When Bill Karlson co-founded KO Distilling in Manassas with longtime friend John O’Mara a few years ago, he remembers it was the 19th distillery in the state.
Now, he said, there are more than 40.
And seven of those were present Saturday at the first-ever Virginia Distiller's Festival at the Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown. Organized by the Williamsburg Distillery, open since last year, the festival celebrated the growth in craft distilling and the variety available in Virginia.
About an hour after the festival’s start, Chuck Thompson, a distiller with Williamsburg Distillery, said the turnout was larger than expected.
As attendees crowded around each distillery’s tent for samples and cocktails, there was a good chance many were tasting something they hadn’t before.
“It’s nice to taste something unique,” said Ginny Thomas, from Suffolk.
There was premium moonshine in flavors like grapefruit and honey habanero from Belle Isle Craft Spirits. There was Williamsburg Distillery’s gin and rum crafted from Colonial-era recipes. There was Virginia Distillery Company’s whisky distilled from 100% malted barley, and KO Distilling’s White Whiskey made with Virginia wheat and Virginia rye.
Arla Jenkins and Angela Hammond sampled some moonshine, among other things, at the festival. They admitted to not being familiar with the craft distilling scene, and Hammond said she usually goes to a lot of wine festivals.
“I thought this would be a fun change of pace,” she said.
Despite unfamiliarity with distilling, Hammond is a big advocate of supporting local, for reasons found at the festival.
“They’re putting their heart and soul into it,” she said. “It’s also really nice to meet the people that are actually behind the product.
“It’s really nice to hear their stories.”
For even more interesting than the products were the people behind them, and many of the distilleries’ founders and owners were present at the festival, sweating in the afternoon heat as they served up samples.
Take Bill Dodson, a dentist, whose dad used to tell him to have something to do in retirement. So, even though he’s not yet retired, Dodson started Williamsburg Distillery, “my something to do,” he said.
Ian Glomski, founder of Vitae Spirits Distillery, formerly worked as a professor of microbiology in University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, and though he said deciding to open the distillery was partly a mid-life crisis, he’s also able to connect his microbiology knowledge to the distilling process. Plus, Glomski is also in the wine business, and he’s brewed beer since the age of 18.
Open since last November, Vitae Spirits produces all of its spirits from molasses, in some form, Glomski said. This means no gluten. Even the company’s gin is made from molasses.
“Our intent is to be as visible and transparent and in many ways to educate people about what distilling is,” Glomski said.
Nearby, at the Cirrus Vodka tent, Frank Geho said the company hopes to educate people about vodka made from potatoes, as “95 percent” of vodka is made from grain. The key difference? Smoothness.
Glomski believes the education aspect integral to the industry, and also why events like the Virginia Distiller’s Festival are important.
“I think we have to do a lot of education of your average person,” he said.
“This is to have a more direct connection with the things that you are consuming.”
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.