Whiskey startup goes down smooth

Two friends from Collegiate hatched a business plan while at a Virginia Tech football game, and now they’ve got their very own Richmond whiskey to pour at this season’s tailgate parties.

This story first appeared on RichmondBizSense.com, Richmond’s leading source for business news.

(From Al Harris)

Twelve sixty-gallon barrels of corn mash sit in a Richmond warehouse. The mash will soon be transferred to a large copper still and made into whiskey.

No, moonshiners are not making a comeback.

The mash is part of the process for a licensed operation in Richmond that makes small-batch whiskey.

Reservoir Distillery partners and childhood friends David Cuttino and Jay Carpenter, both 38, are almost ready to make their line of spirits available to the public.

“The only thing we are waiting for are the bottles,” Carpenter said.

Their first run will consist of about 500 375ml bottles, at $42 each. Reservoir won’t be on ABC store shelves right away, but it will be available for special order by mid-September. Carpenter also said he has pre-orders from multiple restaurants across town.

Like the whiskey itself, getting to the point where they can legally make and sell their brew has been a long delicate process.

Cuttino said he started working on obtaining the licenses in March 2009.

“There are many, many rounds of regulation involved,” Cuttino said.

Cuttino’s taste for the whiskey business started in 2008. Working as a portfolio manager for a bond fund in New York while the financial markets were slipping into crisis mode, he began to think about his next steps. When he came across an article about the recreation of George Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon, the wheels started turning. He researched the industry.

With enthusiasm building, he shared the idea of starting a distillery with friends while in Blacksburg for a Virginia Tech football game. Among those friends was Carpenter, whom Cuttino had graduated from Collegiate with.

Inspired by Cuttino’s excitement, or perhaps the bourbon he was drinking at the time, Carpenter joined in on the plan.

There was only one major problem: Neither knew how to make whiskey. Cuttino figured out that piece of the puzzle when he came across a bottle of craft bourbon at a liquor store in New York.

That bourbon was made by Tuthilltown Spirits in upstate New York.

“I got it, tried it and was like, ‘this is really good.’ It is so different than the commercial bourbons that are out there,” Cuttino said.

Cuttino said it was his wife who suggested he write to them and see if he could get an unpaid internship. Soon after he quit his job and spent the next six months working for free and learning the ins and outs of operating a distillery.

“Their mandate at that time was to try and spread the knowledge of artisan whiskey making as much as possible,” Cuttino said.

Last summer Cuttino and his family moved back to Richmond to bring that knowledge here. He called up Carpenter and the two got to work on formalizing the business.

Neither would say exactly how much money is being put into the completely self-funded business, but Carpenter offered a hint.

“It is enough to buy a house,” he said.

Cuttino said it would take them a few years before they are profitable.

“We aren’t taking salaries. Everything is going right back in to grow the business,” Cuttino said.

They are currently capable of producing about 150 gallons of whiskey a month, but they are shopping for the equipment they need to quadruple production. Reservoir plans to offer three kinds of whiskey: corn (bourbon), rye and wheat.

The whiskey is aged for about six months in small barrels made of Arkansas oak. The smaller the barrel, the shorter the aging time, Carpenter said.

And as for the end product, the duo is pleased with the results.

“We had a good idea what it was going to taste like, and we wanted to make sure it was good before we start spreading word,” Cuttino said. “We knew it was going to taste good, but we were like ‘Wow, this is really good.’”

The whiskey is smooth, flavorful and without any harshness, as a reporter found out.

“It’s not made to put in ginger ale,” Carpenter said.

Al Harris is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to Al@richmondbizsense.com.

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