Saturday, June 16, 2012

Catoctin Creek Bottling Workshop

On Saturday, June 9, I participated in a bottling workshop at Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville, Virginia.

Well, it's called a "bottling workshop," but of course what it really is is the work of bottling. Catoctin Creek has the unmitigated gall to ask for volunteers to come to their distillery and help them, a for-profit company, package their goods for sale.

And volunteer we do.

In fact, this was the third or fourth workshop I'd asked to attend, but the previous ones were already full. They limit attendance to 20 people (it's a hands-on process, and there's only room for so many hands); the workshops seem to fill up within a few hours of being announced.

Why, you might ask, would someone volunteer to help bottle and label a company's whiskey? Either "Because you get to bottle and label whiskey!" is a sufficient answer for you, or none is.

On the day I was there, we had a little bit of Mosby's Spirit -- Catoctin Creek's unaged, 100% rye distillate -- to bottle, and rather a lot of their Watershed Gin.

What I mean by "rather a lot."
Bottling begins at the famed "whiskey cow," which pumps the whiskey -- or gin, as the case may be -- from tanks into up to four bottles at a time.
The whiskey cow, and the whiskey farmer (Catoctin Creek founder Scott Harris, keeping up to date on paperwork for the revenooers).

Next comes corking and capping, with a hair dryer type thing that seals the plastic cap onto the bottle.

All day long they're singing
My, my, my, my, my, my
My work is so hard
Give me uisge
, I'm thirsty.

Then comes the labeling. We were encouraged to sign the labels, with any little notes we wanted -- excluding vulgarity and politics, to the extent it's worth distinguishing them. (This business of signing labels, I have to say, was something of a dirty trick, as nowhere in the invitation to the workshop was it mentioned that some level of thought, even wit, might be required. In the event, the first label signed might read, "Dear Esteemed Customer, You hold in your hand a fine, handcrafted spirit. Enjoy it in cocktails, or sip it neat. Either way, it will be an experience to savor. And remember: Think Global, Drink Local! Sincerely yours, Tom the Part-Time Bottler." Soon enough, they would read, "Cheers, T.")

Ready, set, be clever!

Careful application of the labels front and back, and hey presto!, it's ready to be packed and shipped. (Less careful application of the labels, and it's still ready to be shipped, it's just... more obviously hand-crafted.)

The quality control process specifies labeling first, tasting later.
After a couple of hours, we'd bottled all the booze that needed bottling, so we had some pizza, followed by a taste of the Catoctin Creek range -- i.e., Watershed Gin, Mosby's Spirit, and the Roundstone Rye whiskey they make from Mosby's Spirit. (They also makes small batches of brandies -- both grape and pear -- but they're sold out now.)

Sleep away, my friends.
Though made from a 100% rye mash bill, Roundstone Rye is not a straight rye whiskey, because it's not aged for two years. I'd been thinking they could just leave a few barrels to age and have a single-barrel straight rye ready for limited release in short order, but they distill their Mosby's Spirit expecting it to spend less than a year in a cask. They might need to change the distillation process if the whiskey is to get more flavor from the barrels.

I did get a chance to ask Becky Harris, the master distiller, why they decided to use a 100% rye mash bill, when rye is well known to be a tricky grain to deal with. She said it was because of the tradition of making rye whiskey in Virginia, and they thought it was worth recovering that tradition. They also think it's worth making certified organic spirits -- which, ironically, means they have to import their rye from Kansas, since there's not enough organic rye grown in Virginia to meet their needs. If the distillery keeps growing, though (they sold 20,000 bottles last year, and will sell 40,000 this year), they may be able to make it worth Virginia farmers' while to go organic.

At the end of the tasting, we got a drop of Langdon Wood Barrel-Aged Maply Syrup, a syrup from Pennsylvania that's been aged in old Roundstone Rye barrels. Fantastic stuff, buttery and maply with some rye spice. To anyone who's used one of those one or two liter barrels they sell to age whiskey, I'd recommend putting some good maple syrup in it when they're finished with the whiskey. You'll want to make pancakes for a month.

"She worked us like dogs, but we loved her still."

1 comment:

  1. Bottling can be fun and tiresome at the same time. Right, Tom? I bet you had a great time at the workshop! It certainly seemed like it was a very educational one, seeing how organized the event was. Are you going to volunteer for another bottling workshop if they ever offer another one?

    Rob Feckler