The bestselling 2008 novel “The Wettest County in the World”—later turned into the hit 2012 film “Lawless” starring Shia LeBouef and Tom Hardy—told the story of how Franklin County southwest Virginia became the center of the moonshine and bootlegging trade in the U.S. during Prohibition. In Northern Virginia at the time, Loudoun was far from being the wettest county in the world. “We were once a popular meeting place for the Virginia arm of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which helped usher in Prohibition,” said Greg Moore, chief distiller at Flying Ace Farm Brewery and Distillery.
Times, tastes, technologies, and regulations change. Fast forward to 2023 and Loudoun is not only known as DC’s Wine Country with more than 50 wineries and home to the LoCo Ale Trail with more than 30 breweries, it’s also the center of a burgeoning craft distillery scene.
This month—Saturday, May 20 is World Whiskey Day and Monday, May 22 National Craft Distillery Day—is a good time to celebrate that scene and the creative people behind it.
While Moore and Flying Ace Farm have won multiple awards for their blended bourbon and White Dog three grain whiskey since opening in 2020, Loudoun’s whiskey revival really began in Purcellville 14 years ago—ironically not far from the Bush Tabernacle where that Temperance Union used to meet. It was in 2009 that chemical engineer Rebecca Harris and her husband, Scott, opened Catoctin Creek Distillery, the first distillery in Loudoun since Prohibition.
“Virginians were among the first in our nation to make rye whiskey,” Rebecca said. “We faithfully dedicated ourselves to that tradition.” Today, Harris is arguably one of the greatest female whiskey makers in America and Catoctin Creek’s flagship Roundstone Rye, a pre-Prohibition style whiskey made from 100% mostly local rye grain, has won dozens of awards.
The distillery hosts several events in May, most notably the popular free “Bottling Workshops” on May 7, where volunteers get a chance to learn how to bottle, cap, seal and label a Roundstone Rye. Buy one as a gift and tell your friend you bottled it yourself.
Hard on the heels of Catoctin Creek came Mt Defiance Distillery, which opened in Middleburg in 2014. Similarly inspired by Virginia’s craft spirits tradition, the owners set about bringing back “lost spirits”—classic liquors that had fallen out of fashion in post-Prohibition America. Distiller Peter Ahlf, a former NASA rocket scientist, started making twice-distilled apple brandy and then rum before moving on to a slate of niche liquors including Gin Nouveau, Agave Spirits (tequila), Straight and Smoked Whiskey and— intriguingly—a green 140% proof Absinthe Supérieure based on a 19th century French recipe. Swing by in May and you can sample the new Spring Cocktail Menu —every drink mixed with spirit made on the premises.
Over at Flying Ace Farm in Lovettsville meanwhile, Moore, who cut his teeth as assistant distiller under Becky Harris at Catoctin Creek, continues to master those bourbons. Visit in May and try the American Ace White Dog whiskey made using rare Bloody Butcher corn grown on the farm. We suspect it would have given that potent Franklin County moonshine a run for its money back in the day.
To many, the overpopulation of breweries and wineries and similar sites designed to separate dollars from wallets while producing drunks isn't the great thing that our politicians would like to pretend it is.
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