Ragged Branch Distillery: Meet Virginia Makers

Author: Alex Toomy, Managing Partner for Ragged Branch Distillery

My name is Alex Toomy, founder and owner of Ragged Branch Distillery in beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia. Though we’ve been making bourbon over three years, our Tasting Room and the selling of our bottles began at the time of this writing, five-and-a-half weeks ago.

It couldn’t have been anywhere else. The Virginia soil has been good to us. Everything grown to make our bourbon is grown here. This is my personal story of how Ragged Branch Distillery came to be.

Back in 2009, I owned a farm where we backgrounded steers and had cutting horses. Every Thursday evening at the horse barn, a bunch of buddies of mine would come out and “chew the fat,” as they say, talking about anything, everything and a whole lot of nothing. At the time, we were all in the same industry of developing neighborhoods and building homes. The downturn affected all of us deeply and painfully. 

One of those Thursday evenings, we all joked about making moonshine up in the hollow. One of the fellas mentioned a friend of his who had a still in the past, and said we should give him a call. After a few drinks, I was pretty fired up about the idea, so I called that guy immediately. Naturally, he said we’d probably all get arrested, but that didn’t discourage me at all.

I started looking into how difficult it would be to get federal and state ABC licenses to make spirits on the farm. Initially it appeared extremely challenging to set up a distillery. Ironically enough, just a couple days later, I was watching the History Channel “American Whiskey” as a part of the Modern Marvels Series. One of the folks being interviewed on the show really held my attention: Mr. David Pickerell. Mr. Pickerell was at the time the Vice President and Master Distiller of Makers Mark, which my buddies and I would drink at each and every one of those Thursday barn nights. So, in typical “Toomy time,” which means “right and right now,” I picked up the phone and called him. 

Surprisingly, he answered. I explained how I was thinking about setting up a bourbon distillery in Virginia, and asked if he might be interested in helping us put it together. Again, surprisingly, he replied with a very enthusiastic “YES!” He “would love to!”

Meanwhile, I ran the idea by a couple of the Thursday night boys, Russell Nance, and Chris Sarpy. I’ve known Russell since he was 12 years old. He had worked for us on framing crews during the summers and then years later, after becoming a successful attorney, invested in some of the real estate developments of which I had been a part of. When I approached him about truly starting a distillery, he was exceptionally excited about the idea and was energetically “IN” from the start.

As for Chris, I’d built a home for his family in the area, and he was a hunting buddy of mine. Chris, also an attorney and a real estate developer in New Orleans, was thrilled to join in this crazy idea. While I’m known as the “bricks and sticks” guy, this project wouldn’t have happened at all without both Russell and Chris, each with legal backgrounds, determination, and the business savvy to pull this idea together…not to mention, the funds to back it.

After having talked to David Pickerell on the phone, I had a strong feeling I needed to drive to Kentucky to meet him in person – so my son Josh and I jumped in the truck and drove to Louisville. We met Pickerell in a hotel lobby, and from the very first moment, I knew he was the best in the world to make this happen. He was a walking, talking bourbon distillery pro forma. After leaving that meeting, my heart was set on making straight bourbon whiskey on our farm in Albemarle County, Virginia.

In February 2010, and just before the area was unexpectedly hit by 22 inches of snow, Pickerell flew into Charlottesville to make a plan and get the three of us started on our new venture. I’m not sure he wanted to be snowed in with us for four days, but we were happy to have the opportunity to learn as much as possible about bourbon. We learned why bourbons taste different, but more importantly we learned how to make it. It was truly a godsend to get that much snow so we could stay hunkered down with the bourbon guru for four days.

It took a long time to get the business up and running. There were a lot of things that needed to shake out before we could get started, including raising the cash for the equipment and getting our federal license. Once that panned out, we worked on raising the rest of the money. By the way, making legal bourbon ain’t cheap! 

During this time, Russell told all his law buddies and friends that he’s going to make bourbon. I had told everybody I knew that I’m going to make bourbon, including an old gaI I had just started wooing at the time. So no matter what happened, we were going to make bourbon!

It took an entire year to make and receive the equipment from Vendome in Kentucky. During that year, I built a barn. I did all I could to get ready, whatever that meant, because I had no idea what the inside of a distillery should look like. Then all the equipment came, and I thought, “What in the world? How will I ever put all these pieces together. I’ve never seen so many valves…not to mention, how am I gonna run it?”

During the time I was attempting to figure out how to put the still and all its parts together, I took a break one day to do a little grocery shopping for that old gal I mentioned. While in the store, I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize, but then again I get a lot of phone calls. Regardless, I took the call, but without really paying attention for the first 30 seconds or so. The fella on the other line tells me he’s an enforcement agent from the Virginia ABC. He asked me if I would meet him at the property. To which I responded with a “Well, could it wait a couple days?” He then explained to me that it’s illegal to own a still in the Commonwealth of Virginia without having a Virginia ABC license. He also made it more than clear that I was to meet him in the next 45 minutes! I asked him if he knew where to find the farm, to which he responded, “OH YEAH! I know where it is!”

As I scuttle-butted my way back to the farm, I immediately called Chris Sarpy who happened to be in town, and asked him if he had applied for the ABC license to own a still. He thought David Pickerell had done so. Pickerell thought Russell had applied for it. I told Chris that he needed to meet me at the distillery because Virginia ABC was coming out, and boy DID they! They showed-up in three unmarked cars and six ABC enforcement agents, each carrying pistols on their hips!

I stepped outside of the still barn and said “Hey now, waaaaiiiit a minute fellas. Let’s just settle down here.” The lead agent calmly explained the law and noted that if we were making mash, we were all going to jail. It soon became obvious to him that we weren’t trying to do anything illegal. In the end, he was extremely helpful and continues to advise us on our ABC dealing to this day! Chris applied for the Virginia ABC license within four hours. And it turns out that so many agents came out that day just because they had never seen a still that big (it’s 500 gallons).

Somehow soon after, mister “bricks and sticks” at least fit all the pieces together.

When July 2014 rolled around, Dave Pickerell came back and walked us through the process and dog gone it, we started making straight bourbon whiskey! I can’t begin to say how excited I was the first time I saw that clear liquid flow from the glass of the still. I was even more excited when we opened one of the barrels after just one year and tasted that beautiful brown liquid. I immediately called Pickerell to share how delicious the bourbon was after only one year in a barrel.  With great confidence, he replied “Did you ever have a doubt?”

So here we are, eight years after the first time I spoke to David Pickerell in 2009, farming about 1,000 acres, caring for the best herd of cattle around, with a beautiful Rick Barn, an incredible tasting room with incomparable views, making the best mash-fed beef in Virginia. I’m also engaged to that old girl, and I have a great hunting dog named Bootlegger! And without a doubt, we’re all enjoying this exceptional Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey that’s in an actual bottle!

Ragged Branch is graciously located in the beautiful Charlottesville/Albemarle County area of the Commonwealth of Virginia. We are blessed with four different seasons that provide a new backdrop every few months for folks from anywhere in the U.S. or worldwide to enjoy and help us show our Virginia spirit all year long. In addition, tourism is growing rapidly in Central Virginia in part because of the many wineries, breweries and distilleries of which we are very proud to be a part of. There are so many things to do and see here. We hope you’ll visit us soon to realize why we LOVE Virginia and Virginia is for lovers!