“Ready to taste some bourbon?”
This is the greeting we received from Alex Toomy, Founder and Managing Partner of Ragged Branch Distillery as we entered the tasting room at the distillery. And never one to turn down a bourbon tasting, I said yes.
Back in late August when Michelle Hunt, Manager, Marketing, and Operations Director for Ragged Branch reached out to Bourbon and Banter and asked if we would like to visit their distillery, I volunteered for the task. Ragged Branch, located only 15 minutes outside of Charlottesville, VA is only about two and half hours from our house in Leesburg, and I thought the trip would make for a great weekend.
Before our trip, I did some research on Ragged Branch and was impressed by what I saw. My only reservation was that I am not fond of young bourbons and haven’t found any craft distilleries with really good tasting bourbons. So as I sat down with Alex to taste his bourbon, I was somewhat concerned that this would be about the same. As I sipped, however, first the wheated bourbon they produce and then the one they call the rye bourbon, I was wildly surprised. This was two and a half-year-old bourbon with a great taste.
The idea for Ragged Branch Distillery was born in 2009 by Alex Toomy while drinking some bourbon with friends. Alex, a farmer, and developer hurt by the economic downturn in 2008 was searching for an idea for the next great project. The idea went from making moonshine on his farm to creating a bourbon distillery. Alex approached his friends Chris Sarpy, and Russell Nance about becoming partners and the distillery was founded in 2010. By chance, Alex happened to see Dave Pickerell on the History Channel. Alex cold called Pickerell formed a relationship, and soon signed a deal with him as a consultant.
So why is this two and a half-year-old bourbon so good? As my wife, Patti, and I sipped on our drinks, I got to spend about an hour talking to Alex and Michelle. A far-ranging conversation about Ragged Branch. Here are the points that struck me.
If you would like a definition of sustainability, this is it. Ragged Branch is located on Ragged Branch’s farm outside of Charlottesville. Prior to the distillery, Alex raised cattle and horses and grew corn. His vision for a distillery included the use of the used mash as feed for the cattle on the farm. Also, all the grain used in the production of the bourbon is either grown on the farm or sourced on land leased by the Distillery. You can stand on the patio of the tasting room and see fields of corn just across the way. The water used in the production comes from a deep well on the farm. Alex told us that there is almost no waste from the creation of the bourbon. Whatever is left over is used on the farm. Any water left over from cutting the bourbon to 90 proof is recycled and used as a coolant for the cooker. Alex told me that the amount of wastewater generated in the whole process was minimal.
Everything is done locally. Alex built the barns that hold the still and other distilling equipment and also the rick barn. The bar in the tasting room is made from reclaimed wood from an old shed. The design for the bottle label was created by a local graphics designer, and the logo that hangs behind the bar and the copper top for the bar were crafted by a local welder.
The production staff at Ragged Branch are graduates of Virginia Tech’s agricultural program. Also, the distillery has reached out to Virginia Tech in hopes of providing an internship. Ragged Branch has recently received a state Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development grant for sourcing all of its grain from Virginia producers and creating new jobs in the industry. Albemarle County is to also provide matching funds.
Alex stressed sustainable farming as a key point in the distillery, and you can see why.
I asked Alex what he thought was the most important point in producing great tasting bourbon? He quickly answered: Consistency.
Alex said that everything they do is consistent with their process. The water in the mash is consistent right down to the kernel of corn. As I said before, Ragged Branch only uses locally grown crops. These crops according to Alex have absorbed minerals unique to the area. He believes this contributes to a taste which is distinct to this area of Virginia. The grain for the day’s cook is ground fresh on site every day which Alex believes makes a difference. The water comes from a deep well and is filtered several times. The process is repeated every day. Ragged Branch is distilling every day, 365 days a year. They run this often because the mash is used to feed the cattle every day.
I asked Alex about his yeast. Most distilleries seem to keep their yeast a closely held secret. He told me they buy their yeast and they picked their vendor because they knew it is always consistent. He further told me that the yeast for the wheated bourbon is different than that of the rye-based bourbon.
In our conversation, Alex was adamant that from the beginning he wanted to make bourbon the “old school” way and that is one of the prime reasons he has dealt with Dave Pickerell. In Alex’s opinion, and of many others as well, Dave Pickerell is one of the top bourbon and rye distillers in the world. Their relationship started not long after Pickerell retired from Makers Mark. Dave Pickerell is the Master Distiller at Ragged Branch. He helped put the still together and visited from time to time to help pick barrels and do the blending of the barrels for bottling.
From the beginning, Alex said he only wanted to age his bourbon in 53-gallon barrels. Early on, Pickerell convinced Alex to jump-start the business by producing batches in 25-gallon barrels to age and sell after two years. It is Pickerell’s belief that aging in smaller barrels for the two-year period would give the bourbon a more aged flavor in that timeframe. Only enough two-year bourbon was made to have to market until the 53-gallon barrels reached four years in age. Ragged Branch barreled their first 53 gallon barrels in July 2014. These barrels will begin to be bottled in July of 2018 – four-year-old bourbon. The first of the 25-gallon barrels were bottled in April of 2017 and is just starting to find its way into the market and will be in 50 Virginia ABC Stores, beginning October 1, 2017.
The commitment by Alex Toomy and his partners was to make Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Presently the distillery produces one barrel a day, about 20,000 gallons a year. There are plans to double production shortly. The Rick Barn currently holds about 1,000 aging barrels of bourbon with also about 60 barrels of Rye whiskey. Barrel Number One is prominently displayed in the rick barn where everyone who enters can see. The barrel is signed by all who were at the party for the first barrel fill. Over in the barn with the still are the 25-gallon barrels which are starting to roll out now. They do not source any bourbon, and they do not produce any other spirits. It has made the waiting hard, but it is now starting to reach fruition.
We were struck by the teamwork and camaraderie; we saw while at Ragged Branch. It was evident in the personnel in the tasting room, the production crew and with Alex and Michelle as well. Everyone was knowledgeable about the product and the process. The two men on the production that day, Sawyer and Chris, were helpful and willing to take the time to answer questions and to give all their guests a tour. The pride in their work was evident. The same was true in the tasting room with Ellie who was running the tastings and the new Chef/Mixologist Josh. And as part of the team don’t forget “Bootlegger.” As Alex says, “every distillery should have a dog.” Make sure you say hi to Bootlegger when you visit, you can’t miss him.
The design of the bottle, label, bar, and logo has been a team effort as well. Also, bottling is also done on site. A truck actually comes to the distillery. I didn’t realize this was possible, but after some research, it appears to be more common place then you would think. According to Michelle, this was a major team effort as well. As she describes it, “It’s a team effort for sure! Alex and Chef Josh were inside with corks, capsules, and labels along with the bottling man; and the rest of the team was outside doing quality control, boxing, taping and labeling boxes….not to mention building pallets and shrink-wrapping. It was quite a day and builds awesome camaraderie among our group!”
The Tasting Room
The front of the Ragged Branch Distillery is the tasting room. Best described as a great room with a three-sided copper top bar, a sitting area with sofas and a fireplace and a kitchen. Outside is a porch with rockers and a large patio with tables and chairs. The view is indescribably beautiful, looking out at the Blue Ridge Mountains. During our visit, Ellie was behind the bar pouring the bourbon and making cocktails. Chef Josh who works on different cocktail recipes also cooked up a fabulous lunch for Patti, and I which consisted of a smash burger with pickled watermelon and traditional American Cheese, along with a skirt steak smothered in a roasted red pepper puree – all with beef that was raised on the farm. It was fabulous!
The tasting room serves tastings of the Ragged Branch Bourbons and some specialty cocktails. During our visit Patti had an “Old School,” a take on an Old Fashioned and the “Figgy Critter,” signature cocktail created for the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA 2017 Critter Ball fundraiser. In addition to the bourbons, I enjoyed the cocktail, “The Marksman,” similar to a Manhattan. Everything we tasted was excellent. Oh and one other point: Remember that beef I mentioned that is being fed with the spent mash? It is for sale in the tasting room as well. Fresh or frozen, ground or prime cuts.
Ragged Branch produces Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey. This was the idea from the beginning. Locally sourced grain, water from the ground. Alex and his partners always stress that this bourbon is the taste of Virginia, and of Albemarle County. I am sure there are skeptics who will ask how excellent bourbon can be made in Virginia, it is not like Kentucky. The facts are these: The latitude of Charlottesville, VA would place it between Louisville and Bardstown, Kentucky. Thomas Jefferson mined limestone on a location near Ragged Branch. Perfect climate, limestone-filtered water, and soil that in the piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic States is as fertile as anywhere. Ragged Branch and Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I can’t wait for the release of the four-year bourbon.
Wait you say, what about the bourbon? Stay tuned for Part Two.