James River Distillery: Meet Virginia Makers

Here at James River Distillery, we feel being located in Richmond, Virginia, is just about the best place to be. From the mountains to the sea, Virginia has a bit of everything and you can’t beat being in the capital, the heart of it all. Virginia offers a bounty of agriculture, so it’s not hard to come by quality local products and we love using all we can.

When we first started back in 2013, we knew that the process and ingredients were of upmost importance to us. Dwight Chew, our head distiller, made certain to find organic, non-GMO corn from just outside of Richmond in the Tappahannock area. That wonderful Virginia corn makes up 90% of our mash for all our gins and our aquavit. The entire process, from milling the corn to bottling the spirit, we are doing by hand, in our distillery.

Our first gin was released in August 2014. With a nod to this great state, we named it Commonwealth, with the label having a distinctly Virginian feel in blue and red. Our next two gins also highlight Virginia in some way. Continental refers to the Continental army formed by the original 13 colonies that fought in the American Revolution. Those 13 colonies eventually became the first 13 states, with Virginia being tenth in the order of statehood. Our Continental label features 13 blue lines on it with the 10th being highlighted in red in reference to this.

Our third gin is our navy strength gin, Unauthorized Absence (UA).  The term “navy strength” refers to the spirit being at least 114 proof. The story goes that this term came from back in the day when the British Royal Army ruled the seas and gave their men rations of gin. Before the gin was allowed aboard, it was tested to make sure it was not too watered down. A 114 proof is enough to ignite gunpowder. If the gunpowder did not ignite, then the gin was rejected, thus creating the term “navy strength.”

Virginia has a long history involving the sea, from pirates to the U.S. Navy. We knew we wanted to honor not only the British roots of gin, but also all those men and women who have or are serving our country. Unauthorized Absence features the camouflage “razzle dazzle” stripes that U.S. Navy ships used in WWI.

We continued our love for all things Virginia with our aquavit, Øster Vit. Aquavit is a traditional Scandinavian spirit and not one you would commonly associate with the United States, let alone Virginia, but we hope to change that.  We knew we were going to start with producing gins, but we always wanted to try our hand at aquavit which we found to be a unique and delicious spirit. That idea was further fleshed out when we first had an oyster on the half shell with aquavit splashed on top.

The Chesapeake Bay was once an oyster Mecca. Back in the day, kings and queens around the world sought out these succulent bivalves. Up until around the 1980s, however, over-harvesting and disease caused their rapid decline. Today, thanks to the many oystermen and oyster companies using aquaculture and other sustainability practices, the Chesapeake oyster is back. In fact, Virginia is the country’s largest producer of farm-raised oysters! With eight different oyster regions, all with distinct flavors, it’s no wonder that Virginia is considered the oyster capital of the East Coast.

All of that being said, it’s no wonder that we found ourselves at Rappahannock Restaurant in downtown Richmond eating oysters while discussing future plans. Then-bar manager Katie Nelson served us a plate of freshly shucked oysters with a splash of aquavit on top, and it seemed to be a match made in heaven. At that moment, we knew that when we made our aquavit we wanted to somehow incorporate this Virginia mainstay in the process.

When making our aquavit, we triple distill the spirit and allow it to steep for 48 hours with caraway, fennel, orange peel and oyster shells. The oyster shells we use are obtained from Rappahannock Oyster Company. Rappahannock Oyster Company has several oyster farms in and around the Chesapeake Bay. They are known worldwide not only for their wonderful taste, but for the sustainability practices of the company.  These oyster shells impart just a bit of the sea and minerality to the aquavit that makes it a truly versatile and smooth spirit, perfect straight or for mixing. Between the local corn and the oyster shells, you really can’t get more Virginian than that! And Garden & Gun Magazine agrees, with our Øster Vit winning one of their coveted “Made in the South” awards in 2016.

Richmond is a growing city, and one that is garnering more national attention for its amazing food and drink scene. It made sense to tap into the vast experience and knowledge for our next project, rum. John Maher is the owner/proprietor of The Rogue Gentlemen located in the historic Jackson Ward in Richmond. John is a lover of all things rum, and he partnered with us to produce a 94 proof white rum, Jackson & James. We use the finest unrefined sugar to produce versatile rum that is perfect for sipping or mixing. Again, we wanted our label to honor where we come from. It made sense to combine our name with The Rogue Gentlemen’s location for the rum name, and thus Jackson & James was born. Our label features the wrought iron that Jackson Ward is known for. In fact, Jackson Ward is second only to New Orleans in the amount of wrought iron used in the architecture.

Just up the road from The Rogue Gentlemen and still in Jackson Ward is another restaurant/bar, GwarBar. A heavy metal band known for its costumes and controversial lyrics and themes, Gwar has been a Richmond mainstay since the early 1980s when they formed at Virginia Commonwealth University. Together, we produced a vodka appropriately named Arctic Snow that will delight traditional potato vodka drinkers.

Obviously here at James River Distillery, we are big fans of our state and our city, and we incorporate our love in everything we do. If you find yourself in Richmond, come by our distillery. We’d love to share our love of all things Virginia and show you how we incorporate that love into our spirits.

Tasting Notes:

An American-style gin that is light on the juniper. Features ten different botanicals, including two different hop varieties (Cascade and Amarillo), with hints of cantaloupe for a crisp finish.

A more traditional “London Dry” gin that is juniper forward. It also features nine different botanicals, including coriander, cardamom seed, sarsaparilla, and angelica root, for depth of flavor.

A navy strength gin at 114 proof. We keep it simple with notes of lemon and lime. It is surprisingly smooth for this high proof and will add a depth of flavor to cocktails.

An aquavit that has that distinct aquavit flavor, featuring caraway, fennel, and orange peel. The star of the show is the oyster shells that add a bit of minerality, and make for a very versatile spirit that can be paired with sweet or savory or simply drunk straight.

A 94proof white rum. With notes of caramel and toffee, this smooth rum is the perfect addition for anything calling for rum.

A 80 proof potato vodka that has been distilled four times to ensure smoothness, while still maintaining a hint of that traditional potato character.