Rye, Rebels and Rabble Rousers
How Becky and Scott Harris have mined Virginia’s past to recreate America’s true native spirit at Catoctin Creek.
Words by Johanna Ngoh | Photography by Kristen Dill
A chemical engineer by training, Becky Harris blinked casually at her husband’s suggestion that they quit six-figure day jobs to make whisky.“OK, I got this,” Becky told Scott, unfazed. “You just make sure we can make some money.”
After what seemed like an eternity as an IT contractor on Capitol Hill, Scott Harris was more than up for the challenge. “I like to tell people that twenty years in government taught me a great love of drinking: endless slideshow presentations, ninety minute commutes, bureaucratic meetings that wouldn’t end.” As many can relate, Scott felt the urge to get out and ‘do something useful’. “And sure, you can argue whether or not making whisky is useful. I say it is.”
“But in truth my passion for spirits comes from being born and raised in Germany as part of a military family. I saw firsthand how the culture of food was intertwined with beer, wine and spirits, and with none of the taboo that you still find in North America.”
Upon his return to the U.S., Scott couldn’t help but notice a stark contrast. “I lived in the Deep South where spirits are all but forbidden; Prohibition isn’t far off the books in many places, but it was also there that I saw some of the worst abuse of alcohol.”
Scott’s PowerPoint skills would serve him well in drafting a business proposal: within six weeks of submitting an application they were issued a quarter-million dollar SBA loan. And in 2009 the first rye whisky ran off the stills at Catoctin Creek, in the heart of Virginia wine country. To hear themselves described as early adopters, with the gumption to open a distillery before it became a thing, Scott laughs. “Now it’s almost passé.”
But why rye? As it turns out the Harrises’ inspiration came from a book instead of a bottle. “In addition to a great love of spirits, we have a great love of history,” Scott explains. Careful research into Virginia’s past revealed a colony rife with rye, rebels and rabble rousers. It seemed to be a natural fit for the Harrises as both the grain and its spirit are steeped in flavour and history, but it was The Practical Distiller by Samuel M’Harry that was the biggest influence on their business plan.
Published in 1809, it not only chronicles the liquid history of America on the heels of the infamous Whiskey Rebellion (a revolt against the first domestic tax implemented by George Washington’s new government), but details at length the production of early American whiskey, including all-rye and rye-heavy mashbills, burning straw in hogsheads to ‘sweeten’ the wood, and the use of maple charcoal to filter the spirit (in essence the genesis of Tennessee whiskey). The Harrises were entranced and got to work at the kitchen sink, testing different grains with 5-gallon mashes of barley, corn, wheat and rye made from beer wash.
“Rye and its historical significance to our area just resonated with us. Up until that time if you’d asked anyone about America’s native spirit the automatic response was bourbon; people thought of rye as Canadian. Yet rye was being made a hundred years earlier. We found that compelling so made some and just loved the flavour, it was completely different.”
A hardy Old World crop familiar to the colonists, rye was distilled in modest copper pots hung over open fires throughout the Appalachian states, Virginia included. The industry became centered around Maryland and Pennsylvania, which alone counted 65 rye distilleries by the late 1800s. Straight rye whisky, as it became known, was a staple of the American drinks cabinet long before bourbon, hence its prominence in cocktails of the early 20th century. Unfortunately Prohibition quickly extinguished these commercial concerns, along with a nation’s taste for rye’s intense, spicy style.
Little did the Harrises know that rye’s popularity was about to be fuelled by a renaissance of bold flavour thanks in part to the rebirth of cocktail cool.
Scott admits that in hindsight their timing was fortuitous. “There’s no question that rye whisky has proven to be the right product at the right time,” he says, admitting that he has never been one to time and hit the stock market. “I’m the guy who always sold when the price was low, and bought when the price was high, so I’m thankful that my timing has worked out for once!”
“When we started, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey were doing small volumes of rye but these were very conventional. It’s nothing bad, in fact it’s really quite good but it’s a rigid style and flavour. That’s the beauty of being the little guy, we can experiment with mash bills and recipes, and that kind of innovation breeds variety.”
Meeting Jeff Arnett, master distiller at Jack Daniels, further inspired Scott to explore the possibilities. “To meet Jeff my first reaction was ‘I’m not worthy’, but he quickly let me know that he envied our flexibility, our ability to do things he only wished he could. With our Kothe pot stills and rectification plates we can make anything.”
And so they do, with a current line-up that includes their white dog, organic rye, brandy, gin, limited quantities of single malt whisky, and a dizzying array of experiments that make up Catoctin Creek’s cask programme. ‘Orthogonal’ is how Scott describes maturing their rye in barrels that previously held peach brandy, maple syrup or chicory syrup, to name a few of the fun finishes in the funnel.
Chad Robinson, Catoctin Creek’s brand ambassador, likens this approach to a sound board: “All of these notes are present in our rye so it’s like taking an equalizer on a sound board and selecting one channel to turn up the fruity note, or the maple note. It’s not about boosting the sweetness, it’s about adjusting the sound quality to highlight a particular flavour.”
Scott is most proud of a 2½ year old rye that spent fifteen months in a refill bourbon barrel, and then sixteen months in an ex-Chardonnay barrel from the Francis Ford Coppola winery in Sonoma County. “In a word it was exceptional, the best thing we’ve bottled so far.”
It was a limited edition released by Single Cask Nation, a U.S.-based independent bottler focused on single malt Scotch, and the Harrises were chuffed to be the first American distillery bottled for the Nation’s members.
Again they point to the awesomeness of being small and flying by the seat of your pants. “This is an example of what a craft distillery can do. Everybody said we’d be crazy to put rye in a Chardonnay barrel — it’s not the appropriate wood, the flavours are too disparate, the end result would be too sour, too acidic.” But where’s the fun in making whisky the same as everybody else?
“We took our chances if only to see for ourselves and we couldn’t believe what came out of the barrel, it was absolutely gorgeous. Thankfully I managed to stow away a couple of bottles for myself!”
Not one to keep whipping the same pony, the Harrises continue to play with other types of wood and barrel finishes to be bottled “when they taste amazing”. While this might be a nerve wracking proposition for a larger distilling concern, at Catoctin Creek it’s all in good fun.
“The raw spirit going into the barrels is always of high quality so we’ve never felt we ruined anything. We’re of the opinion that when the quality of the new make is good, then the wood will just enhance that, not take away from it.”
According to Becky this point can’t be overemphasized. “With a young spirit you can still taste the quality of the distillate so using good materials is of paramount importance. High quality grain and yeast; people always underestimate the importance of yeast.” Though in turn Scott is quick to point out that Becky, chemical engineer turned chief distiller, is Catoctin Creek’s “ace in the hole”.
“She’s her father’s daughter. Like many people who work with manufacturing equipment Becky knows these stills inside out and she becomes one with the system as she works out its many variables,” Scott enthuses. “It’s amazing to watch, she’s just a natural as chief distiller.”
With seven years of experience under their belt, Catoctin Creek are one of the veterans of craft distilling so it’s no surprise to hear that other would-be distillers show up looking for advice. The influx of so many distilleries in an increasingly crowded market is something that leaves Scott with mixed feelings.
“There’s a saying that a rising tide lifts all ships but that only works to an extent. If a whisky trail is established and a region becomes a destination then great, I’m all for it.” But the idea of using his spare time to help someone set up shop as competition in the next county has limited appeal, and Scott is candid.
“It’s a weekly request, if not daily, people who want free consulting advice in exchange for dinner one night. Thing is I can buy my own dinner; how about taking my kids to soccer or doing my laundry? That hasn’t been done in a month.”
“Fact is that here in Purcellville, a town of five thousand people, we have five breweries and one distillery. In Virginia you can make a really nice living just selling beer on your own premises thanks to all the craft enthusiasts who will come to drink it on-site. That’s just not possible for spirits; we’re highly regulated with the state taking more than 50% of the gross revenue from our tasting room, and access to market is restricted,” he cautions.
“Seven years in and we’re already seeing a lot of distributors and liquor boards saying that their catalogue is full — ‘we don’t need another craft rum, we don’t need another craft rye’. It’s leading to a lot of desperation among start-ups trying to get their product on store shelves.”
One segment still in its relative infancy is American small batch brandy though once again, Catoctin Creek is ahead of the curve with their 1757 Virginia Brandy. Along with a family of fruit brandies made from local apples, pears and peaches, these are all made in the European tradition from fermented juice and aged in oak from one to four years.
“Brandy was always a fun little side project,” Scott confesses. “We live in a county blessed with lots of fruit and there are forty wineries around us. We’re not Oregon but we can take a season of peaches and make four or five barrels of brandy.”
“My first job at fifteen was in a winery and it’s where I developed my love of fermentation, and now I get to collaborate with these winemakers, buying their wine to make brandy, selling them our spirit for their fortified wines. It’s a cool back and forth and we do it because we love it and although demand is small, it’s great to be able to offer these kind of alternatives.”
As Catoctin Creek continues to experiment and explore the potential of being small and awesome, bourbon is quite predictably a topic that keeps coming up.
“Folks always ask ‘why don’t you make bourbon?’, but to us it’s not relevant,” Scott maintains. With bourbon poised to become the world’s largest selling spirit within the next couple of years, it’s a tempting proposition but the Harrises are unswayed.“Let the folks in Kentucky make an awesome bourbon. We want to make rye, and we want to make it really, really well, and in the process tell the story of Virginia’s spiritual past.”