by M.J. McAteer
If Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. were an app, it would be trending on the Web about now.
Less than two years after Becky and Scott Harris produced their first spirits in a modest space in a Purcellville industrial park, interest in their liquors has become such that this year they will double their 2010 production to 20,000 bottles. Even better, they expect to turn a profit for the first time, despite having absorbed heavy capital costs, such as the purchase of a $200,000 German-made still.
The timing was right for what the Harrises regard as their dream business. Micro-distilleries such as Catoctin Creek are hot. More than 100 currently operate across the United States and Canada, with about a half dozen in Virginia. These cottage industries have found an enthusiastic consumer base among so-called locovores, whose buying power previously swelled the ranks of small wineries and craft breweries.
“People are always looking for local,” says Shawn Malone, whose restaurant, Magnolia’s at the Mill, is within walking distance of the distillery. “Plus, it [Catoctin Creek’s liquor] is a great product.”
Magnolia’s pours all three of the distillery’s signature brands: Roundstone Rye, an amber whiskey that takes it color from aging in oak barrels; Mosby’s Spirit, a colorless rye that Harris calls “gentleman’s moonshine”; and, Watershed Gin, in which herbs interact with the crisp taste of juniper. In addition to savoring the local flavor of these spirits, many Catoctin Creek customers also appreciate that they are quaffing a healthier libation: All the distillery’s products are certified organic and kosher.
The three Catoctin Creek brands, which retail for $38 a bottle, are sold in ABC stores and in selected restaurants and bars in Virginia as well as in outlets in a fistful of other states. The Harrises market their spirits via Facebook and Twitter and through special events such as paired dinners.
Scott, 40, and Becky, 43, both came to distilling from other careers. She was a chemical engineer who has turned her expertise in industrial production to running the technical side of Catoctin Creek; he was in IT and uses that background to deal with the business end. The couple do everything themselves, arriving at the distillery at 5 a.m. daily to shepherd their product from bag of grain to bottle in 100-gallon batches.
As the first distillery to operate in Loudoun County since Prohibition, Catoctin Creek’s focus is, appropriately enough, on rye, the commonwealth’s favored libation before it was eclipsed by bourbon and scotch. Lately, though, rye is rising again, and the Purcellville distillery is happy to find itself in a position to raise a toast to that resurgence.