The man who is reinventing whiskey talks about his eureka moment.
"No one else was doing it," says Rick Wasmund, standing with a rake in the middle of a huge row of barley in the new Williamsburg location of his distillery, Copper Fox. "It's still a little hard to believe."
In another life, he was an insurance agent who had a light bulb moment at a malted whiskey tasting. "I heard the [server] talk about the peat smoke flavoring the malt. And for several years, I'd been into burning fruitwood for its aromatic qualities. I loved that smell."
One day, years before that, he had found the untended remains of a campfire, "just some junk sticks on a mound. But underneath it was a big pile of something sweet. It smelled so great that I didn't want to put it out. Instead, I wanted to make a drink and stand around it. I figured out eventually that it was peat that was burning."
Wasmund laughs. "Cherrywood friggin' peat."
He asked himself, why not use smoked fruit trees to flavor whiskey? "It was such a good idea, but no one else was doing it" he says, shaking his head. "How does this opportunity even exist?"
Since 2004, Wasmund, 58, has operated the first Copper Fox location in Sperryville, a former apple juice factory situated 2 miles from Shenandoah National Park. Here, in this mountain micro distillery, crafting his spirits single-batch style in a copper potstill, the gregarious entrepreneur in the beach bum clothes has forged a reputation as an innovator—The Atlantic called him "the country's most exciting distiller"—mostly for the way he uses smoked fruitwood instead of pure peat in his product's manufacture.
It was sort of like "Field of Dreams"—Malt It and They Will Come. He believed so much in his smoked fruit epiphany that he retired from the insurance trade and applied for an internship to Bowmore, Scotland, on the Isle of Islay, one of the few distilleries still malting its own kiln-smoked barley. "I went there to figure out if this was really something that I wanted to do," he says. "And because no one in America was malting their own barley, I sort of had to go. The whole point of the process was that we would malt the barley with different smokes."
He remembers that his ideas about using fruitwood were not discouraged at all by the Scottish masters. "The people there encouraged me to experiment. It wasn't something that they were going to do, but they weren't telling me not to."
When Copper Fox first debuted in Sperryville with the applewood-infused "Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky" (the owner prefers the old-fashioned Scots spelling), and later Wasmund's Rye, he had to fight the perception that he was pushing a gimmick. Early press reports, like a prominent 2009 profile in The Atlantic, likened the enthusiastic entrepreneur to a mad scientist: "The Doc Brown of distilling." Some scoffed at the idea that a single malt under 10 years of age could deserve consideration. Others found the product too sweet, almost like a liqueur. "[It is] lacking in the deeper, more complex flavors that give fine whiskeys their structure," The Wall Street Journal criticized.
But Wasmund was learning, and the flavor just got better.
"I love tasting those early batches," says Sean McCaskey, the manager in Sperryville and Wasmund's longtime assistant. "Some of them had more fruit, some more smoke, and we found out eventually that that's what's interesting to people, all of the little differences between the batches because we are doing these single batches. We have people anticipating what the next batch will taste like."
"When we first came out, it was different whiskey than today even," Wasmund says. "No one had ever made anything like it before, so we didn't know what it was supposed to taste like or where we wanted to go. People liked it, we liked it, but we were always striving for improvement. From the start, it had this distinct flavor with that applewood. The first batch was not very dark in color, and kind of thin, but the flavor was there."
Through successive batches—introducing cherrywood and eventually peachwood in the smoker—news spread about Wasmund's (which retails in Virginia for $44.99 a bottle). When its rye whiskey and single malts each won gold awards in 2013 and 2015 from the Beverage Tasting Institute, the industry took notice too. And the Copper Fox has continued to innovate, not only using smoked applewood (and other fruit trees) on the front end of the process but aging the whiskey with charred applewood chips as it sits barreled in special wine barrels sourced from local wineries: this not only infuses the liquid with more flavor; it speeds up the maturation process.
McCaskey points out that the results have fooled the experts. "We sent the Scotch Whisky Research Institute some six month, chip-infused, single malt and asked them what they thought. They thought it had been aged seven years."
"You can tell from the taste instantly that the people involved in this have spent a lot of time, effort and are gaining a lot of experience and putting that through in their product," says Ralf Mitchell, the popular Scottish web critic who uses the name "Ralfy" to review spirits. He thinks Wasmund's, and other "world whiskies" breaking with Scottish traditions can gain a future market advantage by exploring the properties of different wood. "There are hundreds of thousands of varieties of different wood. Each with their own personality. And wood can add such individualism and complexity to the right kind of delicate beverage."
For years, the Fox was the only distillery in North America to malt its own barley—professional malting houses usually do the work—and the fruit trees used to smoke and season the barley are also harvested locally.
"We've worked with one group of farmers through Virginia Tech to get our seed," Wasmund says. "The barley we use for our single malt whiskey, they've been working on it for years. They didn't have anybody making commercial alcohol with Virginia barley before we came along. No one was malting East Coast grain at all because they hadn't yet developed the strains of barley that would do well in this climate."
"The spirits business is very competitive," says Copper Fox Distillery's Rick Wasmund.
"A lot of people out there are making a lot of good stuff. So if you are trying to be a
business, you need to try to make it better or make it cheaper. We went down the
better or different road." Copper Fox's second location is now open in Williamsburg,
inside the former Lord Paget Hotel, and its signature Wasmund's single-malt and
rye whiskies have been hailed the world over. The secret? Copper Fox malts its own
fruitwood-smoke seasoned barley and ages the product by infusing it with applewood
The new Copper Fox location in Williamsburg is a work in progress. It still looks and feels like the Quality Inn Lord Paget Hotel, which closed after nearly 60 years of being a tourist mainstay in the city's Northeast triangle— "it was once a real Queen hotel around here, I'm told," the new owner says. Some of the accommodating Colonial-style bungalows are still occupied but by members of Wasmund's family (including his mother, Helen, who has been a longtime Copper Fox employee), and selected helpers. The plan is that, once its full conversion into a working grain-to-bottle distillery is complete, some of the old Lord Paget will turn back into a functioning hotel.
Two years ago, while keeping the pots of Sperryville in the hands of Sean McCaskey, Wasmund uprooted his family and moved to this former 6 1/2-acre, nine-building hotel complex, purchased from the city of Williamsburg for $600,000 (along with incentive capital from the state). They now reside in Building "I"—it stands for "I live here," says Rick—nestled in the back of the grounds next to a scenic pond. His wife, Chelsea, used to be a nurse, and now she works for the company. She and Rick started this new Williamsburg venture with a newborn son in the house.
"We like the people and the town," he says of Williamsburg. "We miss the mountains, but we have the beach."
Copper Fox's commitment to making a Virginia-first product (and a promise to employ more than two dozen workers) earned its new Williamsburg venture special attention, and a $50,000 incentive grant, from the state's Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) Fund. The estimated $2 million overhaul of the Lord Paget was announced at a special 2014 press conference attended by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Today, on a Tuesday closed to the public, it's quiet here. Signs in the center of Copper Fox inform visitors that it is 127 miles to Sperryville and 3,410 miles to Bowmore, Scotland. Wasmund leads me around the complex to buildings under renovation. "We're not doing the fermenting and cooking here yet," he says. "We're still doing that in Sperryville for now. But that's what all of this is geared toward."
When he bought the building, Wasmund thought this new distillery could produce 80,000 cases per year—more than double the current output. He also hopes that the expanded operation will enable the company to make bourbon mash—the distillery now produces a gin, Vir, infused with its trademark botanicals—and increase its retail exposure. One success in that area has been Wasmund's Barrel Kits, which has since been copied by other whiskey makers. Here, amateur distillers can age their own stuff using a 2-liter charred American White Oak mini-barrel and two 750ml bottles of the company's 124 proof spirits, either whisky or rye. With these ingredients, they can play mad scientist Rick Wasmund at home.
One of the former hotel buildings will be turned into a 3,600-square-foot malting house with a storage room large enough for hundreds of barrels, while the former Lord Paget front office will morph into a retail shop complete with a working still. Wasmund is also drawing inspiration from his time with the Scots. "The hotel swimming pool is our source for cool water for running through the condenser, cooling the spirits as it goes back," he points. "Where I did my internship in Bowmore, they used a community swimming pool to cool the stills. So we worked it out and we can actually cool the stills the same way."
We enter the malt house, an area kept very cool, and for good reason: There are rows of grain on the floor, germinating. While there's no real cooking here as of yet, there is malting to be done. Wasmund takes a rake and starts tilling. "You have to rake it every few hours to keep it from clumping, keep the temperature up. It's already been soaked." Later, he shows me the tank where the barley marinates and the stacks of cherrywood trees he will use to smoke it as it dries out.
"So it's already started the germination process of the seed. The purpose is to change the starch into sugar. There's a two- or three-day soak, then five days on the floor where the sugar is optimized and then we dry it out. We do that by dropping it down these two hatches into the kiln."
Wasmund is known for using 100 percent Virginia grain, but he admits that the stuff that the Fox is working with today is from Maryland. On the side, in between its own work, Copper Fox malts barley for dozens of craft breweries across the country—locally, places like Flying Dog, O'Connor, Hardywood—and this batch is for one of them. Malting has been a very lucrative side business for Copper Fox from the start, as craft beer makers discovered the wonders of sweet-smoked malt (Sean McCaskey says that this side gig pretty much kept the lights on in Sperryville's early days).
Wasmund heads to a room where large drum barrels and hefty bags of grain sit handsomely arranged. After the whisky is made, he explains, there is the process of maturing it. "We're not only smoking with it; we're infusing the liquid with it. We age it with applewood and oak wood chips, which is a little bit pioneering."
How would you describe the flavor, I query.
"Would you like a taste?"
I thought he'd never ask.
Wasmund takes me back to the tasting house, a combination cocktail bar and gift shop in the center of the complex, adorned with tables and chairs for the daily Williamsburg tasting tours. "This was the breakfast nook at the Lord Paget Hotel, he says, "a place guests would have breakfast."
I huddle up to the bar and try tastes of the single malts—infused with the apple and cherry woods—savoring each sip in front of its smiling creator.
One can't miss the hints of fruit, but this whiskey is also—as one writer called it—closer to "woodsky" than "whiskey," so prevalent is the influence of smoked wood. It's a hearty slug, and you might need a drop of water to fully let it expand for your taste buds. But this is a very smooth, very tasty ride. I can see how the whiskey experts—hung up on tradition but recognizing taste and quality—might be a little torn about Copper Fox.
It's what the owner-bartender serves up next that makes me swoon. It's an artisan cocktail made of Wasmund's new peachwood single malt, peach lemonade and mint, garnished with an orange slice. "We call this the Impeachmint, with Orange Combover," he says with a wink.
The distillery started doing peach about three years ago, he says as I sip and savor. "When we came here to Williamsburg, we ran across a nearby peach orchard, and we just started malting."
For more on Copper Fox Distillery, visit CopperFox.biz.