The Copper Fox Distillery is tucked in the small town of Sperryville, Virginia, mere miles away from the mountains forming the Shenandoah National Park. I toured it last year, and the experience stuck with me: the aroma of malting barley, the sound of splitting applewood, the sweet old lab who ambled up to me to say hello, the cat curled snuggly on a whiskey barrel, and the desk of hand-labeled bottles of whiskey batches with notepad for scribbled tasting notes.
This time around, late in the day, I had the place practically to myself. Owner Rick Wasmund mixed up some Manhattans, and we sat on the back porch by a shallow stream, watching the sun set through the trees. He came here in 2000 to launch his whiskey operation after apprenticing in Scotland on the Isle of Islay.
Wasmund wanted to approach whiskey like no one before him, and to make it unique to his locale. To achieve that, he had three flashes of genius:
- Malt his own barley. Few distilleries in the world take on the labor intensive malting process, choosing to outsource instead. Wasmund not only malts, rakes, and fruitwood-smokes his own barley, but he sources it locally, so the whiskey is truly Virginia grown.
- Infuse the barley with smoke from local fruitwoods. While Scots flavor their barley with peat smoke, Wasmund settled on local applewood and cherrywood. The area teams with orchards that benefit from frequent trimming.
- Add toasted fruitwood chips to the aging process. Most whiskeys absorb their flavor from the barrel itself (in this case, used bourbon barrels of charred white oak). Wasmund heightens flavor by lowering wood chips into the barrel in cheese cloth bags. He experimented with grapefruit, mango, pecan, maple, and cherry, before deciding on a combination of apple and oak. Each batch is different. In his words, “It’s like Grandma’s cookies; they’re always good, but they’re not always the same.”
The result? A single malt whiskey so fabulous that even Europeans have taken to it, along with Russians and Australians. The fact that Wasmund ships to Scotland, where he originally learned his trade, must be a great feather in his cap. But for now, he is content to sip a Manhattan on the back deck after a day’s work and savor this little slice of Virginia paradise.