Sunday, June 7, 2009

Appalachian Single Malt at the Copper Fox Distillery

The Copper Fox Distillery is the home of Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky and Wasmund's Rye Whisky. Neighbor to Virginia's stunning Shenandoah National Park, the distillery rests just a dirt back-road or two from the center of Sperryville, a small charming place that looks just like an Appalachian foothill town should. The whole operation is housed by a wooden building that looks more like a barn than a distillery; only a small sign hanging above the large front doors (with miniature caged peeping door) indicates any enterprise.

Wasmund's intoxication begins with the smell as you walk into their distillery. The walls are imbued with fantastic smells of smoke and grain, and the look and feel of Copper Fox's main visitation area approach that of a dimly-lit Scottish tavern, not a place of industry. This, I imagine, is no surprise; the distillery is lead by a man named Rick Wasmund, a distiller who learned his craft in Scotland before returning across the pond to show us what an American single malt whisky can be. Wasmund is a warm and silly young man who is hard-pressed to take anything seriously except for his craft. His distillery tour is a back and forth of expertise and puns, innovation and anecdotes. His malting room sits near a suit of armor dubbed "Sir Malts-a-lot". Above his stored grain hangs a sign remarking the distance to Scotland's Loch Indaal. Wasmund's good humor reflects his dedication to loving what he does.

Wasmund's products are unique. They're not afraid to fly in the face of tradition in order to forge a new identity for American whiskey. Much tradition is still preserved, however, and the resulting balance yields a fascinating product via a fascinating process. Copper Fox is the only American distillery to malt themselves the same barley that they mash and distill. The barley, just like almost every component of Wasmund's, is locally procured. The barley is smoke-dried in the Scottish style, but say good-bye to peat smoke and hello to fruitwood smoke. Wasmund's barley is smoked only with apple wood and cherry wood from a nearby orchard. It is perhaps this step that imparts the most unique character to Wasmund's whisky.

Wasmund's mash is hydrated with water from deep beneath Sperryville. He remarks that the local water is uncharacteristically rich in calcium, imparting a sweet taste, and perfect for his fruity barley. The mash ferments and distills in a room no larger than a generous garage. Next to the stills is Wasmund's quaint proof-testing table, where he monitors and documents the distillate up to barrel proof for aging.

The aging takes place in American Oak barrels, all in small batches. The overall aging time is quite small, and this is because of Wasmund's chip barrels. He partly ages the whiskey with chips of the very same fruitwood used to smoke-dry the barley. The increased surface area of the chips added with the wood of the barrel produce a surprisingly mature spirit in a small amount of time. With that said, Wasmund's Single Malt, whose age is an average of 9 months, is delicious, yet its viscosity and smoothness won't fool you into thinking you're sipping an 18-year whisky. However, with a dash of water, like Rick Wasmund suggests, you'll find a flavor unlike any other.

Copper Fox is the embodiment of a micro-distillery. Every ingredient consumed is local. Age-old craft traditions are given a new twist. The end product is unique, worth a few extra dollars and a few more miles traveled. Wasmund jokes that not everyone should be able to drink his whisky, and he's ok with that. However, Wasmund's Single Malt can be found in a multitude of stores in the mid-Atlantic and midwest, and Copper Fox's arm of distribution is growing ever longer. If you're in Virginia, ask your store clerk if you're able to special order Wasmund's. You'll be glad you did.

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