Pioneering Whisky at Copper Fox Distillery

Pioneering Whisky at Copper Fox Distillery

Try it some Saturday.

Take a 90 minute drive out into the wooded fields of Virginia and see it for yourself. Visit the Copper Fox Distillery and behold the man who is living exactly the kind of life each and every whiskey enthusiast in the country would be living if they won the lottery. Seriously: after indulging in all the cars and the mansions and the swooning girls or glistening poolboys (as taste dictates), we believe most people turn to realizing their dreams. Rick Wasmund, founder of the techniques employed by the Copper Fox Distillery, is living out that whisky-lover's dream.

Set amid the Virginia countryside in the tiny village of Sperryville you can wind along a one lane road, leading finally to gravel, that opens into an antique store and a large barn-like structure that houses the Copper Fox Distillery. It stands near a creek and backs directly into copses of trees, grassland hills, and a number of wineries. The smells of the distillery are apparent as soon as you step out of the car: thick, beer-like yeast, grain, and tantalizing aromas of fruit.

Inside the distillery, it's all open to the two-story ceiling. One-ton sacks of rye and barley grain are stacked in rows. The copper fox logo is everywhere but also interspersed with mentions of Scottish distilleries - likely relics of founder Rick Wasmund's half-year stay as an intern at the Bowmore Distillery in Scotland. The air in the building is like a whiskey dream... you can almost drink the air. In fact, sometimes in the morning when the grain is being dried with the apple wood smoke, the still air allows the smoke to hang in stratified layers through the building creating an ethereal, magical aura. For us, rather than faerie smoke the place is also filled with approximately 20 tourists, all there for tours. This is not unusual and this kind of traffic is steady all day long according to Helen Wasmund ("Manager of Malt" or "Mom"). Indeed, 8 more arrive during our 90 minute visit. We wouldn't be surprised if it is the future site of weddings if it hasn't happened already. This day, our opinion of the beautiful surroundings is validated by the tour group in front of us, which is actually a photography tutorial for some kind of class.

We go on the the tour and it's one of the best we've seen. It begins in the malting room where we're informed that Copper Fox is the only American distillery to malt its own barley in the traditional style. This is where "traditional style" often means "low tech." The grain is soaked in a steel tub and then spread out over the floor to malt - typically done in the winter months to maintain even and cool temperatures over a five day process. The barley and rye all come from Billy Dawson: a local Virginia farmer who prides himself on sustainable farming. (There is a picture of Dawson and Wasmund on the farm where Wasmund crisply announces, "You can see we're both out standing in our field.") The grain is turned over with a special rake that is literally dragged behind the person who's doing the turning... a chore done often over those days. When the grain is spread across the floor, it resembles a beach with over-sized sand grains and Wasmund refers to it as their "Zen Barley Garden," where it's not unusual to rake designs into the grain... we presume for the benefit of the chi that imbues all good whisky. The barley, now considered malted after the enzymes have converted the starch to sugar, is shoveled (literally with snow shovels) into a wheelbarrow and taken into the only second story facility in this structure: the kiln.

Beneath the kiln is a wood-fired stove that heats the grain sitting on the kiln floor directly above the stove. While the stove is heated with "regular old oak," it is here that the first of Wasmund's pioneering techniques is introduced. If malting his own barley in the Scottish style wasn't enough, he introduces apple wood to his heat so that the smoke flavors infuse the drying grain. The wood itself is from a local apple orchard. The trees there last roughly 19 years and when it is time to clear them, Wasmund takes the wood that he claims are completely natural and have "never been sprayed." No chemicals in the smoke. Where scotch contains heady aromas of peat, Copper Fox spirits sing with apple. In fact, this was the genesis of Wasmund's entry into the field. He describes his time in Florida as a moment when he thought literally, "Why not fruit wood?" and from there he made his trip to Scotland to learn everything he could about whisky-making with the express intent of returning to America and founding a new style of whisky.

The dried grain is ground into flour and mixed with warm water to make a "sweet, smoky soup." Distiller's yeast is added and now the fermentation begins with the yeast converting the sugars to alcohol. This creates a beer (or bier) that is then transferred to the still. The still is inside of the building opposite the kiln where it undergoes two passes (distillations) and eventually achieves something close to 150 proof. Now the spirit is ready for the second Wasmund innovation: the special aging.

Most whisky achieves its color and mellow flavor from aging in oak and there are oak barrels stacked all over the Copper Fox Distillery - all neatly labeled with arcane notes and happily aging whisky. This would be all there is for traditional whisky, which would sit years in the barrel until the distiller found it fit to drink. Wasmund introduces an additional "chipping" to the aging. In something that resembles nothing so much as a giant tea bag stuffed with chunks of wood, he introduces cherry and apple wood into the barrel. This accelerates the aging and also introduces entirely new dimensions to the flavors of the whisky; Flavors that we've never experienced in any other spirit. To us, Wasmund has turned his barrels into giant pots of tea to create these flavors. He declares that the "chips," as they age and are reintroduced to more and more whiskey, achieve different and more robust flavors on their own. He regards the chips as some of the most important intellectual and physical property in the entire distillery. In his opinion, the flavors create an entire symphony of flavor in his whisky that is substantially different and - in his humble opinion - perhaps even better than bourbon or other "single-note" whiskies.

From there, the whiskey is bottled by hand right at the still. It is sealed in wax that is kept liquid in an ancient-looking crock pot. Then finally out the door for what is a current distribution of 20 different states and the United Kingdom. Today, one can buy the un-aged spirits as the Wasmund's Single Malt Spirit and the Wasmund's Rye spirit. In a special touch, one can purchase a 2-liter or 5-liter oak barrel and age the Wasmund spirit yourself... something that has proved to be so popular Copper Fox has trouble stocking enough of the barrels. The two aged spirits are Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky and Copper Fox Rye Whisky... note the Scottish style of spelling "whisky" without the "e" where most American whiskeys are spelled with the "e."

Unfortunately, it's illegal in Virginia for distillers to offer tastes of their product on tours in their own distillery. (In an unusual move, it is legal for them to sell bottles out of their distillery.) This lamentable and puzzling regulation is announced by a sign on the small office that serves as the storefront that says: "Ask us for a nosing sample." And indeed there are several partially empty bottles for tourists to smell.

The law being what it is, we can only imagine what it would have been like for Mr. Wasmund to take us out behind his distillery with a couple of bottles to try. In our mind's eye, we see a small metal table beside a babbling creek that runs by the back of the distillery shaded by decades-old trees and resounding with birdsong. We imagine Wasmund pouring small samples with a wry but pleased grin on his face discussing various nuances of the different spirits. If we had tried the Single Malt Whisky, we suppose it would have had the heady tastes that remind us of brandy but with the unmistakable flavor of aged whisky. We guess that the taste would have been unlike any other whisky we'd ever tried before... the flavor perhaps not for everyone but certainly worthy of trying and definitely singing with many flavors. We imagine we would have moved on to the rye whisky, whose robust, spicy flavors would have mixed marvelously with the fruitwood. Then - judging by rumor - Wasmund would have moved us on to the unaged spirit, which would have been very delicately flavored. Where the aged whisky was a symphony the spirit would have been a Mozart concerto dancing lightly along the palate with hints of the fruitwood coming through in the smoked grain just as the peat comes through in scotch. Had we somehow had the opportunity to taste the spirit next to that creek, we might have remarked that it could instantly take the place of any vodka in any cocktail and left the person drinking it with no thought in their minds to ever go back. "Yes," Wasmund might have remarked had we said such a thing, "A lot of people actually like the un-aged spirit better than the whisky. And I can understand why."

We love the idea of distillers - both small and large - experimenting and trying new things. The Copper Fox whiskies are a celebration of the classic in their old style processing but equally iconoclastic in their practices. "I'm not trying to make Irish Whiskey or Scotch," says Wasmund, "They're already making really good scotch in Scotland. I'm trying to do something different." We feel his whiskies are definitely something to try and something to watch. They're good enough in new ways that Wasmund has a sense that larger whiskey-makers will be copying some of the styles he's pioneered very soon. We highly recommend you seek out and try one of these whiskies as a demonstration of the brash range of some of the newer spirits hitting the market.