Historic spirits come to life in new moonshine

Belle Isle helped people make moonshine in the 1800s. A new distillery’s now paying homage to that history.

Two men drove north on I-95 to New York, bottles of moonshine clanking in the trunk. Anthony Lupesco sat in the passenger seat. But the mastermind of the trip, Brian Marks, remained in Richmond.

“I texted Anthony: Did you ever think you’d be running moonshine?” Marks said.

Anthony texted back without missing a beat: “I didn’t know when, but I knew one day I would.”

Not that long ago, hauling moonshine across state lines risked hefty fines and even jail time. But the spirits Lupesco and his friend hauled to the Empire State were 100 percent legal.

They were destined for Marks’ friend, an HBO executive that wanted moonshine from Belle Isle Craft Spirits for her massive house party with fellow executives. “‘You’ve got to give me some spirits,'” she told Marks.

Marks was flattered, but at an impasse. He couldn’t legally ship the spirits. “You would have to come to Virginia to buy it,” he told her. “Unless…I could give it to someone who’s going up [to New York].” Marks put out a call on Facebook. Lupesco happened to be driving north that weekend, and brought along spirits for the party.

Three Richmonders with no background in liquor have created a spirit unlike any other–neither vodka, whiskey, nor bourbon. Partially inspired by Richmond’s own history with illegal liquor, Belle Isle Craft Spirits hope to change the spirits world with premium moonshine that’ll soon be distilled and bottled here in the city.

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The distillery began at a brewery. Alex Wotring and two friends sat together at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery one day.

“We were sitting around and said, man, somebody’s got to do a distillery just like this,” Wotring said. What the three liked about Hardywood was that Hardywood didn’t just make craft beer. It sold beer on-site, held tastings, and hosted events.

Wotring and friend Vincent Riggi (the two once together owned local Smoothie Kings) had been fermenting the idea of opening a distillery for the past several years. “We always had a passion for spirits, especially whiskey,” Wotring said. “Always kind of threw this idea around, more playfully than anything” to make their own spirits.

When Wotring, Riggi, and Marks sat together outside Hardywood that playful idea turned serious. There was only one issue: none of them knew anything about spirits.

What they soon found out was discouraging. Whiskey companies don’t pop up overnight because whiskey, good whiskey, takes years to properly age. “The cost-effectiveness of sitting around for a year and waiting for something to age and then finding out that maybe we messed up and need to start over again” wasn’t a prospect the three relished, Wotring said.

But the team discovered that while true whiskey can take years to make, the first liquid that comes out of the still is a “white whiskey.” Essentially, it’s what old moonshiners used to make moonshine. The “white whiskey” was a perfect spirit because a) it was high-proof and b) it didn’t take nearly as long to produce as bonafide whiskey.

More digging led the three to recognize that moonshine was their calling. “We did more research and found out that Belle Isle was home to the first premium copper kettle, which was the first premium moonshine during the 1800s,” Wotring said.

Belle Isle Manufacturing began as a supplier to the booming railroad industry, Wotring explained. During the Civil War, the producer made copper kettles, which would be supplied to war encampments for making food.

“But during that time, bourbon was outlawed because they needed the corn (the main ingredient in bourbon) to feed the soldiers,” Wotring said. “So there was excess corn with these copper kettles…it was the perfect storm for people to start making moonshine.”

The three friends decided they would scrap their whiskey-making plans and instead distill moonshine.

But isn’t moonshine by definition, you know, illegal. “The term ‘moonshine’ [means] just an untaxed spirit,” Wotring said.

And Brian Marks said the idea of moonshine isn’t limited to the US. “In the Mediterranean…it’s called raki,” he said. “Mexico’s got a different name [raicilla]. Russia’s got a different name [samogon]. It’s just an untaxed spirit.”

Belle Isle Craft Spirits pays taxes. So aren’t they, by definition, not producing moonshine? Perhaps. But they’re not producing any other spirit either.

“To call something a vodka, you have to follow very, very strict standards,” Wotring said. “To call something a whiskey, same thing. Bourbon? Same thing.”

“Our spirit is proofed to 185 coming out of the still, which is very close to a vodka. Whereas if you wanted to call something a whiskey, you can’t go above 145 [proof].” The three didn’t want to follow guidelines. They wanted to make whatever tasted good to them. “For us, it was a way not to be pigeonholed.”

Marks elaborated. “There’s no category for what we’ve created. So it is, truly, a unique spirit,” he said. For instance, Belle Isle uses 100 percent organic corn to make the spirit. “Corn is usually used in bourbon and whiskey. But then again, we’re not a whiskey [or a bourbon]. Out spirit is very unique in that you can make a Manhattan with it, which is a traditional whiskey cocktail, or you can make a martini, which is a traditional gin or vodka cocktail. It kind of has that playful aspect.”

Wotring: “And it can be enjoyed just neat or on the rocks, but it really is a cool canvas for these bartenders that really get it.” Heritage, The Roosevelt, The Mill on MacArthur, Balliceaux, and several other local restaurants already incorporate that playful aspect of the spirit into their drink menus.

The spirit’s also available at several area ABC stores (including the one next to Ellwood Thompson’s) with more coming online July 1st. Country Vinter will also soon begin distributing the spirit throughout the DC area.

The local spirit will become even more local later this summer after high-quality cooper kettles arrive from Germany so that Belle Isle can begin producing and bottling their moonshine at their Manchester distillery, once a UPS distribution center.

Currently, Belle Isle has outsourced production of its moonshine to KOVAL. Renowned in the spirits world, the Chicago based company mentored the Belle Isle founders and have produced their spirit until the local company is able to make it on its own.1

“Most distilleries and wineries do the same thing,” Marks said. “Every winery you’ve ever known about, they have outsourced their grapes and everything to get the bottles flowing” until they’re up and running. Belle Isle hopes to be up and running this summer.

Locally producing their spirit is only the beginning of their larger aspirations. Just like Hardywood, Belle Isle Craft Spirits wants to be able to serve on-site and host events. There’s only one thing standing in their way.

The law.

“We can’t do all that stuff that breweries can do,” Wotring said. Perhaps because people still think of spirits as an inexpensive means to get drunk ASAP. Craft beer, on the other hand, connotes slow, deliberate enjoyment. It’s classier.

Marks said Virginia needs more distilleries to show lawmakers and ABC regulators that distilleries can be just like craft breweries. “We’re never going to change our archaic laws the way the breweries have because there’s [only] 13 distilleries in Virginia,” he said. There are over 60 craft breweries in the Commonwealth.

In time, Belle Isle hopes to sell its spirit from their Manchester distillery, but for now, the trio of distillers is focused on changing the perception of moonshine. “People are like, you should be able to light it on fire. It should burn your throat. It’s kind of gimmicky,” Wotring said. “It’s kind of like what Tequila used to be.”

Not that long ago, tequila was something people only consumed as shots, or to drink their way to the worm at the bottom of the bottle. Tequila was a novelty.

Now companies like Patron and 1800 market premium tequila in big-budget commercials with celebrities. Some bottles of tequila run you $300.

Belle Isle wants moonshine to follow a similar path. Where once moonshine instilled ideas of rural rebels outwitting the law with a drink that’d put hair on chest as it enflamed your throat, “That’s what we’ve set out to change, is that it can taste good. It can be a spirit you enjoy and sip on,” Wotring said.

“We really think it’s going to be what Belle Isle is known for, nationally and internationally.”

  1. KOVAL uses the same copper kettles that Belle Isle will use, so the spirit will taste the same when production begins in Richmond. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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