077 – Ian Thomas, Marlene Steiner, Virginia Distillery Company
Without the E. It’s a twofer on Edacious! In this episode, we hear from Marlene Steiner and Ian Thomas, both of Virginia Distillery Company in Lovingston, Virginia. Today’s podcast is another chance to educate everyone on the American Single Malt spirit category and on Virginia Distillery Company who are making waves, collecting awards as they do. In March VDC was named the Best American Single Malt Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards, presented by Whisky Magazine. When their own single malt, distilled right here in Virginia, is ready in 2019? I’ve no doubt the medals will continue to roll in.
Founder Dr. George Moore was a native Irishman and successful entrepreneur whose passions were Virginia and whisky. He raised his family here because it reminded him of Ireland and spent his life marrying his passions, working to establish a true whisky distillery in Virginia. Son Gareth and his wife Maggie carry on that tradition with VDC. First up? A complete tour of the process and a conversation with Distillery Director Ian Thomas.
My favorite part? The Cask Room full of aging whisky. The minute you walk in you’re hit with a wall of lovely smells, wood, oak and aging alcohol with hints of vanilla and caramel. Air so thick and redolent if you breathe through your mouth you can taste it. I never wanted to leave!
“There’s something about this industry where it’s not quite instant gratification. You have to have a good bit of patience when making good whisky. There’s something about walking into a space like that and seeing a sea of 7-800 casks resting and waiting…It fills me with joy.” —Ian Thomas
How do you know when whisky is ready for bottling? Who makes the final decision? Sensory analysis and training your palate is a huge part. The distillers train themselves, but also take a wide-open approach involving a tasting panel made up of folks in the brand department, production, and on the corporate side. Even folks working as Guest Experience Managers get a say. The distillers take that data, reference it, and make some decisions. Ian hails from Memphis, Tennessee where he studied Biology. Beyond distilling, Ian and his team are working hard to promote American Single Malt Whisky as a viable, respected, clearly-defined product.
“We’re working hard with the American Single Malt Commission…to drive home this defining category of American Single Malt…We’re really striving to help push this category…and get it defined…As a consumer, you always want to know what it is that you’re purchasing…it’s very much about knowing truly, if this is a single malt, there should be nothing blended into it.” —Ian Thomas
Does single malt reign supreme? Are blends better? We discuss both schools of thought. There is true skill to blending consistently and a couple of different approaches. But a truly great single malt can be a beautiful thing as well. Both require their own unique talents. Whisky, like wine, has terroir. VDC’s whiskies use raw materials and water from Nelson County. They’re barrel-aged in Virginia, making it a true Virginia whisky, distilled in Virginia with Virginia resources. This is whisky without the “e” folks.
“To us bourbon is kind of a swear word, and really defining the difference between those categories and those types of whiskies…To us it’s who we are. We’re rooted in that tradition…owning it and making it ours. Our process is here stateside as an American whisky. It’s a blend of old world meets new world, and kind of our spin on it.” —Ian Thomas
Climate also plays a huge part in terroir. Whisky distilled here will taste different from one created on Islay or in the Scottish Highlands. Barrels are made of wood which is porous. They expand, contract, and breathe with every change in temperature and humidity, affecting the maturation process and taste. Climate data sensors live in every warehouse and minute information is constantly collected. The more data you collect, the more you learn the effects of climate, honing those a bit better to the maturation process. What does it mean to have a background in yeast? What is Ian’s favorite part of the fermentation process? Give a listen!
Next up we speak with Brand Director Marlene Steiner about more “Front of House” subjects like cocktails, distillery events, community initiatives, and of course The Virginia Whisky Experience Tour, a hands-on interactive educational foray into the origins of whisky right here in Nelson County. My favorite part? The antique alcohol still a generous neighbor donated to be a part of the tour. One very similar in appearance to ones mentioned by my Nelson County born-and-bred granddaddy. Another part? A presentation on the effects of Hurricane Camille which devastated this county back in 1969 and actually changed agricultural regulations, causing Nelson to become wet in more ways than one.
Another natural disaster, forest fire, threatened the distillery just last Fall, but thankfully first responders were able to save the business. Nothing was damaged and neighbors stepped up, allowing firefighters onto their property to backburn, minimizing damage. VDC responded by creating their Nelson County First Responders Single Barrel, partnering with local coffee roaster Trager Brothers on this project, and all proceeds were donated to Nelson County First Responders.
“We were just really happy to give back a little bit of love to our first responder teams…we had so many local teams that were on site very quickly…you just think about the amount of energy these people put in because they’re all volunteers and so they’re spending time away from family and friends. They’re so community driven…we’re really just so grateful for that…just their support and everything they did to help us…what better way to give back…we make whisky and we make good whisky.” —Marlene Steiner
The response was so great VDC now plans to do a charity cask every year. Taking potential disaster as an opportunity for community growth. What’s better than that? Another part of caring? Sustainability. Spent grain from the distillery is given to Early Dawn dairy farm for use as feed. Extra CO2, a natural part of the brewing process, is funneled out naturally. An extra step not many other distilleries take. Another aspect is the Partner Program, working with local wineries and cideries like Grace Estate and Potter’s Craft Cider (a past podcast guest) to trade barrels, which add flavors to whiskey, cider, and wine depending on the barrel used.
As Brand Director, Marlene creates awareness, enthusiasm, and loyalty for the product. She helped construct the Visitor Center, the tour, works in product development, and keeps the team well-staffed and well-educated on hospitality. It shows. Unlike some places, this isn’t a pour and go operation. You always feel welcomed and very knowledgable about what you’re drinking. VDC is working to make sure their story gets out even if you’re enjoying VDC in Boston or Chicago. Why is story important to a brand? What ABC restrictions have caused VDC to create amazingly creative cocktails, furthering the reach of their brand? Listen to learn more.
When the VDC single malt is finally ready in 2019? I’ll be there. Virginia Distillery Company is always an enjoyable, unique experience. From CEO Gareth Moore all the way down to every Guest Experience Associate you can see the enthusiasm and passion for their product. Everyone is friendly and eager to show you why the VDC Virginia Highland Malt Whisky is stellar. You can find Virginia Highland Malt Whiskey at your local ABC store or at the distillery. Get a gorgeous gift basket with a rose gold shaker. Grab some friends and join The Cask Society. Try the whisky-infused chocolates at Gearhart’s (a past podcast guest). Stay tuned for their Whisky Tiki event later this summer. But not before listening to this fantastic episode. Cheers!
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
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Enjoy these photos from my tour. I won’t pretend to know all of the steps, so you’ll just have to take The Virginia Whisky Experience tour for yourself. Wish I had Smell-O-Vision for these. Because it was heavenly! Slangevar!
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