Photograph: Magnus

Interview with Scott Harris

This is the 10th inter­view in a serie of inter­views with peo­ple who love whisky. This time I inter­view Scott who together with his wife Becky started a Virginia distilling company in 2009. You can also find Scott and Becky aka @catoctincreek on Twit­ter where he of course tweets about whisky. Please put your hands together for Scott, a true whisky lover!

1. Tell me a little about yourself?

Catoctin CreekCatoctin Creek is a family-run distillery.  We decided to open the distillery because of our love of fine spirits and the desire to produce a hand-crafted product on our own.  Becky has a background in Chemical Engineering, and it is she who does most of the day-to-day distilling, while Scott, with his background in business and computers, tends to the accounting, marketing, and pretty much everything else in the business.  Our boys, Eddie and Luke, even get into the action, helping to bottle, pump, stir, or clean whenever they are needed.

2. How did it all started, what’s your first experience of whisky?

My very first whisky was a Glenlivet (shouldn’t that be everyone’s first whisky?).  I fell in love right away.  From that moment on, I was determined to one day have my own distillery, which in the United States, is quite a difficult dream to have.  Distilling spirits in the United States is illegal without a proper business license.

3. What’s your favourite and worst whisky experience and why?

My favorite whisky experience involved a glass of Ardbeg 10 year old on a cold winter camping trip.  The Ardbeg simply warmed the soul!  Worst experience?  Probably consuming too much blended whisky while smoking my first cigar.  It was not a good night!

4. How is the whisky ‘climate’ (bars, clubs, events & magazines etc.) in your country?

In the United States, the whisky industry, especially the craft industry, is experiencing a renaissance.  People are really interested in hand-crafted and local products, and spirits are not to be left out.  We get enormous interest from our local region for the spirits we produce.

5. What’s your opinion on different cask-finish expression?

I love to see experimentation and new ideas.  While I value the traditional approach, without experimentation, nothing wonderful and new would ever be discovered.  Therefore, I rather like the new trend for sherry, port, and rum casked whisky.  The Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban is simply delicious, though it is more like a wine than a whisky in many ways.  That said, at our distillery, we maintain a fairly traditional approach to finishing whisky:  in 30 gallon new Minnesota white oak casks.  The casks really impart a rich caramel flavor into our Roundstone Rye, maturing it very much beyond its apparent age.

6. Where in the world would you like to go to try whisky? Why, do you have a favourite place, distillery or country?

I would drop everything for another trip to Scotland.  And trying out the new whisky in Japan would be fun.  I’m seeing now that even places like Sweden, Finland, Germany, and India are making whisky, so maybe a world tour is in order!

7. You run a distilling company, please tell me how it all started?

It all started when I would not leave my wife alone about the idea.  I kept bothering her, “Let’s start a distillery.”  Finally, she said, “Well, then write a business plan!”  I don’t think she thought I would, but I did, and now we have a business and a working distillery!  It has been an amazing journey, and a lot of fun along the way!

8. Running a distilling company must be hard work but very rewarding, tell me little a how a normal day can look like.

We start very early.  At 5:00am we arrive to turn on the still.  Then we will distill through the morning until about 12:00.  If we’re running two shifts, we’ll spend a few moments cleaning out the still, before we load it to run again.  This would last until 6pm, when we clean up the still to go home.  We typically do this five days a week, with another day to do chores like bottling, festivals, etc.  During the week, it’s Becky doing all this work, while Scott holds down the “day job” at his government contracting company.  Then, on Sunday, we rest.  It’s a grueling schedule, but we are really enjoying what we’re doing.

9. You have different products in your portfolio, please tell us a little bit about them.

Our three anchor products are all made from the same rye mash:  The Mosby’s Spirit, Roundstone Rye, and Watershed Gin.  When we produce a rye mash and then distill it, the hearts of that distillation is our Mosby’s Spirit unaged whisky.  It is delicious and smooth and a very nice spirit.  This spirit, when we age it in the barrel, becomes our Roundstone Rye, which is also a very nice spirit, but where all the light fruitiness of the Mosby’s is replaced by a caramel flan profile obtained from the oak.

At the end of our distillation, our tails are collected and double distilled to produce a clean neutral spirit.  This becomes the base spirit for our Watershed Gin.  We will macerate the herbs in the base spirit, and then redistill the gin-wash a third time to produce our gin.

We also produce grape brandy, since grapes are plentiful in our region, and have produced a very limited release pear brandy, which is available for Christmas.  As we continue in this business, we would like to offer a special fruit release spirit or liqueur every now and then, just to keep things fun!

10. You distill rye whiskey, Roundstone Rye, what is the story behind this whiskey?

Roundstone Rye was named after a small fishing village in the westernmost part of the Connemara in Ireland.  A few years ago,  we visited this village on vacation, and it happened to be my son, Eddie’s birthday.  So while eating dinner at the local pub, we asked our waitress if we could get some cake for his birthday.  She disappeared, and a few moments later, reappeared with not just cake, but candles, balloons, and half the town to sing him happy birthday!  We were overwhelmed by their friendliness, and felt this was a nice way to honor the village.

It is especially apt, since our Roundstone Rye is very light and smooth, very much in the tradition of Irish whisky.

11. Many of your products are organic, please tell me a little about why this is important for you?

Organic means truly better spirits. It really does. When herbicides and fungicides are applied to grain, those chemicals become embedded in the fiber of the grain.  Then, when you distill the alcohol from those grains, those chemicals are concentrated and come through as chemical “off-flavors”.  The only way to fix those “off-flavors” is to age for a prolonged period of time in charred oak barrels, where the carbon can absorb the synthetic chemicals.  Our grains have never seen chemicals like these, and the distillate coming off the still is incredibly clean and smooth.

Further, the organic label guarantees you a high level of transparency and accountability in how we produce our spirits. It underscores our commitment to providing you the highest quality spirits and to protecting and restoring our environment.

12. Owning and running a distillery is probably many peoples dream. Could you please give me a few advice if I where to start an distillery.

If you want to start a distillery, you need at least one of the following:  (1) great wealth, (2) great work ethic, (3) experience as a distiller, (4) experience as a small business owner.  You don’t need all four of them, but you better have at least one!  I see so many people that want to start this business but have no real idea where to start.  It is OK to have a dream, but at the end of the day, this is a very hard business, and there are many barriers to entry!  (Especially in the United States)

13. What whisky trends are you seeing, how does the future look like for you and your distilling company.

We are seeing continued interest in local and craft brand spirits.  Just like the boom in the 90′s of American microbreweries, the American microdistilleries are taking off and creating many exciting new products.  Our goals are modest:  We would like to become a solid regional brand in the United States, producing the very best spirits available.  If people love our spirits, the rest will take care of itself.

Did you enjoy the inter­view? If you would like to be part of the serie or know some­one else who would, please let me know.

August 8th, 2012

Our barrels are new, charred, Minnesota white oak– not reused wine/sherry/port casks. So yes, that is important.

August 8th, 2012

I’s love to know how “normal’ whiskey could ever have been considered kosher. I wonder about this because I know all whiskey is aged in Cherry casks which are by definition treif – non kosher. So can I ask if your oak casks are aged in something other than wine or cherry?

I also wanted to tell you that I know of a finance company that pays manufacturers with 24-48 hours of delivery by you to your various customers. This type of factoring of receivables may (or may not) be of assistance to you enabling you to offer the long terms demanded by your customers.

I’d love to hear from you Scott.