I spent my high school years growing up in Kentucky. So I appreciate a good bourbon. But I am admittedly not as familiar with America’s legendary clear spirit. I am talking about moonshine of course.
My first interaction with moonshine was just after marrying my wife Laura. Her family is originally from the Lexington and Buena Vista area of western Virginia. We had driven out from Richmond to visit with Laura’s Grandaddy Earl. A former Navy veteran and member of the greatest generation, Grandaddy Earl had just come to terms with his Monacan Indian heritage. It took just one look at those cheekbones and wonderfully dark skin, and you instantly knew he had Native American blood. But he grew up in a time when the state, military, and society as a whole discriminated against Native Americans. In fact, they rejected their heritage altogether. It was common practice to mark Indian birth records as “colored” in order to deny them their identity. It was viewed as a thing of shame. As an Indian, acknowledging your Native American heritage was only to be met by discrimination at every turn. It was not something to be proud of.
But times have thankfully changed. And Granddaddy Earl knew that. It was time to acknowledge the obvious, register with the Monacan Indian Nation, and let everyone know the truth. It was during this time of self-revelation that Laura and and I drove out to spend the day with Grandaddy Earl. He had crafted a beautiful handmade china cabinet for us as a wedding gift for our new home. It was the perfect gift. Spending the day with him and listening to his stories was a day we will always cherish.
While we were walking back from the old barn out back behind his stone house towards the end of our visit, I kept coughing because I had caught a slight cold. Grandaddy Earl invited me into the cellar as he said: “I have something that will knock that cough right out.” We went down into the dark cellar where he had several ball jars filled with bright, clear liquid. The canisters either had peaches or pears floating in the them. He poured me a shot and said, “here you go.” I laughed nervously, and asked too loudly for his liking: “Is that moonshine?!” He grimaced while he gave me THE LOOK. I could almost hear him think out loud saying under his breath: you dumb city slicker keep your voice down, the feds might hear you. He laughed quietly under his breath, avoided my question, and said, “I only keep it for colds.” I laughed out loud and took a sip. Man was it good!
Nearly 14 years later, we have bonafied, legitimate moonshine to enjoy now. And it isn’t distilled in the back woods. Richmond is proud to support our own home grown spirit: Belle Isle Moonshine. And the boys at Belle Isle Craft Spirits have made Manchester home.
Not knowing anything about the Belle Isle Moonshine operation, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to visit their facility. Nestled between Maury and Everett Streets in the industrial section of Manchester, this is where the moonshine magic happens. The team at Belle Isle was nice enough to give me the nickel tour. I was also able to sample some of their infusions in pure form, and enjoy a cocktail made with their latest Cold Brew Coffee moonshine. It was the perfect way to start my weekend on a late Friday afternoon.
After spending the afternoon with the Belle Isle team, I followed up with some questions. Here is what two of the co-founders, Vince Riggi and Brian Marks, had to say.
When was Belle Isle Craft Spirits started?
VR: Belle Isle Premium Moonshine became available for sale in 2013 with widespread distribution in Virginia beginning in 2014. Since then, we’ve added three infusions: Honey Habanero, Ruby Red Grapefruit, and Cold Brew Coffee and expanded sales into 6 states and Washington, D.C.
What is your mission, and what products do you currently produce?
BM: We founded Belle Isle Craft Spirits to help America’s Original Spirit regain its rightful place in bars and glasses by producing high quality moonshines and infusions that both honor the spirit’s rich traditions and propel it into the future. Currently we produce Belle Isle 80 Proof and Belle Isle 100 Proof as well as three infusions: Ruby Red Grapefruit, Honey Habanero, and, launching in October, Cold Brew Coffee, a collaboration with Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company.
What are you most proud of in terms of your accomplishments so far?
VR: Aside from selling our first bottle? We feel both proud of the passionate fanbase we’ve been able to build. We’ve been fortunate enough to have the support of Richmond behind us from inception.
What has been your biggest challenge for getting started?
VR: Walking people down the path and educating them on the history of moonshine. There are two era’s of Moonshine, the pre-prohibition and the post-prohibition era’s. The latter has relegated the spirit to a mere novelty brand on the shelf and in the back woods. During this time period, Vodka has taken up the mantle as America’s clear spirit of choice. On the other hand, before prohibition, moonshine was viewed in a completely different light. Grey Goose, Smirnoff, and Absolut did not exist during this time period and moonshine was America’s Clear Spirit. Opening people’s eyes to this simple fact has been a challenge, but once you distill it down, the history resonates.
What do you see as your biggest opportunity for growth?
BM: Even though we’re expanding into other states, we’ve really only touched on the tip of the iceberg in Virginia. From the Blue Ridge to the Beach, and from Northern Virginia to the North Carolina state line, we have a lot more work to do and we’re excited to showcase our spirit to Virginians everywhere. Belle Isle is their spirit just as much as it is Richmond’s…
What’s next for Belle Isle?
BM: In early 2017 we’ll be opening our doors and inviting people to visit our tasting room, or as we like to call it, “The Infusion Kitchen”. Our guests will partake in a very “workshop” like environment, which will give us the opportunity to showcase our process and how we create the infusions that our fan base enjoys.
We also recently closed on our Series A round of $1.25m earlier in 2016 and are in the process of raising our Series B which will close in Q1 of 2017. We have a fantastic product, an awesome team, and a great story to tell. These raises help us educate the masses and fulfill our mission as a company.
In regards to products, along with the Cold Brew Coffee infusion that was previously mentioned, we have another tasty infusion we’ll be releasing April 1st of 2017. Stay tuned!
Why did you select Manchester?
BM: Manchester is a budding area and will become an epicenter of Richmond in the near future. With its proximity to Belle Isle, we wanted to be a part of that epicenter and help cultivate that growth. Our goal is to become a destination that anyone passing through Virginia must see. A rising tide raises all ships…