Ironclad Distillery: Meet Virginia Makers

Taste of Place

Author: Owen King, Head Distiller for Ironclad Distillery

In our barrel aging room – the room where all important bourbon magic happens – there is a huge steel fire door. It’s a bit banged up and no longer fits exactly flushed, but you can’t really blame it. The door has been hanging there for over 100 years. In its original heyday, it was heaved open to transfer dry goods off a freight train car, which used to make its frequent stop inches away from our building, an old warehouse. Now it’s enormously responsible for the unique flavor and story filled in every bottle of bourbon we make.

Alone, the door doesn’t influence any flavor. But add our location, and it becomes the signature additive that makes ours original. It lets air into our barrel room. And that air, and the river it sweeps off of, a magic.

In winemaking, they have this term “terroir,” meaning the geographical factors that characterize a wine. Basically, how each vineyards’ specific location makes a wine interesting. For me, the same phenomenon applies to spirits. Google map “124 23rd Street, Newport News, Virginia.”

Our distillery sits on the shore of the James River, at the end of its 348-mile-long run, to be exact, where it meets the salty, ocean-fed Chesapeake Bay. To my knowledge, we are the only bourbon-producing distillery that sits on salt water like that. Kentucky can boast its limestone bedrock, but it is landlocked. Okay, yes, there is a distinctive bourbon that is aged on underway ocean liners, but they travel from port to port – and you never know what those barrels might pick up. One sip of our bourbon brings forward our specific setting. And that imperfect steel fire door lets all that perfection in.

In its history alone, the James River is deeply influential to our bourbon. After early English settlers established a colony at Jamestown in 1607, chosen for its defensible position 60 miles up the James away from the sea, the introduction of tobacco propelled them even farther up river. It gets more interesting. The James’ shores became prime real estate for the great plantations of the past, including Berkeley – still standing and not 60 miles from our distillery.

Many historians argue bourbon was born at Berkeley. Fed up with irregular supplies of alcohol from England, one enterprising colonist, who was bunking at the plantation, was quick to adopt the abundant Indian corn surrounding the site as a key ingredient in his first locally distilled spirit. As you bourbon enthusiasts know, by definition, bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn.

Fast-forward to the 19th century and back down the river. On March 8, 1862, a plucky little union ship clad in iron was sent to the mouth of the James to help defend one of its wood-built brothers. It was one year into the American Civil War, and both sides were forced to try new tactics. On March 9th, their innovations went head-to-head as the first ships to be armored in iron. That plucky USS Monitor and the heavily armed CSS Virginia engaged in what is now known as The Battle of the Ironclads. A few hours later, the Navy was changed forever.

Our distillery building was built in 1913, 51 years too late to have had a front row seat to the epic battle. But it would have had one. That mighty piece of history is what inspired our name. It’s also why we stick to our guns and only make bourbon. That’s it. Nothing else. If we ever lose focus, we have our bottles to put us back on the right track. Peel back our Small Batch Bourbon label and you’ll uncover the original blueprint of the USS Monitor. Check out the flip side of its neck tag and you’ll find a printed copy of a newspaper headline from the day after the battle featuring a grainy image of the CSS Virginia. Both are there to remind us of our Ironclad rule: It is better to make one thing well.

And to make the best stuff, you have to start with the best stuff. Like wine, like coffee, like bread, if you start with the best ingredients, you’re way ahead of the rest. We work with one of the best farms in Virginia to source premium corn, wheat and rye, along with malted barley for our proprietary four-grain mash bill. Even those grains don’t escape the reach the James River holds on us. As fate would have it, the river is literally in the farm’s backyard. Would that we could, our grains could float down to us by barge.

The greatest influence our proximity to salt water has on our bourbon, however, is in its flavor profile. Our corn and wheat add the sweetness, which, when tasting our bourbon, you’ll identify at the front of your palate along with strong cherry notes. In the finish, you’ll most likely detect a dry spice pop – that’s the rye chiming in. But you’ll also notice something else. Something a little more subtle but undoubtedly present: a kind of salted caramel flavor. That’s our “terroir.” That’s the James River. 365 days a year, the brackish air that sweeps off of it sneaks inside our barrel aging room, thanks to that steel fire door, enveloping each of our casks. And it permeates our bourbon with the flavor of here: Newport News, Virginia. 124 23rd Street, to be exact.

Some distillers sign every one of their bottles to mark their masterpiece. Artists always sign their work. In the case of our bourbon, the signature of a river runs throughout it.

Tasting Notes:

Ironclad Small Batch Bourbon
A sweet opening with notes of cherry or fruit punch, vanilla and salted caramel. Finishes with a dry spice pop of cinnamon and earthy flowers. Ironclad Small Batch is aged at least two summers in small, charred American oak barrels.