If you have the opportunity to see where your food comes from, take it. By now, it should be very clear that BYT is a big fan of this philosophy, and we’re not stopping any time soon. We’ve visited farms and breweries before, but this past weekend I had the opportunity to add a distillery to that list with a trip to Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, VA. That gorgeous bottle of roundstone rye, now ubiquitous in district eateries, does more for Loudon County than you’d think. As the county’s first legal distillery since prohibition, Catoctin Creek has made huge strides as a family business, and as a shaper of the local food and beverage community. And they’ve truly perfected the art of showing off their wares and work.
In 2009, Scott and Becky Harris quit their jobs (government contractor and chemical engineer, respectively) and invested everything in building their business, but a love for quality liquors made this a risk worth taking. Scott created a facebook page for the company that garnered over one thousand likes before a single drop of whiskey went into production. After moving from an older distilling space to Purcellville’s Main Street, repurposing a former auto body shop and even recycling old parts and equipment left there to create a cozy tasting room, Catoctin Creek’s spirits are in demand around the country and even as far as Singapore. The Harris’ had to change county and even state laws to be able to distill on the main street of what was once an overwhelmingly pro-temperance community.
The tasting room combines elements of a storefront, a gift shop, a bar, a restaurant, and a performance space. Aside from standard tastings and flights, the room hosts jazz concerts and private pairing dinners with local restaurants and caterers. In our case, dinner was crafted by Bluewater Kitchen, who use seasonal, local ingredients that bring the distillery dinner full circle (but more on that later). Did we mention that they set a table that made even a cup of mushroom soup look stunning? Each course was paired with a Catoctin Creek Cocktail, showcasing each spirits versatility. We sampled everything from their take on a sazerac (using Roundstone Rye, 1757 Brandy, and an appearance by the rare but excellent Blue Cat Absinthe), to a manhattan made with Mosby’s spirit, an unaged white rye whiskey.
The reason the dinner and drinks tied together so seamlessly was mainly the entree: a braised beef flat iron from Oakland Greens farm. We had the opportunity to visit the farm the day after the dinner, and The Green-Maison family have created an ingenius partnership with Catoctin Creek: The distillery gives the farm their rye mash, and the farm gives their beef to caterers preparing the distillery dinners. Apparently, the rye mash (which would otherwise be thrown away) is like cat nip to cows, and yields and incredibly flavorful cut of beef that doesn’t need much added to it. No, the cows weren’t drunk. Oakland Greens, a farm that’s been in the same family for five generations, also serves as a bed and breakfast, and continues to produce some of the best beef in the region. You can purchase any and every cut straight from the farm.
But the farm isn’t the only local business in partnership with Catoctin Creek– there’s also wine involved. Loudon County’s Bluemont Vineyard, perched 951 feet above sea level (and boasts a wine with the same name) gives the distillery a generous amount of peaches that are used in their brandies. Part of the vineyard’s charm is the view down the mountains, but during our visit, it was blanketed by a thick fog that made it stunning in a completely different manner.
Back at the distillery, we’re given a tour of the most important room in the operation. Two enormous distillers (one named Barney for it’s purpleish hue) are busy making some of the smoothest rye you’ve ever tasted from a gritty rye mash, which in its earliest stages, tastes like a sour beer. We learn that Roundstone Rye is what beer wants to be when it grows up. Distillery visits sometimes include the chance to bottle your own spirit, which in our case was Catoctin Creek’s Watershed Gin. The previous night, it was featured in a cranberry cocktail that launched a thousand holiday cocktail ideas for a table of food writers.
After you cut through any and all talking points politicians use about small businesses being the heart of America’s economy, a trip like this makes you realize that it’s unironically true. The main street distillery has used its partnerships to shift the community focus onto eating (and drinking) locally, uses part of their tasting room as a gift shop featuring local craft vendors (like Gordys!), some of which use Roundstone Rye to create their wares, and turns the spotlight onto the potential that Loudon County has always had as well as inspiring that potential in others who want to invest in their town and themselves.
For all these reasons and so many more, I’ve become a fan of the local dining staycation. Instead of heading out of the DMV area for your next vacation, spend your weekend investing tourism capital in local businesses that are building communities like this one. We had the chance to stay at the Lansdowne Resort, a short shuttle ride from the distillery, and were treated to fireside Catocin Creek hot toddies and fantastic turkey waffles and petit-fours by the staff. With Loudon County family-run businesses becoming stronger, these partnerships aren’t at all uncommon, so it’s easy to see how the resort caught on to the distillery’s “Think Globally, Drink Locally” mantra. And even in the internet age, all it takes to spread that bug is word of mouth. Bring it back to the district, and find out what kind of community you can be part of.