By Irvin B. Harrell | Photos by Phil Bowne
When Alex Toomy started searching for a retirement Plan B a few years ago, the rancher and real estate developer considered making moonshine in central Virginia. Getting a license wouldn’t be difficult, he found. But setting up the operation was a different story.
Then one day Toomy, 52, was watching an episode of “Modern Marvels” when he saw a segment on David Pickerell, a master spirits distiller. Pickerell spent 14 years with Maker’s Mark, before becoming the master distiller at WhistlePig, creating a top-of-the-line rye whiskey. Toomy cold-called him the next day and explained the situation.
“I told him that we were interested in doing a distillery in Virginia and asked if he knew someone who could help us do it, because we didn’t know anything about it,” Toomy said. “He said he had just retired, and he’d love to help us.”
Pickerell set up the whole program for what would become Ragged Branch Distillery in Charlottesville. He helped Toomy and his partners – Russell Nance from New York and Chris Sarpy from New Orleans – develop recipes and order equipment. The trio’s objective was to focus on a wheat-based and rye-based straight bourbon whiskey. They got a license in January 2014 and began making whiskey that summer.
“We stay true to making straight bourbon whiskey,” Toomy said. “It is authentic, old-school bourbon. … We aim to do one thing right, and we do it right every day.”
Bottles of Ragged Branch sell for $50 each. Toomy prides himself on using local ingredients in his bourbon. He grows the corn and adds locally sourced wheat and rye. Ragged Branch grinds and cooks its malted barley on-site daily. The fermented mash is distilled in its 500-gallon still, and the distillate is aged in white oak barrels.
Ragged Branch’s farm-to-bottle concept ends with whiskey, but the distillery also has created a profitable farm-to-table business. The remaining mash from its whiskey production feeds its cattle, which upon slaughter produces Ragged Branch Bourbon Beef. The distillery sells filets, sirloins, rib eyes, strip steaks and ground beef out of its tasting room, and provides an option to purchase half or whole steers. According to Toomy, Ragged Branch sells about 600 pounds of beef a week.
“We keep about 12 steer on the feed,” Toomy said. “The byproduct is a nice bright-red marbled steak.”
Toomy’s next goal is to increase production and expand distribution. Besides that, it’s all about the simple pleasures of owning a distillery.
“It’s pretty gratifying having a drink of your own bourbon,” he said.
Ragged Branch offers an expansive tasting area, with an indoor tasting room that seats 35 and a terrace that seats 40. Its tasting room provides panoramic, picturesque views of the rolling Ragged Mountains of central Virginia. It sits on a knoll that overlooks the distillery and rickhouse, where the barrels are aged.
The distillery is open from noon to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, and its tasting room is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week to make purchases. The distillery has a total staff of seven, three of whom are distillers, Toomy said.
Among Ragged Branch’s house rules are no dogs except service animals, no one under 21 in the bar, no one under 12 in the tasting room, and no smoking or vaping.