Image of the James River Distillery Building
by: Amy Ciarametaro
Spirits don’t get much more Virginian than those flowing from the River City’s very own James River Distillery. Consider the award-winning Commonwealth Gin, which is made with Virginia-grown organic corn. Head Distiller Dwight Chew says, “We made the decision early on to be as much of a local distillery as possible.” In 2013, partners Jonathan Staples, Kristi Croxton, and Matt Brophy opened James River Distillery with an aim to “bring farm-to-table out of the kitchen and into the bar.” In addition to using nearly 100% Virginia ingredients, these guys use both traditional and rare production techniques. For example, Øster Vit is an aquavit that is rested on oyster shells from Rappahannock Oyster Co. between the third and fourth distillations, making it the perfect cocktail component to accompany fresh Virginia oysters. It’s no wonder this unique spirit won a Silver Medal at the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition.
James River Distillery specializes in the distillation of three different gins, along with their three newest additions: Øster Vit Aquavit, Jackson & James Rum, and Arctic Snow Vodka. They’re also big on collaborations. The first of which is their Jackson & James Rum, a combined effort between the distillery and several talented bartenders from Richmond’s historic Jackson Ward district. John Maher of The Rogue Gentlemen and James Kohler of Saison lent their knowledge and expertise to this cool project that brought the ”bartenders into the distillery.“ What makes this rum unique is that it is distilled using pot-still distillation. Most commercial rums are produced with two-column, or multiple column industrial stills, resulting in highly rectified spirits. This process strips most, if not all, of the character brought forth from the raw materials (e.g., unrefined sugar). The folks at James River Distillery use pot-still distillation for their rum which in a nutshell preserves a lot of the characteristics of the ingredients, and is mainly used for the production of more aromatic rums.
Their newest collaborative effort is Arctic Snow Vodka, which was made ”in concert” with Richmond’s very own GWAR. For those not familiar with the heavy metal band GWAR, they formed in 1984 and have a deep cult following. The vodka is 100% potatoes and is a traditional style in that it still has a hint of potato flavor in the final spirit.
Much of James River Distillery’s success can be attributed to the ingenuity and technical forte of Dwight Chew, Head Distiller. His spirits have medaled at several competitions such as the New York International Spirits Competition, the Spirits of the Americas Competition, and the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition. And if you ask Dwight to brag, he’ll just tell you that he truly loves the science and the processes behind it all. “My job encompasses all my interests, from microbiology, physics, electrical/ plumbing to mechanical work,” says Dwight, who has been with the distillery for almost three years.
Previously, Dwight worked as an organic farmer where putting microbes to work in soil and compost tea eventually led to his fascination with fermentation. It’s no wonder he’s married to Jenna Sneed, co-owner of Richmond’s Fresca, a vegetarian café. Dwight’s farming work was quickly followed by homebrewed beer and wine, and his passion earned him a production job for Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, MD before making the leap to the spirits realm. Naturally, he focuses on using locally grown, organic ingredients for James River Distillery products.
I had the good fortune of interviewing Dwight a year or so ago for a paper I was writing as part of the WSET Diploma program (an international wine and spirits certification) about the topic “The Renaissance of Gin,” which was fitting since he produces three. We talked about congeners, chemical reactions, different types of alcohol (e.g., methanol, ethanol, fusel oils), industrial production versus batch production, rectification, different types of stills, filtering and more. There were a few times during the interview when I had to say, “Woah Dwight, please break this information down to ‘Zippy the Chimp’ level,” because it was a little more technical than my understanding at that time. He responded each time with a gracious smile and then patiently explained every single topic in further detail.
The folks at James River Distillery display a true sense of community and Virginia spirit! Don’t believe me, see for yourself and stop by their distillery (store) for a tour and tasting. Also, their products can be found at ABC stores in the Commonwealth and specialty retailers in Washington D.C., Maryland, and numerous restaurants and bars throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.
*Rapid Fire with Dwight Chew of James River Distillery*
VaSpirits: Where were you born?
Dwight: I was born in Maryland and grew up there. I moved to Richmond for this opportunity with James River Distillery.
VaSpirits: When you’re not distilling, what do you like to do?
Dwight: Gardening, fixing everything that needs fixing around the house, and hanging out with my family and pets. I have three dogs and two cats.
VaSpirits: When you’re not drinking your own spirits, what do you enjoy drinking and why?
Dwight: I’m a big beer fan; the darker and heavier the better. I love James River Distillery spirits and drink them most of the time; we have such a great variety! But since we aren’t currently barrel-aging anything, I have been enjoying Bowman Brother’s Bourbon (Fredericksburg) when I am in the mood for an aged spirit.
*Overview of James River Distillery Products*
Commonwealth Gin (American style gin; 80 proof): Commonwealth Gin is a floral gin made with two kinds of hops as well as fresh cantaloupe. The juniper in it is just an accent. It makes a great gimlet and a fabulous negroni. It is made from Virginia-grown organic corn and flavored through a vapor infusion process (the corn neutral spirit is passed through the botanicals where it picks up the flavors).
Continental Gin (Traditional style gin; 94 proof): The Continental is juniper-forward with a smooth sarsaparilla root finish. It makes a perfect martini and a great gin and tonic. It is also made from our Virginia organic corn spirit, but the botanicals are infused through a 24-hour steeping process.
UA Navy Strength Gin (Navy-strength gin; 114 proof): This is a perfect gin and tonic as there are two types of citrus used to flavor the spirit. It also does not need a garnish when mixed. The higher proof gives bartenders more flexibility and the ability to use stronger mixers without losing the gin in the cocktail. Also made from our VA organic corn spirit, the botanicals are vapor infused into the final product.
Øster Vit (Aquavit; 84 proof): This unique spirit starts with Virginia organic corn neutral spirit. They then steep a blend of caraway, dill and fennel seeds, orange peel, and Rappahannock River Co. oyster shells in their corn spirit for 48 hours before pot distilling it one last time. The oyster flavor and caraway complement each other perfectly; it makes a phenomenal bloody mary. It is also a good substitute in any classic vodka or gin cocktail. James River Distillery is the only distillery in Virginia making an aquavit, and the only ones in the world incorporating oyster shells into the recipe.
Jackson & James Rum (94 proof: Jackson & James Rum makes their rum from demerara sugar, a particular type of unrefined sugar that still retains some of the molasses flavor that is stripped out of other types of sugar. The rum is distilled only twice so as to retain the caramel, coffee, and toffee notes contributed by the demerara sugar. A standard daiquiri really allows the unique rum flavors to shine through.
Arctic Snow Vodka (80 proof) Distilled four times, Arctic Snow Vodka is made from 100% potatoes. It is a traditional style that still has a hint of potato flavor in the final spirit. The vodka was created in collaboration with GWAR, the Richmond-based metal band. Arctic Snow Vodka is perfect in standard vodka cocktails or served on the rocks.