By Jim Roberts
Aside from the pleasing assonance of the name “Copper Fox,” the Sperryville-based distillery draws its name from the metal its stills are made of and the fact that it was founded in the heart of the commonwealth’s fox-hunting region.
“Foxes are pretty smart,” founder Rick Wasmund said during a recent interview with Veer Magazine. “Not that I’m smart, but I want our company to be smart.”
So far, so good.
Wasmund was successful enough in his career as a financial planner that he was able to quit in 2000 and venture to Scotland to study the art and science of making whiskey.
“I met a guy who was involved with Bowmore and told him what I was thinking about doing,” he said. “He was very supportive and offered me a non-paid intern position. … It was an amazing experience. I loved the people and the warmth and the opportunity to learn what was going on.
“The biggest thing I learned,” he added, “is that I could do it—that it was possible. A sense of confidence that it could be done.”
Wasmund returned to Virginia, officially founded Copper Fox Distillery in 2005 and has been producing whiskies ever since. A few years ago, he added gin to the product line.
Since day one, Wasmund has differentiated Copper Fox from the competition by hand-malting all of its grains and smoking the resulting malts with fruit woods—most notably: apple and cherry. He said he’s now experimenting with peach, sassafras and “some other fun stuff.”
“It was never my idea to make Scotch whisky in Virginia or something that tastes just like Scotch,” he said. “If people are expecting bourbon or expecting Scotch, that’s not us.”
His signature products are Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (aka “Red Top”) and Copper Fox Rye. The spirits earned scores of 94.5 and 92, respectively, in “Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.”
“Not only do we use the fruit wood smoke on the front end,” he said of the “Red Top,” “we also used toasted apple wood inside the used bourbon barrels, so it’s aged with apple wood. No one before Wasmund’s did that.”
The gin—cheekily named Vir—features 18 different botanicals. “This is not like any other gin,” Wasmund said. “We’ve subdued the juniper—kind of on purpose—and brought up the licorice and the citrus. … I get so many people that have said, ‘I don’t like gin, but I love Vir.’”
He’s also produced a “Blue Top” single malt, which is the “Red Top” aged for two more years: one year in Rappahannock Cellars dessert wine barrels and one year in Barboursville Octagon barrels. “We have a few one-off things that we’re releasing here,” he said, “and that’s one of them.”
Business has been good. Copper Fox reported more than $865,000 in liquor sales in 2015, according to Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control records, but the hand-malting operation has led to a complementary source of revenue as a supplier to more than 70 beer-makers all over the world.
Current customers in Hampton Roads include Back Bay Brewing Co., O’Connor Brewing Co., Reaver Beach Brewing and Virginia Beer Co. The soon-to-open Benchtop Brewing Co. and Oozlefinch Craft Brewery have also committed to using some Copper Fox malts.
Bob Sweeney, O’Connor’s production manager, has used Copper Fox’s smoked and unsmoked malts in several O’Connor beers, including the Virginia Vintage series. “Their smoked malts in particular give a unique profile to beer,” he said, adding: “I love their whiskies. I’m very fond of both their rye and Wasmund’s Single Malt. I have a bottle of each in the cabinet.”
Wasmund’s latest venture: expanding operations to Williamsburg.
He bought the Quality Inn Lord Paget, a 60-year-old Colonial-style motel on Capitol Landing Road, last year and is in the process of renovating it. A section of rooms on the north side of the property has already been converted into a production area where a small still runs every day and bottles are filled, hand-labeled and dipped in wax to feature a swirled “C” on top. Tastings are offered—and cocktails served—in what used to be a breakfast café overlooking the motel pool.
The distillery hosted a grand opening ceremony in July, but renovation work is ongoing. A section of rooms on the south side of the property is being converted into a 3,600-square-foot malt house and a storage room big enough for 800 barrels. Soon, what used to be the motel’s office will be converted into a retail space with a working 2,000-gallon still on display.
“It’s morphed a little bit,” Wasmund said of his vision, “but it’s not too far off. When I first saw the property, I knew.”
He and his family have relocated to Williamsburg, but he said Sperryville will always be the soul of Copper Fox. “It’s just a gem,” he said. “We’re not going to change that.
Wasmund hedged when asked about the growth of the spirits industry—specifically in Virginia. “Astonishing might be too strong of a word,” he said. “I’m trying to think of something a notch down from astonishing. … It’s very exciting to see the industry take off.”
Then his businessman instincts kicked in. “I know that the level of activity presents a lot of challenges—for people getting in the business, trying to stay in the business, for people trying to expand the business. There is an expanding market. It will be interesting to see if there’s a saturation point or how much expansion the market can take.”
He may be a smart fox after all.
For more information about Copper Fox Distillery, visit copperfox.biz. The business also has Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.