Husband and wife team Scott and Becky Harris started Catoctin Creek, a certified organic and kosher microdistillery in Purcellville, Virginia, in 2009. I spoke with Scott about the choice to get kosher certification, the company’s expansion to the national market, and product recommendations for the holiday just around the corner.
What prompted you to start Catoctin Creek?
I like to joke that 20 years of government contracting taught me a great love of drinking. I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer for the rest of my life; add a dose of mid-life crisis to that and I was ready to do something else.
At 15, I worked at a winery, and I really enjoyed the handcrafting process. There are 45 wineries Loudoun County, Virginia, but I liked whisky and there was no one making whiskey. I approached my wife Becky, a chemical engineer, and she said, ‘I can make whiskey but you need to make the money.”
Fast forward 11 months, and we were the first legal producers of whiskey in Loudoun County since Prohibition. I must stress that it really helped to have the town on our side, including the mayor, the fire marshall, and the zone administrator. They helped facilitate the process once they saw we were doing things the right way and thought we’d help boost tourism in the county.
What made you opt to go the kosher route?
When we started the company, we were looking to differentiate ourselves. We were the first and only company to use only organic ingredients. We’ve found that there is a big ambiguity in the Jewish community about kosher whiskey, as very few bottles have certifications on them and some people won’t drink it if it was stored in a cherry cask. In addition, there is a large Jewish community around Washington, in Baltimore, and in New York, our top three markets.
The organic products that we use are kosher, and the process for kosher was similar enough to what were already doing. Now we have a great relationship with the Star K — with our mashgiach [kosher supervisor], Brian, who comes four times a year, as well as Rabbi Rosen who comes once in a while as well.
Affirmation about being kosher came pretty quickly. We’ve had people take a look at our bottle at festivals and when they see the certification on it they are very appreciative. We love hearing that feedback. People come in and buy a number of cases for a bar mitzvah; and we’ve done events at local synagogues and organizations, including Beth Sholom’s Guys Nite Out before Passover every year.
Total Wine [based in Bethesda, Maryland] recently asked you to distribute in all of their locations, which includes 10 new states for Catoctin Creek. How were you able to secure that and how are you handling that expansion?
We approached Total Wine when we first started and they were looking for a producer of craft rye whisky so we started making Braddock Oak exclusively for them. Recently, they asked Becky to be a part of a Total Wine livestream, which will be highlighting a few owners of alcohol makers including Catoctin Creek, Guinness, Hendrick’s Gin, and Brenne Whiskey. They then approved the entire product line for their national region shortly after. We are now scrambling to bottle enough whiskey to fulfill the order.
The livestream will be seen by customers in every Total Wine store, and Becky will be narrating our products, which will be on hand in each store as well. We will also be relying on our distributors to push the brand.
We are competing with major players who dominate the market, such as Woodford, Makers Mark, Jim Beam, etcetera, but when we are successful it is the greatest joy: seeing our bottle in a store in Brooklyn, at a Four Seasons in Sinagpore, in Barcelona, Rome, Venice, Milan. It absolutely shatters me, knowing that I made that bottle in a local Woodbury kitchen in a town of 8,000 people. It is enormously gratifying. It has been an overnight process of nine years.
What Catoctin Creek products should the Jewish community look for this Purim?
Our most popular drink is the Roundstone Rye. It’s an 80-proof spirit and is wonderful in cocktails, not too harsh. This is meant for the consumer who wants a lighter touch.
The second one is the Roundstone Distiller's Edition. It’s 92 proof and can be enjoyed with a cigar. This is a bit more assertive and is a for a whiskey drinker.
Can you share any great mixed drinks recipes for our readers?
The Manhattan includes vermouth — easy to find one that’s kosher — bitters, rye whiskey, and a cherry. It’s a classic, old school, and stands on its own.
Another is Horse's Neck: Glassful of ice, a few dashes of orange bitters, ginger ale and rye. This resembles the New York classic of rye and ginger in the 60s.
Where can they find Catoctin Creek Products?
In addition to Total Wine locations and Corridor Wine and Spirits, you can find them in every ABC store in the state of Virginia, any county liquor store in Montgomery County, Quarry Wine and Spirits and State Line in Baltimore, and Potomac Wines and Spirits and Calvert Woodley in DC.
Any final thoughts for the community?
We’re looking forward to Purim! For more great cocktail and a ton of recipes, you can check out the “Enjoy” tab on our website.
By Hillel Goldschein
Hillel Goldschein is publisher of Kol HaBirah.