The first batch of whiskey in the new world was distilled in Virginia nearly 400 years ago, and in his time native son George Washington would become its biggest producer, bottling 11,000 gallons in 1798 alone. Today, Virginia has 42 distilleries, including a new enterprise offering bourbon and beef.
Alex Toomy grew up on a cattle farm in Augusta County and his family owned some of the prettiest land in Albemarle when the recession hit in 2008. By then, he was building houses on some of that property and the economic downturn was a disaster.
“It crushed us,” he recalls. “We had so much property already developed and the banks wouldn’t renew the notes, and it just left us down and out.”
So Toomy started thinking of other ways to make a living, other things he liked. High on his list was a good glass of bourbon, a sweet whisky made with corn, rye or wheat and malted barley. He’d seen the master distiller for Maker’s Mark bourbon on TV and he decided to give the guy a call.
“I asked him if he knew of somebody that could come and help us get started,” says Toomy. “He told me, ‘I’d love to do it,’ I’ve just retired.”
Toomy traveled to Kentucky, met David Pickerell and, after a long talk, invited him to Charlottesville.
“So he flew in the day before we got this big snow storm, and he got snowed in at the farm for four days, and we had all these bourbons lined up. I fed him good. We drank, and he explained why each bourbon tasted the way it did, who made the bourbon, where it was made, and at the end we negotiated a great price.”
Toomy began building a barn, while Pickerell designed equipment for the new distillery. Some months later, the still arrived in pieces. “They dropped it off in a tractor trailer, and I looked at it laying on the floor, and I was like, ‘How in the world am I going to put this all together?’”
With Pickerell’s help, he got the system up and running. Then it was time to wait. Good bourbon sits in oak barrels for at least two years, and during that time Toomy and two business partners made other difficult decisions. “I couldn’t believe how hard it was just to design a bottle and then get the bourbon into the bottle,” Toomy says, shaking his head.
Choosing a name for their product was also a challenge. They settled on Ragged Branch, a combination of names given to his agricultural holdings: Ragged Mountain and Pounding Branch Farms. It suits the product, since branch is what some Southerners call water from a stream, and you sometimes hear people ordering ‘bourbon and branch’ – a whiskey with still water rather than soda.
After a year of nervous anticipation, Toomy tasted the product. “It was unbelievable how good it was, and I was so happy. I mean I was giddy like a boy on Christmas morning.”
But the story doesn’t end there. To comply with his agricultural zoning, Toomy had to grow and grind his own grain. “We grind all our crop fresh every day,” he explains. “Just like you would for coffee.”
And when the initial distilling was done, the alcohol drained off into barrels, he was left with sour mash, a fine food for cattle. “The sour mash is basically a corn oatmeal which the cows love.”
It also produces some very fine beef, which Ragged Branch sells in its tasting room, along with the bourbon that’s getting rave reviews.
“I’m into Irish whiskey, but this is really smooth – very good, very, very good,” said Anja Kwijas, a journalist visiting from Germany.
“It’s really complex as well. There are a lot of flavors going on,” adds Chandler Craig, a student at the University of Virginia. His parents, visiting from Mississippi, agreed. “It’s very smooth and has a very good taste," said Mark Craig. His wife, sipping a sweet cocktail made with bourbon and cream agreed.
“I’m such a wine drinker,” Diane Craig admitted. “I’m stepping out, but this is great.”
And the fame of Ragged Branch is spreading. It’s now sold in Washington, Maryland, Delaware and fifty ABC stores in Virginia.