Straight Up! Vol. 25 No. 12

Straight Up! With Virginia Distillery Co. Lead Blender Amanda Beckwith

Sponsor

The Blue Ridge Mountains are famously home to generations of moonshiners. But Virginia Distillery Co., which sits just in the foothills near the small town of Lovingston doesn’t make moonshine. They don’t even make bourbon, the bread-and-butter for so many craft distilleries across the country. Virginia Distillery Co. makes American single malt whisky, and they are the largest independently owned producer in the country.

Just 20 years ago, there were few, if any, distilleries in America producing single malt. The grain used, malted barley, was far more expensive than traditional corn or rye, and the category seemed hopelessly dominated by Scottish producers who claimed a centuries long tradition of single malt production. Still, a few pioneering distillers like Stranahan’s, Westland, Copper Fox, and Balcones set out in the early 2000s to offer their unique, American approach to this world-famous spirit, inspiring dozens of others to do the same. 

Virginia Distillery Co. was the passion project of the late George Moore, a businessman born in Ireland who envisioned producing an American single malt that could rival the best single malts in the world. Tragically, he passed away before his distillery was even built, but he set in motion an impressive operation under the stewardship of his son, Gareth, and with consultation from some of the best whisky-makers in the world. The distillery’s inaugural whisky, VHW American Blended Malt, was a blend that combined sourced stocks from Scotland with their own young single malt, all finished in a mix of Virginia and European wine barrels. Several unique finishes and limited editions of this same blend helped to build out their portfolio until 2019, when their flagship, Virginia-distilled single malt, Courage & Conviction, was released to much critical acclaim. Now it appears there’s no looking back for this once small Virginia distillery that is helping to write the rules of American single malt while also putting it on the proverbial map.

Courage & Conviction American Single Malt Whisky
Photo Credit: Drew Beard

Amanda Beckwith joined Virginia Distillery Co. in its earliest days as the distillery’s Guest Experience Manager, before there was even a distillery for guests to visit. In short order, however, her job role grew considerably. As often happens at craft distilleries, she became a jack-of-all-trades, acquiring a variety of skills from the most mundane aspects of whisky-production to the most critical and artful. Today, she still maintains oversight of visitor education, but she also holds the title of Lead Blender making her personally responsible for every botte of single malt the distillery produces. That’s an impressive leap in only a few short years, especially for someone whose prior career was with the Virginia Aquarium. Fascinated by this fact, I couldn’t help but kick things off by asking Amanda if she had planned to go into Marine Biology before setting her sights on the whisky industry.

Amanda: “As a kid, it was right up there with pet detective. I loved animals, and I loved nonprofit work, and the Virginia Aquarium was primarily education and research/rescue. It was right up my alley. I was actually an English major in college, and I was planning to work in nonprofit or international affairs. My education was a weird hodgepodge.” 

The Visitor Center at Virginia Distillery Co.
Photo Credit: Drew Beard

In spring 2015, when Amanda joined the Virginia Distillery Co. team, the distillery was still under construction, but in preparation for opening day its owners had set about designing a tour and tasting program. Through some serendipity and her whisky-loving book club (my kind of book club!), Amanda found out about Virginia Distillery Co. and its early plans. Friends in the hospitality industry had already helped her acquire a love for whisky, and her passion for international travel had introduced her to a variety of single malts. Having only tasted a few American single malts up to that point, she was intrigued by the opportunity to work for a new craft producer and decided to apply.

Amanda: “They were looking for someone to get a visitor experience program started, so I interviewed for the job at a coffee shop. The owner, Gareth Moore, brought his wife and their newborn son George to the interview. I thought they were such a lovely family. I didn’t even know exactly what they were looking for, but it felt like a perfect fit. We only had a Brand Director and our mentors from Scotland, Harry Cockburn and Jim Swan, who were on site a lot consulting. I got to come in and work with them from the get-go.”

Jim Swan and Harry Cockburn aren’t your run-of-the-mill consultants for an upstart whisky brand. The late Dr. Jim Swan, regarded globally as “the Einstein of whisky,” was an expert on whisky cask maturation and fermentation. His 50 years of invaluable know-how helped to establish some of the world’s leading, smaller-scale whisky brands like Kilchoman, Penderyn, Amrut, and Kavalan, just to name a few. Harry Cockburn has had a similarly long and distinguished career in whisky making, the bulk of which was spent as Production Manager at the famed Bowmore Distillery in Scotland. I asked Amanda what it was like to work with such titans of the single malt industry.

Amanda: “Harry was so generous with his time. He still is. He emails me still once or twice a month. And he’s 84! Harry was the engineer at Bowmore, and he has decades of knowledge. Jim Swan wasn’t here as frequently, but he had amazing insights and was a lot of fun to work with. I really lucked out.” 

Amanda nosing a barrel sample.
Photo Credit: Virginia Distillery Co.

Having Jim and Harry as mentors wasn’t the end of Amanda’s lucky streak at Virginia Distillery Co. World-renowned spirits blender and sensory specialist Nancy Fraley, known throughout the whisky industry as “the Nose,” started consulting with the distillery in its early days and quickly recognized Amanda’s natural skill for whisky-making.

Amanda: “At that time, we were telling our story through the VHW American Blended Malt because we knew it would take years to age our own single malt. We had Nancy Fraley come in to consult and give us advice on the flavor profiles and the cask selection for that product. She told Gareth early on that I should be their blender. She started advocating for me from the very beginning. I didn’t even know it then, how much she was advocating for me, so I was really, really lucky.” 

Very lucky, indeed. Earlier this year, Amanda was named Lead Blender for the distillery, a position just as critical, if not more so, than the distiller. Like many single malt producers around the world, Virginia Distillery Co. ages its whisky in a mix of different cask types, meaning that the blender has the arduous task of carefully layering different whisky flavors and aromas to achieve quality and consistency. Those aren’t skills you come by easily, even with an amazing nose and palate. I asked Amanda more about her training with Nancy.

Amanda: “She originally came in, and we had samples pulled to get her thoughts on things for the VHW blend. She had been giving a class at ADI (American Distilling Institute) on nosing for faults, and she talked to me behind the scenes during that visit and kind of gave me a condensed version of that class. I eventually did the actual class in Colorado, and we ended up having lunch after and kept the lines of communication open. It was initially that kind of mentoring on a small scale. I didn’t realize how good I had it, but I was so grateful. I had to soak it all up. I spent more time working with her at a blending seminar in Texas after that. Harry’s engineering side, and Jim Swan’s maturation artistry, and then Nancy’s critical scientific thinking. It was a perfect triad of education.”

Amanda inspecting barrels in the cask house.
Photo Credit: Virginia Distillery Co.

In a comparatively short span of time, Amanda has used that impressive education to become a rising star in the booming world of craft spirits. Over her years with Virginia Distillery Co. and the exposure she’s gotten from so many incredible teachers, I asked her what has surprised her about the craft spirits industry.

Amanda: “I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the sense of community. The way we can all be advocates for other single malt producers, and even other Virginia producers. And I love that. Craft distillers are the underdogs, but rising tides float all ships. The other side of it is the passion for one particular spirit. Single malt producers are creating single malt because they love it. We’re always excited to try each other’s whisky. American single malt producers really are their own tight community inside the broader craft spirits world, especially because we’re working so hard to define our category.”

Defining the category of American Single Malt has been a personal mission of Amanda’s since Virginia Distillery Co. became a founding member of the American Single Malt Commission, a group formed with the goal of officially defining American single malt as a category. To date, there are no specific standards for American single malt production, which has made it difficult for craft single malt producers around the country to explain to consumers exactly what they’re purchasing. All of that should change soon, however, as the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is set to publish a new rule this month that formally defines American single malt whisky. It has been a long and challenging process to find consensus among distillers. I asked Amanda where things stood with the distilling community from her vantage point and what advantages she anticipated from the new rule.

Amanda: “We’ve settled on the list of criteria. There’s a cask size maximum. We all pretty much agree on everything, but the big discrepancy was age minimums. That speaks to the fact that we’ve got a really big country with very different aging climates. For the most part though, everybody has been on the same page which is a great feeling. With the recognition of the category, the consumer will be educated in a better way. It will be more concrete, and then from there it will help with things like placement in liquor stores and with distributors being able to talk about it. I can see in the next 1-3 years it really helping sales of American single malt.” 

Dusk at Virginia Distillery Co.
Photo Credit: Drew Beard

As for sales of Virginia Distillery Co.’s single malts, they just entered the Texas market earlier this year, and according to Amanda, they are “working their way west and up north.” At present, you can pick up a bottle of Virginia Distillery Co. single malt in 35 different markets. It’s an impressive trajectory for a distillery that was still a hole in the ground just seven short years ago. But naturally, Amanda sees even bigger things in store for her distillery.

Amanda: “I think this company has a lot of potential to really grow and have fun showcasing what Virginia can do. I really want to have Virginia on the map for whisky because, historically speaking, even bourbon started here. We’re not the only great Virginia producer, so sharing that love is also key. I’d also like to be international before too much longer. It would be fun to be traveling anywhere and see our whisky on the shelf.”

1 comment on “Straight Up! With Virginia Distillery Co. Lead Blender Amanda Beckwith

  1. Pingback: The Month of Lights – Santé Magazine

What did you think of this article? We'd love to hear from you!

Sponsor
Sponsor
%d bloggers like this: