SPERRYVILLE, Va. -- The making of whiskey is an ancient tradition that flourished in early America as the Scotch-Irish settlers practiced their alcohol arts using the abundant grains that they grew in the New World.
George Washington, whose political skills equaled those of his farming talents, built a grain mill, brewery and distillery near his Mount Vernon estate to take advantage of the wheat, barley and rye he planted to replace cotton and tobacco. The restored distillery produces a small batch of rye whiskey each year and it sells out within days of its release.
The combination of industrialized liquor factories and Prohibition killed handmade whiskey in America until the popularity of artisan-style products from beer to clothing revived the traditional whiskey-making process. Several distilleries have sprung up around Pittsburgh such as the new Stay Tuned Distillery in a small 94-year-old building in Munhall.
It bottles and sells small-batch whiskeys that are made by a descendant of Washington’s homemade tradition – the Copper Fox Distillery here, close to the Shenendoah National Forest.
Copper Fox opened in 2005 in an old frame building just outside the small village, making whiskey and gin by traditional methods. Its grain is grown in Virginia, then turned into malt the old-fashioned way at the distillery. Malting is a process that wakes up the grain’s enzymes, chemicals that allow the whiskey maker (and brewer) to turn the starches of barley, rye and wheat into sugar. Yeast turns that sugar into alcohol.
Most distilleries buy malted grain or add enzymes to their mash to coax out the sugar, but Copper Fox makes its spirits from scratch.
A tour of Copper Fox begins on the malting floor where wet grain is spread in a single layer. The grain, which is turned over daily by hand, begins to sprout, forming tiny “whiskers” that tell the maltster that the enzymes are hard at work. The sprouted grain is then dried in a kiln and smoked with apple- and cherry wood for flavor. Jason Michael, who gave me a tour of Copper Fox, said it’s the first new distillery to malt its grain.
The malt is mixed with warm water in a large vat, creating the “mash,” or thick porridge. Time and temperature do the rest to convert the starches to sugar. The sweet liquid drawn off the grains is then transferred to fermentation vessels along with special yeast. In four or five days, the fermented liquid is ready to be distilled into spirits.
Although the pot-shaped copper stills were installed new, they’ve taken on the look of time-worn vessels. As the raw “beer” is boiled, the vapors circulate through the stills where it condenses into raw alcohol, anywhere from 140 to 160 proof. To remove more impurities and clarify flavors, Copper Fox will distill this spirit a second or even third time. The heady liquid drips slowly from the still into the casks, 12 months or more away from finished whiskey.
There’s little that’s high tech or even “tech” about Copper Fox’s operation. The simple equipment, including the bottle filler, fills most of the long unfinished building except in the barrel room, where oak casks are stacked five or six high. The casks have been charred inside to add color and flavor to the whiskey. Apple wood and oak chips are added for more flavor.
This part of the building is like being perched above a glass of whiskey because the aromas of the liquor waft into the room from the saturated oak where it’s been absorbed. At some point, the temperature around the barrels is cooled, forcing the liquor off the wood and back into the barrel. This technique is repeated several times to enhance flavors.
The small crew shifts the barrels on a schedule, eventually tipping them on their side for finishing. Before bottling, the spirits are “rectified” or diluted with distilled water to 90 proof.
“It’s nothing but add water and stir and stir and stir for maybe 15 minutes,” said Mr. Michael. “Then, we test it and keep adding water and stirring until we get the right number.”
Finally, the whiskeys – a single-malt barley, a blend of rye and barley and a straight rye – are bottled, again by hand. Devin Sherwood caps each bottle, then dips the neck into hot wax, giving each a twist to form a swirl. Mr. Michael said that nearly 30 percent of the distillery’s products is sold in Great Britain. Copper Fox also is planning to add another facility in Williamsburg, Va., by next year.
Copper Fox now is making a gin from barley called VirGin, flavored by its homegrown botanicals -- the various herbs and flavorings including juniper berries and mint.
This is where Lee Ann Sommerfeld enters the picture. A longtime sales representative and distributor of wines and liquor in Pennsylvania, the Penn Hills resident also worked on creating flavor profiles from herbs and other plants grown in her garden. After several years selling Copper Fox products in the state, she decided to go into partnership with the Virginia company bottling and selling their liquors from a restored community center in Munhall that she calls Stay Tuned.
“We’re a trailblazer in the business, although we didn’t start out that way,” she said. "They ship us the whiskey and spirits in casks and we bottle it here. We also sell it here, not in the state stores, and sell to bars.”
She opened Stay Tuned in November 2013 after salvaging the building at 810 Ravine St., that was built as the John Munhall Neighborhood House in 1920. When the state relaxed liquor-control laws to allow small distilleries, she went into the distilling business herself, using Copper Fox’s white barley spirit, redistilling it and adding her own botanical mix from her garden. The first batch was released in March.
She calls it “PathoGin,” and changes the recipe based on what’s available from her garden, but the base remains barley, a grain rarely used for gin.
“Nothing tastes like barley. It’s a special flavor that stands out unlike most gins which lack that strong foundation,” she explained.
She’s written a guide to growing herbs suitable for making cocktails called “Add Dirt and Stir: Experiments with Whisky and Gardening” available for $25 at the distillery.
(A spelling note: The American spelling is whiskey, as used here. The British and Scottish spell it whisky and that word refers to Scotch. Copper Fox’s owner Rick Wasmund trained at the Bowmore distillery in Scotland and prefers that spelling.)
Stay Tuned Distillery is open Thursday-Friday 11 a.m.-7 p.m. and Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 412-461-4555. staytunedstills.com
Copper Fox’s hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Its address is 9 River Lane, Sperryville, Va. 22740. 1-540-987-8554. copperfox.biz/index
Bob Hoover is a retired Post-Gazette writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.