My journey in the liquor business started 30 years ago as an 18-year-old bar back. When I turned 21, I began slinging drinks professionally in Richmond at the Commercial Tap House. This led to my first appreciation of finely crafted spirits in the early 90s, drinking the popular scotches of the day such as MacAllan, Lagavulin, Springbank, Laphroaig. In particular, my passion for bourbon began by accident when a chef shared a dram of Wild Turkey Rare Breed from the bottle he received for his birthday.
From the moment I tasted that bourbon, my life changed. I wanted to learn all I could about bourbon, so I absorbed as much knowledge as I could. I studied Michael Jackson’s bourbon reviews, read Whisky Magazine, Malt Advocate, and collected what bottles I could in Virginia.
Separately, I opened seven restaurants in Hampton Roads, each with a larger whisky selection than the last. The Public House, for instance, has over 350 whiskys on the shelves. I’ve tasted them all and many more. It must be my Germanic/Austrian heritage that steered me towards serious study, and also towards rye whiskey and bourbons with a higher rye mix in the grain bill.
For me, opening a distillery is a natural extension of my passion and a natural progression of my journey. In 2012, I began moving in that direction. I visited many distilleries, built stronger relationships with the many distillers I have gotten to know and love through my restaurants. I also attended classes at Artisan Craft Distilling Institute in Washington state and at Siebel Institute in Chicago, where I learned from Dave Pickerell,
Dr. Graeme Walker, Rob Birnecker, and Steve Wright.
In 2015, R.D. Wilhelm Distilling Co. was formed. It is the parent company of REVEREND SPIRITS. What’s in a name? R.D. Wilhelm is named after my father, the Reverend Dr. William E. Dornemann. An Episcopal priest with a Ph.D in philosophy, my father was the first two-time back-to-back recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship.
My father passed away in 2001, and the distillery name is my tribute to him. I like to think that he had his spirit to follow and I have mine. My mother, who happens to also be an Episcopal priest, says my father would just be happy I’m doing something productive. I’m pretty sure she meant that as a compliment.
I want to make spirits I am proud of and puts Norfolk on the map for craft distilling, and that continue the history of quality Virginia Distilling. When I first considered building a distillery, rye whiskey was hard to come by. While things are now very different in those regards, my passion and interest is not. Our focus will be on straight bourbon, straight rye and old Tom gin, and in time, an assortment of flavored aromatic bitters.
While my father won’t be able to enjoy the finished product, his name will be on every bottle representing our family.