“Respect the past. Look to the future.” That’s the Ironclad rule. Their name pays tribute to a great story, the Battle of the Ironclads. A year into the Civil War, the first two iron-fortified naval vessels (USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, also known as Merrimac) to ever battle took place in the waters just off the Port of Newport News in Virginia.
Today in an historic warehouse with the old battle site in view, that 154-year-old story still engages us. Founded by the King family; they approach making bourbon with a single aim: to create the best small batch bourbon available. Stephen King is the founder, Owen King is the distiller, Kara King heads up marketing, and Carol King is the historical director.
Terroir matters with spirits production. Where you source your ingredients, environmental factors (i.e., Virginia’s heat and humidity versus Scotland’s), cultural traditions and techniques all have a tremendous impact on the final product. The folks at Ironclad Distillery source raw materials like corn, wheat and rye from Renwood Farm in Charles City, Virginia, the oldest operating farm in America. Then, all under one roof, those select grains are milled, cooked, fermented, double-distilled and barreled as Virginia bourbon whiskey. One batch at a time, using century-old distillation methods from master distillers before us.
Each day, the Kings come in to make the best whiskey possible. That’s it. Nothing else. No moonshine, no vodka, no gin. There are others who have a greater passion and know-how for those.
Upon entering the Ironclad barrel room, one can’t help but notice the massive steel door. It’s over 100 years old, so it’s a bit banged up and no longer fits exactly flush. Those imperfect old steel doors let so much perfection in. For 365 days a year the brackish air that sweeps off the James River sneaks inside, enveloping each cask. One sip of Ironclad Bourbon Whiskey brings forward the Kings’ unique setting – that special place where the salty, ocean-fed Chesapeake Bay meets the end of the James, mingling with the fresh Appalachian Mountain water the river has carried all the way down with it.
Look at a bottle of their bourbon whiskey and you’ll see that it slowly reveals a story. Peel back the label, and you’ll uncover the blueprint of the original Ironclad USS Monitor, generously shared by The Mariners’ Museum and Park, along with its history. The neck label is printed on an old newspaper headline that ran the day after the epic Battle of the Ironclads. Unfurl it to find each bottle’s unique batch notes, including the weather on the day it was filled.
Fun Fact: Ironclad is the world’s first distillery with a BarrelTag. These guys are pioneers. Virgin oak barrels give the bourbon 100% of its color and 70% of its flavor over months and years. But after they’ve finished that refining, barrels still aren’t finished. The Ironclad Distillery Co. will be the world’s first distillery to track a barrel’s ”after-bourbon-life.”
Each barrel will be given a unique number. When it’s emptied, they write its unique number on the bottle it helped to fill. You go to the Ironclad website and register your bottle to track the “after-bourbon-life” progression of the barrel that matured it. So if one day a barrel ends up in a brewery, helps to give honey a more dimensional flavor, or becomes a funky piece of furniture, you can tap that keg once again. #oakisironclad
Ironclad Bourbon Tasting Notes: On the nose, it’s rich with notes of kettle corn, buttered toast, cinnamon sugar and earthy flowers. On the palate, it has a sweet opening of cherry followed by layers of vanilla, salted butterscotch, oak, then a dry spice pop of cinnamon toward the end.
Featured Cocktail Recipe:
THE IRON JULEP
2 oz. Ironclad Bourbon
10 mint leaves
1 oz. grapefruit simple syrup (recipe follows)
Nutmeg & fresh flowers for garnish
Place one mint leaf in your hand at a time and clap hard to release the oils. Muddle all mint leaves in the base of an old-fashioned glass. Pour in Ironclad Bourbon and grapefruit syrup, stir. Fill glass with crushed ice creating a dome at top. Add 3 dashes of Angostura bitters and garnish with freshly ground nutmeg and fresh flowers, or a big bunch of leafy mint.
GRAPEFRUIT SIMPLE SYRUP
2 heaping tbsp. Ruby Red grapefruit zest (2-4 grapefruits)
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Finely grate the peel of the grapefruits. In a bowl, vigorously stir the zest into the sugar. Use the back of a spoon to crush the zest into the sugar until sugar appears slushy and damp. Cover well and let sit overnight or several hours. Bring water to a boil in a saucepan and stir in the citrus sugar. Simmer syrup for three (3) minutes to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat, strain out zest and let cool. Store in refrigerator up to one month.
Photo credit: Jay Paul