"Wildcatters" were individuals who ventured into wild unknown and/or unproductive areas and sank wells drilling for oil. No geological surveys; no safety net. Just an idea and a drill.
Are you a wildcat? You've got an idea. You've got the know-how to execute the idea. You even have a bit of capital to give it a try. But do you have "it"? You can have the best idea and all the capabilities in the world but there's still something more that's separating you from what is on one hand a Wildcat and the other hand every other person who has an idea and a little money. Call it courage; call it foolhardiness; but whatever "it" is, the Wildcats have it and many of the rest of us probably don't.
You want to see it? Enter Catoctin Creek Distillery where the husband and wife team of Scott and Becky Harris have so much of "it" dripping off of them one wonders if the shade of Earnest Hemingway isn't in the back waiting for a mentoring session. Want proof?
Item one: the founding of Catoctin Creek is almost like a made-for-Hollywood story. There stand the Harrises in the height of the great Recession of 2008. They're both highly educated with good jobs and they've just seen their life savings drop by something well over 50% in the market crash. And they start asking themselves, What are we saving for? If you're like everybody else, you get glum. If you're a wildcat, you say:
"Hey, let's start a distillery."
And in September, 2009, on the very last day of the fiscal year in the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, Catoctic Creek Distilling Company was formed when they signed for a loan from the local bank. That wildcat moment was actually immortalized by the Wall Street Journal, who wrote an article that was generally pessimistic about the economy but noted some effort towards small business loan activity. In the nation's leading economic newspaper, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company and their loan is specifically noted as a sign of economic hope.
From that day in September, a few months later (and an equally brave bank that executed a small business loan during that recession) Scott Harris found himself driving the very first shipment of Catoctin Creek spirit in a truck. "I felt every bounce and every pothole on that entire road like they were tank traps," said Scott with a laugh. "I must have pulled over to check the bottles in the truck six different times."
Item two: the other thing the Harrises have going for them is a vision. They are absolutely committed to a 100% organic operation. Everything - from the ingredients they use, to the equipment they operate, to the cleaners they wash up with - absolutely everything is certified organic. This level of accountability requires an enormous commitment (and cost) at every step of the process.
Even the barrels are made from certified organic oak including the sealant on the barrels, which is from bee's wax.
The commitment to organic production goes beyond the lifestyle and sense of responsibility - though that's clearly part of Catoctin Creek's genetic makeup - it's also about the spirit. "There's a taste to the chemicals" Scott says, "And that stuff gets concentrated in the distillation process and comes out in the spirit. We don't want any of that stuff infecting our flavor." It also means that - at the height of the recession - they launched premium spirits that retail for nearly $40 on the shelf. And they feel it's worth every penny.
Today, Catoctin Creek is located in a garage in an office park pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It's not anchored by a giant WalMart; it doesn't command a parking lot or even good access from any sort of major road, and the retail outlet consists of an overturned barrel with a sign on it offering to sell t-shirts. The place is all about efficiency and utility except the one item where they spared no expense: the sparkling, German-made copper still gleaming near one wall.
Becky Harris has a background in chemical engineering. It's her palate that determines the spirit. All batches have multiple types of alcohol that come out of the distillation process. The poorer tasting alcohols (and those reputed to cause hangovers) come out of the distillate first (the "heads") and then again at the end (the "tails"). The art of distilling in batches comes in taking the proper cut out of the "heart" of the distillate, where you get the pure, clean tasting ethanol alcohol.
Item three: after tasting their product we can say this: with fewer years of experience than Kentucky Straight Bourbons have sitting in a barrel, Becky makes some of the sharpest cuts for the cleanest liquor in the industry.
Scott Harris brings the marketing savvy. Coming from a background of information technology he has apparently boundless energy. Even during an interview granted on the heels of an all-day festival at the local town, he's climbing ladders, peering into barrels, and - in one moment that absolutely epitomizes craft-distilling - sticking his finger into the stream of rye spirit running off the still and calling to his wife, "Is it good yet?"
Becky tries it and answers, "Yeah... that's good." Those two short sentences represent the collision of art and science that is distilling premium-end liquor.
All the spirits except for a pear brandy are made from a 100% organic rye flour that is heated and then cooled in large (and blue) fermentation tuns for 3 to 5 days (it smells a great deal like beer and indeed it largely is beer). That fermented rye is distilled in a copper still of German manufacture. In a workspace that is so clean one could gladly eat off of the floor, the highly polished sill glistens in the daylight like the centerpiece that it is. The distilled rye spirit is run off and the heart is taken to create their Mosby's Rye Spirit ("We wanted to celebrate a local spirit so we named it for Colonel Mosby of the Civil War and made a spirit that would've been very common during that time..."), Roundstone Rye Whiskey ("We named that after traveling in Ireland on our son's birthday - the people in this town of Roundstone were so nice that it made a big impact on our lives..."), and Watershed Gin ("We named that for the Catoctin Creek watershed that goes all the way to the Chesapeake Bay...").
"Why no vodka?" we asked (we have a particular fondness for rye vodkas). Scott is quick to answer. "There's already good rye vodka out there, why make more of it? Besides, we love the flavor of the rye grain. We don't want to make something out of a grain we love that's defined by being largely odorless and tasteless." And indeed, they recommend the Mosby's Spirit as something that can replace vodka - be better than vodka, in their opinion - in any cocktail one cares to mention.
For now, Catoctin Creek is sold only in Virginia. They are a staff of two and expect to continue focusing on regional products and regional sales. They plan to continue to distill grain through the summer and then switch over to grapes in the autumn to focus on brandy. Then it starts all over again.
Here's hoping they strike it big.