Cognac, meet American rum

Sponsored by Taste & Place Writing Workshops

Virago Spirits distiller Barry Haneberg with three of his spirits/ Photo by Wayne Curtis
Virago Spirits distiller Barry Haneberg with three of his spirits/ Photo by Wayne Curtis
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Makers of craft spirits walk a tightrope that runs between the innovative and the conventional. Distillers must strive to produce conventional spirits every bit as excellent as mainstream brands—a gin as good as Beefeaters, a bourbon as good as Maker’s Mark. The catch is, if they succeed, they fail. The bigger brands have economies of scale, massive marketing budgets, and access to distribution channels that start-ups can’t even dream of. “You can’t out-Maker’s Mark Maker’s Mark” was a mantra of the late spirits consultant Dave Pickerell.

So upstart distillers must aim to make something great but also unique and distinctive, a spirit that stands out on a crowded liquor store shelf or cocktail lounge backbar. A gin that doesn’t only taste like Beefeaters. Something that expresses originality or regional flair and attracts the attention of discerning spirits drinkers, all while coloring within the lines. A gin must still read as a gin, a rye as a rye.

Which is a roundabout way of explaining how a vintage French cognac still ended up in small distillery in a modest industrial building in a charmless part of Richmond, Virginia.

Virago Spirits’ still/ Provided

Virago Spirts was founded in 2018 by Barry, Brad and Vicki Haneberg. (Barry and Brad are brothers; Vicki is Brad’s wife.) Barry and Brad had solid desk jobs (banker, attorney) but wanted to create something that outlasted them. They liked beer and considered starting a brewery but found the market saturated. So, they turned to distilling.

Barry had already left investment banking to chase an interest in American history, pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. When considering which spirits to produce, his thoughts turned to rum’s deep history in America—piracy, the American revolution, the triangle trade. And he thought: “We need to reintroduce American consumers to American rum.”

That is to say, something different from the Caribbean rums with which Americans are most familiar. Creating a traditional colonial American rum is fraught with difficulties, chief among them being that it hasn’t been made in any quantity for two centuries, and no one is quite sure what it tasted like. But by replicating some of the early conditions—partly technological, partly climatological—a distinctive American rum could emerge. Barry started researching, learning about the dozens of variables that determine the flavor profile of a rum.

“Creating an aged spirit requires four distinct steps, each of which provides multiple opportunities for a producer to impart his or her own style to the final product,” he says. “It’s important that you have a clear idea of what you want your end goal to be before you begin the process.”

Rum aged in a port cask/ Provided

The four steps are: fermentation, distillation, maturation, and blending. Barry was drawn to a flavor profile that was bigger and funkier than many domestic rums, so designed the process accordingly. During fermentation, in which yeast converts sugar to alcohol, he chose to start with a sweet Guatemalan molasses. And where most distillers ferment for three or four days, Virago lets the fermentation run for two or three weeks, which allows microbes to get into the action alongside the yeast. This aids in creating a complex casserole of flavors.

Then came the cognac still. A still separates out the alcohol from the rest of the fermented mash, and the desirable compounds from the undesirable. Most craft distilleries use hybrid stills, which are part traditional pot still, and part modern column still. These are jack-of-all-trades tools, able to make everything from eau-de-vie to vodka.

After consulting with brandy maker Hubert Germain-Robin, Barry opted to buy a Charentais-style pot still, which is widely used across the cognac-producing region of France. He found a vintage Chalvignac Prulho pot still for sale, and had it shipped over from France, along with a team to install and instruct him how to use it.

Thanks to its ancient design—some might say “inefficient”—the distillate that emerges captures more secondary flavors. And unlike most stills, which are heated with steam, Virago’s uses direct flames from high-pressure gas jets to heat the still, which creates hot spots that can lead to sugars caramelizing, adding to the complexity— “at the risk, of course, of scalding the batch,” Barry says.

A bottle of blended rum/ Provided

The rum he produces goes into a variety of casks—French oak, and those that formerly held sherry or cognac—which are arrayed in the warehouse behind the still. On a warm afternoon this spring, we pulled some bungs and sampled some of the rums, which have been aging for as long as five years. All were dense and aromatically complex, and had richness of flavor that brought to mind a tropically-aged Barbadian rum, but slightly drier, as if it were a distant cousin of bourbon. It’s an emerging American style.

Virago’s aged rums are not yet available. “They will be ready when they’re ready,” Barry says. He’s guessing that he’ll release some within the year. “People are excited about it, so we’ll probably pull a couple of barrels.”   

In the meantime, Virago sells two unaged, white rums they produce in-house (a 151-proof rum, along with a lower proof rum in which they blend their own with rums from Trinidad and Guyana). The aged rums currently sold under the Virago label are a blend of rums imported from around the Caribbean, some of it aged in sherry and cognac casks. They also produce two gins and some experimental liqueurs.

Visitors can sample their current spirits at their bar and tasting room, which fronts the distillery, either straight or in cocktails. It’s a fine perch to see the landscape that is the craft spirits world today—in a spruced-up room in a run-down industrial neighborhood.

Craft bartenders often talk about the ”Mr. Potato Head” process of making new drinks—swapping out a vermouth for an amaro in a classic Manhattan, for instance.

Craft distilling is now deep into its Mr Potato Head phase in which the traditional means of production are being swapped out for innovative approaches—say, aging a whiskey in a tequila barrel, or using a cognac still to make rum, yielding a blend of the familiar and the unexpected.

“Our philosophy is, first you master tradition and then you innovate,” Barry says.

As it turns out, the borderlands between tradition and innovation makes a superb spot to have a drink.

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  1. Avatar photoyoutube to mp3 says

    Your writing is like a breath of fresh air in the often stale world of online content. Your unique perspective and engaging style set you apart from the crowd. Thank you for sharing your talents with us.

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