HENRY — Workers at Twin Creeks Distillery in Franklin County say that when folks take a nip of its homemade spirits, particularly its popular apple or peach brandy, it often stirs up a lot of memories.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, man, that’s like the old stuff,’ ” said Maggie Oakes-Chitwood, who was pouring small tastings for some locals earlier this month. Owner Chris Prillaman has spent a lot of time crafting the distillery’s moonshine recipes to resemble the white whiskeys that some residents were known for producing illegally during Franklin County’s moonshine heyday.
Many of the people who visit the distillery’s Henry location come to taste the authentic product or to see the old-fashioned still next to the tasting room. In 2017, Twin Creeks opened its tasting room and saw its sales spike about 20 percent, according to distillery spokeswoman Sue Carter. It’s a good time to be in the business, she said, because craft distilling is becoming more popular.
Virginia Distillers Association Executive Director Amy Ciarametaro said the state is poised for a boom in Virginia-made spirits. The majority of distillers in Virginia are small producers, but as they grow to medium-sized and large operations, there is potential for Virginia to become a tourism destination for its liquor.
The 10 best-selling liquor brands in the Roanoke and New River valleys in fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30, show few surprises. Jack Daniels and other national brand dark liquors reign supreme, as they often do. But on down the list where smaller producers operate, the data show that the sales growth of Virginia distilleries like Twin Creeks has quietly been gaining momentum.
Virginia distilled spirits brought in more than $7.2 million in 2017, a nearly $1 million increase from 2016 and a $2.2 million increase from 2015, according to data from Virginia ABC. And more distilleries are opening: There were 55 licensed distillers operating in Virginia in 2017, compared to just 13 in 2014. Three more have been licensed since the end of the fiscal year.
Changes in state law likely contributed to the growth. A 2010 law allowed distilleries to offer tastings, now up to 3 ounces per person, and a 2011 law permitted distilleries to begin selling their wares in-house.
But a change in drinking habits is also at play. Ciarametaro said consumers are taking an interest in products that are experiential and those that have a story behind them, as opposed to heading to the bar and asking for a simple rum and Coke. She said data show younger drinkers, ages 25 to 35, particularly are interested in where their booze comes from. She said more women also are interested in brown liquors, such as whiskey, than in the past.
This trend has led to a growth in craft cocktails and craft liquors. Texas-based Tito’s Handmade Vodka soared to become the sixth top-grossing liquor in the Roanoke Valley in 2017, up from ninth place in 2016. It’s the third best-selling brand statewide, climbing three spots from the year before. Tito’s has heavily marketed itself as a craft-distilled, gluten-free, corn-based vodka, and that has struck a chord with drinkers.
Jason Martin, the owner of Martin’s restaurant in Roanoke, said Tito’s is ordered a lot these days, while flavored vodkas are out. One of Martin’s best-selling house drinks is its Pickle Shot — Tito’s infused with dill pickle juice. The only Virginia product Martin’s has featured recently was Commonwealth Gin, which he said sold well during a promotion.
The A. Smith Bowman Distillery’s Bowman’s Virginia vodka was the 24th best-selling liquor brand in the state in 2017, the top Virginia-made product on the list.
“We are absolutely seeing a trend in people seeking out Virginia products,” said Ashley Vinci, the beverage director at Billy’s, a downtown Roanoke restaurant. “Originally the request would be for Virginia-made wine or craft beer. Now the common request is for spirits made in Virginia, specifically bourbon. One of the most popular being John J. Bowman, which is made at their distillery in Fredericksburg.”
Vinci said many restaurants have made notes on drink lists indicating a Virginia-made product. Virginia ABC stores also have added made-in-Virginia sections in many stores.
Tour Roanoke owner Larry Landolt said he plans to add local distilleries to one of his touring packages. He said there are few things so unique to the region as its history with making liquor, especially in Franklin County, which was once famously titled “the wettest county in the world” for its illegal moonshine production during Prohibition. Tour Roanoke participants, both locals and those from out of town, are looking for experiences in food and alcohol, he said.
While there are three licensed distilleries in Franklin County, Twin Creeks is the only one with a tasting room right now. Franklin County Distilleries is expected to open a tasting room soon in Boones Mill. Five Mile Mountain in Floyd County also opened a distillery and tasting room in 2016.