Monday, May 17, 2010

Roll Out the Barrels

A few weeks ago I went out to dinner with my friends Andrea and Christina and we noticed a display for a mini-barrel of whiskey paired with a bottle of clear alcohol.  It was a "kit" to age your own whiskey.  Well, sign me up!  Given that my husband and I, my brother, and many of our friends really enjoy whiskey, I knew this was something I needed to investigate.  So, I took a flyer home and visited their website.

Sure enough, Washmund's Copper Fox Distillery not only offer tours, but will sell you various sized barrels to hold your single malt spirits.  You control the aging and can influence what flavors the whiskey during that time.  How cool is that?

My husband and I decided to pay them a visit this weekend and pick out our own barrel.  Drive towards the Blue Ridge Mountains to the town of Sperryville, Virginia, turn down the dirt-covered River Road, and you will see the Copper Fox Distillery, just across from an antique store.

Founded by Rick Wasmund; his mother, Helen; and his friend Sean McCaskey, Wasmund's Copper Fox Distillery produces a unique single-malt whiskey.  We parked out front and wonderful aromas of fruit, smoke, toasted wood and barley greeted us at the door, along with a brown and grey tabby cat...Rick and Sean were also working and agreed to give us a tour.

We started in the malt room.  Wasmund's is the only distillery in North America to malt their own barley, thereby controlling the flavor of the whiskey from beginning to end.  They use Virginia grown winter barley delivered by the farmer.  The kernels are poured into a special tank, where they soak in well water for three days or so.

This begins the process of malting - the barley is encouraged to germinate, but is stopped before a new barley plant starts to grow.  An enzyme in the barley converts its starch to sugar.  To make sure the grain gets air and light, it is spread on the clean concrete floor of the malting room, where raking multiple times a day keeps all sides exposed and prevents clumping.  Wasmund's mother, the "Manager of Malt" oversees this part of the operation.

The next step is to move the barley to the kiln for drying.  The enclosed kiln has two levels, a lower one with a wood burning stove that burns oak, apple, and cherry woods.

Smoke and heat drifts up through a perforated metal floor that is the second level.  Spread across that floor is the barley.  The grain is dried over this gentle fire that halts the growth that would use up stored energy and flavors it with fruit wood smoke.

After several days of drying, the barley is stored in sacks until needed.  They make whiskey year-round, but they only malt during the fall and winter due to the heat.  We saw the last batch until cooler weather returns.

The barley is then milled into flour.  This is mixed with heated water to create a wort which is then pumped into a steel fermenting tank, where yeast is added.

The yeast consumes any sugar to make alcohol.  After a few days fermentation, this mash is basically beer without any hops.  The mash is then twice run through a copper still with a closed steam system and a condenser to obtain grain alcohol.

The spirit is then filled into used oak bourbon barrels.  The barrels are stored standing on end, not horizontally.  A hole is cut into the top of each barrel and through that chunks of toasted wood (cherry and apple) are suspended.  Wasmund calls this process chipping.  The chunks of wood apparently accelerate the aging of the whiskey and contribute to the delicious and unique flavor and scent.

Wasmund starts the tour by claiming to be trained in whiskey-making by aliens - his use of fruitwood is that unique.  The truth is he interned in a distillery in Scotland, but the use of fruitwoods in both the malting and aging makes his whiskey unlike any other.

When finished, it is bottled, sealed, waxed, and numbered all by hand.

Wasmund's whiskey is now available in 17 states, and they produce over 100 cases per month.  The distillery also just started brewing a rye whiskey.  I recommend you give them a try; I am trying to get the bottles in a few more bars here in DC.

The fruitwood helps mellow the drink, but it still has quite a kick.  It is tasty consumed neat, but I also think it will make some lovely cocktails.

I will share the process of setting up our barrel to age whiskey soon.  Stay tuned!


  1. Good lord! This is great! I was actually just going to send you an email about whether you might want to also try brewing beer with me...I've done it before, so could do it from scratch but I don't have a nice basement to keep it in!

  2. Let's do it! I'd love to brew beer with you.