- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2008

VIRGINIA BEACH | On a recent evening, in a small but immaculate Virginia Beach warehouse, Chris Richeson stood in front of an erector-set-looking thing attached to an enormous, stainless-steel vat.

As the vat’s motor emitted a rhythmic drone, Mr. Richeson fixed his eyes on a glass beaker filled with clear liquid he had siphoned. Two glass instruments submerged in the liquid would tell him whether the vat’s contents are legal in Virginia.

Mr. Richeson is the owner of Chesapeake Bay Distillery, a small enterprise in the Lynnhaven area, where he crafts and hand bottles a corn-based vodka called Spirits of the Blue Ridge. The vodka has been sold at state liquor stores since September.

His distillery is one of a growing number of small “craft” liquor-making operations bubbling up in Virginia.

Across the state, five small distilleries drip out vodka, bourbon, whiskey and a brand of liquor derived from a family moonshine recipe called Virginia Lightning. Four of them started stoking the stills in the past three years.

Another distillery is under construction south of Charlottesville, and more applications are pending with the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

It’s all in the spirit of a nationwide trend.

“Everything is going through a renaissance - beer, bread,” said Bill Owens, president of the California-based American Distilling Institute, an organization for small distillers. “Everything is going back to being handcrafted.”

Ten years ago, his organization represented 40 small distilleries. Today, the number is 144.

Part of the reason for the growth, Mr. Owens said, is new technology that makes it easier and more economical to operate a small distillery.

Mr. Richeson also cites a 1980 change in federal regulations: A federal agent no longer must be on-site to oversee operations each day. Distillers had to provide the agents an office and restroom.

Virginia has long been home to two large liquor distillers: A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg, which has been making Virginia Gentleman Bourbon since Prohibition ended 75 years ago, and Laird & Co.’s distillery in North Garden near Charlottesville, which has been making Captain Apple Jack with Shenandoah apples since the 1940s.

Belmont Farms Distillery in Culpeper is the oldest of the little guys and a pioneer in the craft distillery movement, said Jeanette Miller, who owns the farm with her husband, Chuck. In 1987, they began bottling Virginia Lightning, based on Mr. Miller’s grandfather’s recipe for moonshine. The Millers grow their own corn for their product.

Belmont is the largest of the state’s little guys, producing 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of spirits each year. That’s hardly a jigger compared with the big guys such as Bowman, which sends out 64,000 gallons of Virginia Gentleman each year.

In Richmond, Paul McCann began offering the first bottles of Cirrus Vodka in 2006. The vodka is crafted from start to finish at his distillery. Mr. McCann, who earned his master’s degree in industrial design at Old Dominion University, has already won prestigious awards with Cirrus, including a Gold Medal at the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

He makes small batches, using deep-aquifer spring water and Virginia-grown potatoes whenever possible, including produce from Pungo and the Eastern Shore.

“It is very much an art,” said Mr. McCann, whose frosted-glass 750 milliliter bottles go for $22.95. “We are what you would call chefs, just in a different setting.”

Mr. Richeson, 39, studied finance in college and acquired an interest in manufacturing.

He recently had his parents and a family friend helping him bottle batch No. 12 - 300 gallons that would yield 660 bottles.

At one point, Mr. Richeson went into his office to check some numbers.

He reappeared a moment later.

“We’re legal,” he said, smiling. The proof of the vodka - the strength of the alcohol - measured 80.2, exactly meeting the state’s requirement. “Now I need to make sure it tastes good.”

Mr. Richeson strives for a smooth, silky vodka with a “neutral nose,” absent of an alcohol taste or burn. He splashed a bit into a stemmed wineglass, inhaled, sipped, swallowed, paused, sipped again and deemed the batch a good one.

No. 12 is the final batch that Mr. Richeson will make from corn distilled in Oregon and shipped to his plant. In August, he will install a still in the warehouse and begin distilling corn himself - local corn whenever possible.

Blue Ridge sells for $22.45, about the price of Stolichnaya and Three Olives. His brand already has caught on locally. Liquor stores stock it, and several restaurants and bars serve it.

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