Distillery Focus

Catoctin Creek: Virgina's rye revivalists

Drawing on a historic legacy, Catoctin Creek makes rye with an eye to the future
By Susannah Skiver Barton
Checking in on  the crop.
Checking in on the crop.
Becky Harris wasn’t much of a whiskey drinker when she and her husband, Scott, started a distillery. It was the late aughts, and Harris, a chemical engineer, was gearing up to re-enter the workforce after taking some time away to raise their two sons, when Scott, then a government contractor, floated the idea. Her first question cut to the most important point: “Can we make money doing that?”

Harris had worked on such diverse processes as polystyrene and contact lens manufacturing, which she calls “really freaking hard,” so she wasn’t worried about mastering the technical aspects of making whiskey. Instead, she focused on discovering what she liked and, in turn, what her customers would like. “You just have to go into it with curiosity and a desire to explore,” she says.

The Harrises opened the doors to their distillery, Catoctin Creek, in 2009, focusing from the start on rye whiskey. At that time, the style was just starting to revive after nearly a century in the doldrums, the victim of Prohibition and changing tastes. American whiskey culture had largely forgotten that rye, not bourbon, was the nation’s first native style. And Virginia, where the Harrises lived, had once been a thriving hotbed of rye distillers. “Rye was the stuff,” Harris says, noting that the grain was especially useful in colonial Virginia, where tobacco was grown as a cash crop. But it didn’t come without its own problems.

“Tobacco is really hard on soils. When you have these depleted soils, rye grows well on them, and so it really meshed,” she explains. Whiskey making was a crucial part of the economy before and after the Revolutionary War, with thousands of small distilleries dotting the Eastern Seaboard. “Women were doing a lot of that work because men were working in the fields,” Harris adds. “All that stuff was the story we found so compelling and why we focused on rye.”

Located in historic Purcellville, Virginia, Catoctin Creek was an early mover in craft spirits in the area, which presented both challenges and advantages. “There were so few people… you could go into it without a tremendous amount of knowledge of how the industry works,” Harris says, noting that, at the time, theirs was the closest distillery to Washington, DC, effectively making Catoctin Creek the capital’s local whiskey. “What that gave us was breathing room to learn and the ability to figure it out as we went along – and to get more savvy.”

Early efforts were rewarded in 2016 when spirits, wine, and beer conglomerate Constellation Brands invested in Catoctin Creek. The minority stake allowed the distillery to undertake a crucial expansion while lso increasing its marketing and sales efforts. “It was a boost to us,” Harris says. “It was recognition of how far we’ve come in growing our company and that others saw the potential of the work we were doing and that the brand could resonate on a larger scale.” Catoctin Creek now operates at double its previous capacity and has added expanded warehousing space.
Though the Harrises knew they wanted to focus on rye from the beginning, Catoctin Creek’s portfolio developed piece by piece, benefiting from the start-up environment that allowed for trial and error. There were a few one-offs, like American single malts distilled from wash made by local breweries, and some non-whiskey spirits that are still produced, such as Watershed gin and brandies made with local grapes, peaches, pears, and apples. But whiskey made with 100 per cent rye and bottled as a single barrel comprises almost all of Catoctin Creek’s production, offered under the Roundstone Rye label.

Catoctin Creek’s range of spirits

The first rye to launch was Roundstone Rye 80 Proof, which Harris describes as a “front porch sipper of a rye – a gateway for folks who don’t know they like rye.” When sampling barrels for this expression, she looks for those that are very approachable and very sippable. “They’ve got really nice fruity notes and a nice rounded spice but not aggressive,” she says.

Next to emerge was Roundstone Rye Distiller’s Edition 92 Proof. “We kept hearing folks say, ‘We want something with more heft to it,’ especially [from] people in the on-trade,” Harris recalls. According to Harris, Distiller’s Edition features more “amplitude” of the rye coming through, explaining that she looks for barrels that emphasize plum and citrus flavours on the mid-palate with a more spice-driven finish.

Rounding out the trio, Roundstone Rye Cask Proof pulls together all the intensity of flavour and aroma that Catoctin Creek can create. With its ABV typically around 58% but sometimes as high as the 62.5%, Harris looks for high viscosity as a means of balance, which she says is to temper the alcohol’s heat.

“[I want] the intensity of the high-proof whiskey, but at the same time the flavour has to come,” she explains. In addition to the core line-up, Catoctin Creek produces Braddock Oak Rye, as a private label for the Total Wine & More retail chain, and occasionally offers limited amounts of Rabble Rouser Bottled-in-Bond Rye.

Like many American craft distilleries, Catoctin Creek has hybrid stills – copper pots with columns that include bubble caps. The distillery team runs a seven-day fermentation on the grain using proprietary yeast and matures the whiskey in 30-gallon new charred oak barrels. When sampling barrels for bottling, Harris and a group of staff taste through each one at different proofs, from cask strength down to 40% ABV, looking to match the character and flavour profile to one
of the core expressions.

Becky Harris and her husband, Scott.

Because each rye is bottled as a single barrel, Harris is very focussed on creating balance from the beginning of the process, starting with the grain itself, which is all sourced from within 150 miles of the distillery. Timmy Scott of the Glebe Farm is the distillery’s primary grower and provides its speciality varietals like Brasetto, Ryman, and, soon, Abbruzzi rye.
However, there are occasional setbacks. “A lot of rye varietals want to grow in colder, drier climates. We are a humid climate,” Harris explains. “Making sure that he’s got varieties that work well with his land and his business – that’s absolutely important.”

The rye from Scott makes up the bulk of Catoctin Creek’s grain bill, with Harris mixing in rye from other sources in similar proportions from batch-to-batch. “Since we don’t blend the barrels to create the expressions, I blend the rye to create the whiskey in each barrel,” she says. “When we change something, we do it at a low percentage and then grow it over time, so that it’s not changing suddenly.”

Catoctin Creek’s whiskey making may be rooted in history, but that doesn’t hold the distillery back in mindset or experimentation. Nothing encapsulates that mindset better than the company’s partnership with GWAR, the heavy metal band from space. The self-styled ‘scumdogs of the universe’ are actually based in Richmond, Virginia, and approached the Harrises about blending a whiskey together. “They call themselves an artists’ collective,” Harris says. “They have a passionate following, and they wanted something that reflected a similar mindset and ethos.”
A blend of ryes finished with cherry and maple wood, Catoctin Creek Ragnarök Rye debuted in 2021, and its bottles are capped with custom toppers shaped like the ‘alien’ members of the extraterrestrial band. This limited-edition release was well received – GWAR’s hardcore fans, called ‘bohabs’, are a dedicated bunch – and Ragnarök will continue to return in future years. “It’s been a lot of fun,” Harris says when discussing the collaboration.

It’s not just new products that drive Catoctin Creek’s forward-thinking. Serving as president of the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) since early 2020, Harris has her finger on the pulse of issues that impact the entire American craft whiskey community. For much of her term, the pandemic has taken centre stage, as distilleries struggled to stay afloat with their tasting rooms closed. Under her leadership, the ACSA has helped small producers devise strategies for survival, lobby legislators for aid, stay compliant with shifting guidance, and hold on for dear life as wave after wave of Covid-19 swept through.

At the same time, Catoctin Creek has been dealing with the impact of EU and UK tariffs on American whiskey, which came into force at the worst possible moment, just as the distillery was planning on major export growth. “We had grown, done the work on branding, built the relationships in the EU, and just started making a connection with a distributor in the UK… and then, of course, the tariffs came and pretty much doubled the prices of our products,” Harris says. “We were ghosted by our initial distributor right away and it was really disheartening… It just ate into our bottom line.”
With the tariff disputes more or less resolved, Catoctin Creek has resumed efforts to carve out a niche in overseas markets. But Harris says that the landscape has completely changed and the work will now be much tougher, because rye is no longer seen as primarily a North American whiskey.

“Those years when we were basically priced out gave the opportunity for European producers to mature in their approach to rye, which I think is great, but at that point we had no opportunity to compete,” Harris says. “It took not only a lot of market share away from American producers, but it also took ‘mind’ share away.”

Despite the new challenges, Harris has plenty of energy for what’s to come. One of the major endeavours she oversaw when leading the ACSA was the formation of STEPUP – the Spirits Training Entrepreneurship Program for Underrepresented Professionals. The program provides funded internships in the spirits industry for students from underserved backgrounds, which Harris says will strengthen the whole industry in the long run and lead to even more delicious whiskey.

“Taste is so personal and it’s so much a product of your experiences and background,” she says. “Making it so that underrepresented people can come in… That’s been really exciting.”

The Catoctin Creek distillery team

Words Susannah Skiver Barton