Belle Isle Craft Spirits: Meet Virginia Makers

Challenging Vodka with a Smoother, Virginia-Born Clear Spirit

Most Americans are surprised to learn vodka’s ubiquity is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Russian spirit’s dominance was driven largely by a massive advertising push in the 1980s. In 2013, Vince Riggi and Brian Marks, co-founders of Belle Isle Craft Spirits, set out to topple this giant with their Premium Moonshine, a clear spirit that offers all the versatility of vodka but with a bit more character and a smoother finish. They saw how important clear spirits were in cocktails, and wanted to see if they could give consumers and bartenders an alternative.

Clear spirits are essential building blocks of countless cocktails, from the elaborate to the simple. They create a foundation for cocktails that allows other flavors and ingredients to shine through. Clear spirits also tend to contribute brighter, lighter flavors to cocktails; conversely, in a cocktail made with, say, bourbon, the flavors of the additional ingredients will likely take a back seat.

In looking for a clear spirit that could challenge vodka, we found inspiration in an unlikely place: moonshine. Often associated with Prohibition-era bootleggers, moonshine is a catch-all term describing unaged corn-based spirits that dates back to early Scottish settlers who brought distilling to the colonies. In fact, the very document first whiskey still in America was located at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia – a still built and run by one Reverend George Thorpe. Our company name also has ties to Virginia history. It comes from the 54-acre island in the middle of the James River that was home to several manufacturing companies, including one that supplied copper kettles to Civil War soldier who, legend says, made their own home brew using rationed corn.

Today, most moonshine on the market is relegated to a dusty corner of stores and the spirit appears rarely, if ever, in cocktails at bars and restaurants. Belle Isle seeks to help moonshine regain its rightful place on bars and in glasses by making a spirit that is easy to drink and easy to mix – even if that means breaking with traditions and changing expectations of what a moonshine can be.

Distilled to be Different

Studying the distilling process, we saw an opportunity to create a new clear spirit – one that had the versatility of vodka but was more interesting to drink. In manufacturing, vodka is typically distilled to around 190 proof. That means it’s 95% pure alcohol. As a result, vodka, regardless of the grain it’s made from, tastes like pure alcohol. Whiskey, on the other hand, is distilled to a lower proof to retain more of its grain characteristics. Before it’s aged, it can have a harsh “grain alcohol” quality. It’s not until it ages in oak barrels that it develops the balanced flavors whiskey drinkers enjoy.

Belle Isle Premium Moonshine is distilled to a proof between whiskey and vodka. This gives it a smooth, subtle sweetness plus a “silky” mouthfeel. This innovation not only separates Belle Isle from other moonshines on the market, but it puts us in a category of our own.

Bringing Craft Cocktails Home

At Belle Isle, our mission is to make craft cocktails more accessible for the home bartender. Our approach is creating spirits that are easy to mix and easy to drink. Even though most of our staff spent time bartending at some of Richmond’s top craft cocktail bars, we typically favor simple, two or three ingredient cocktails. After all, a great cocktail doesn’t have to be hard work!

Consumers are sometimes wary of sampling moonshine – especially if they’ve tried the homemade varieties in the past. However, in blind tastings most people prefer Belle Isle Premium Moonshine to the leading craft vodka. It boasts mild hints of sweet, roasted corn and caramel with a smooth finish. And because our flagship spirit tastes great, it’s practically effortless to make a great cocktail using Belle Isle Premium Moonshine. And you don’t need a full bar of obscure ingredients and mixers – seltzer and a squeeze of lime is just about all you need; though, as you can see on our website, cocktail recipes with our spirits are limited only by your imagination.

Something for Everyone

Belle Isle Premium Moonshine provides drinkers with a smooth, versatile clear spirit, but with our line of all-natural infusions, we offer even more ways to update, enhance, and invent cocktail recipes.

Belle Isle’s Honey Habanero Infusion is truly a way we show our Virginia spirit. We source our organic honey from Bubba’s Sweet Nectar in Wytheville, Virginia, and have partnered with ODO Farms in Dundas to grow our habaneros. The heat from the peppers is mellowed by the sweetness of the honey for spirit that pairs wonderfully with citrus and smoky flavors. Paired with our Ruby Red Grapefruit Infusion, which contains no artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners, and some juice and you get the Habloma, one of our very favorite easy Belle Isle cocktails.

In 2016, we launched our Cold Brew Coffee Infusion that allowed us to collaborate with Richmond-based Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company. Working closely with their head roaster, we were able to find just the right bean (organic, fair-trade Honduran) and roast, which, combined with cold brew coffee, gives our spirit and amazing aroma and smooth coffee flavor. Try it over ice with a splash of tonic water and a twist of orange peel and you might just find your new favorite brunch cocktail.

We like to say all good moonshine has two things in common: corn and care. Though we’ve diverged a bit from our backwoods ancestors, Belle Isle Premium Moonshine hopes to carry the traditions of America’s Original Spirit into the 21st century and expose new audiences to our unique clear spirit.

Today, Belle Isle’s line of Premium Moonshines can be found in more than 800 bars, restaurants, and retail locations from Florida to New York City. Looking for Belle Isle Premium Moonshine in your neighborhood? Just visit our website and use our Belle Isle Locator.

Tasting Notes:

Belle Isle Premium Moonshine:
Flavor Profile: Roasted corn, sugar cane, and molasses.

Belle Isle 100 Proof Premium Moonshine:
Flavor notes: Sweet Corn, pepper with a caramel finish. Mild alcohol heat.

Belle Isle Honey Habanero Infused Premium Moonshine:
Flavor Notes: Honey up front with a mild habanero finish.

Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit Infused Premium Moonshine:
Flavor Notes: Bright citrus nose, with a slightly sweet and tart finish.

Belle Isle Cold Brew Coffee Infused Premium Moonshine:
Flavor Notes: Caramel, chocolate, and roasted coffee with a rich, slightly sweet finish.