixed into a cocktail. Tours and tastings are Tuesday through Sunday in a brick-lined room featuring a formidable central bar that overlooks the warehouse where the distilling takes place.
If you’re a gin lover, Richmond’s James River Distillery has you covered. The distillery’s flagship Commonwealth gin can be found in bars and stores across Virginia and beyond. While Commonwealth is positioned as a “new Western” style of gin that uses two types of hops and fresh cantaloupe, among other ingredients, the distillery’s Continental gin offers a more juniper-forward style of a traditional London dry gin. James River is also willing to push the boundaries with its Øster Vit, a play on aquavit that’s steeped alongside oyster shells from Virginia’s famed Rappahannock Oyster Co. The distillery tasting room is open Monday through Saturday afternoon.
Drop by to see the large silverback gorilla statue out front, then stay for the delicious spirits. Located along Virginia’s Route 151—dubbed Alcohol Alley by virtue of having five wineries, three breweries, a cidery and a distillery along its path—Silverback Distillery in Afton is one of the state’s hidden gems. And with the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s certainly one of the prettiest Virginia distilleries to visit.
Silverback offers numerous types of spirits, but perhaps most distinctive of all is its Strange Monkey gin, which wins over even the most skeptical gin drinker by toning down the piney juniper notes so prevalent in many of today’s gins. The distillery’s Blackback honey rye satisfies both the foodie and the spirits aficionado by marrying amber rye with honey sourced from local Virginia farms. The tasting room, open Thursday through Monday, serves creative craft cocktails using local ingredients and the distillery’s full array of spirits.
While in the Blue Ridge region, it’s also worth working in a visit to Virginia Distillery Co., which lies a half-hour to the south of Silverback. The distillery’s flagship Virginia-Highland whisky achieved national fame by winning best American single-malt whiskey at the World Whiskies Awards.
But particularly fun are the seasonal spins that are part of Virginia Distillery’s Commonwealth Collection. During fall, it offers a version of its Virginia-Highland that’s finished in craft cider barrels, and in spring, it’s finished in chardonnay barrels. The tasting room pours seven days a week and is furnished with comfy leather chairs and a large stone fireplace.
Just a few blocks from the charming University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville lies Vitae Spirits, which makes a variety of outside-the-box spirits. Its anisette, an anise-flavored spirit predominantly associated with the Mediterranean region, can be poured over ice with a splash of water or used as a substitute for absinthe in cocktails like the Sazerac. Perhaps most fun of all is Vitae’s orange liqueur, which is decidedly more sophisticated than your average off-the-shelf triple sec—a perfect upgrade for any Margarita.
Even the distillery’s traditional spirits have a unique twist. Vitae’s Golden rum, for instance, uses sugar cane grilled on house-made charcoal at the barbecue joint next door, Ace, imparting a subtle smoky tinge. The tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday, and as mentioned, you can hit up the BBQ joint afterward for one of its mind-blowing brisket biscuits.
Mixing your cocktail