Silverback Distillery

Interview by Ashley Carpenter
Issue 35 • January 2016 • Afton

Nestled deep in Nelson County along the Brew Ridge Trail, this family-run distillery brings a new approach to an age old craft.

“Guys really hate it when I refer to it as, ‘I’m just a really good cook and I’m cooking hooch.’ They call me the Hooch Mama, no joke!” In a world dominated by men, Christine Riggleman is crushing the craft distillery game. In little over a year of operating, she has won awards on both coasts and is recognized worldwide for superior quality liquors and distinct packaging. At Silverback Distillery, they really put the “gin” back in Virginia.

What sparked the decision to open in Afton?
Virginia born and raised, we bought land with the intention of opening a business. My husband was former military, so this was my baby. I’m the CEO and Head Distiller, he just came on full-time last week!

Where did you learn the art of distilling?
We went on a family trip to Scotland – just one distillery, Ben Nevis – and I fell in love. They have great people and a big highland cow with big horns, long hair, he was just adorable! My family was in the tasting room while I was still on the tour asking, ‘What does that do? What does this do?’ It just wouldn’t leave me. I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I went to Scotland on an apprenticeship and learned the foundations, but of course no recipes or secrets! I came home and had a few master distillers come and help with any “uh-oh moments” and have been chugging along since.

Christine Riggleman with Titus, the Silverback Distillery mascot

Why the name “Silverback?”
With four females in the house, my husband was either going to go grey or go bald, and he went grey. Like the silverback gorilla, he is nurturing but likes to pound his chest occasionally. I wanted to make sure he was appreciated because he believed in all of us to make this work. We’re a small family here and it takes the whole troop!

It certainly does. I understand that you have the whole family in on the operation?
All of our daughters work here and are dedicated to the craft. Our oldest, the General Manager, is waiting to hear back about a masters program in fermentation science and distillation in Scotland and is currently apprenticing in making the hooch. The other two are each pursuing majors in fermentation and distillery related interests. It’s definitely a family affair and female heavy. I feel sorry for the few guys here sometimes.

It ain’t easy bein’ green, is it?
We are the first distillery in Virginia to use geothermal technology. We can run our continuous still 24/7 and it uses the Earth’s natural temperature for chilling production and reducing labor, time, and energy. We are dedicated to being as green as possible and recycling everything we can. All spent mash goes to local farmers for their cows and we’re the only distillery in Virginia using all local grains.

Heads or Tails?
There are three parts to every still run: the head, the heart, and the tails. The head is what evaporates at the top of the still, mostly medicinal and smells like rubbing alcohol. The tails is what’s collected in the thumper and is sometimes used to start new batches, but not here. We only give the heart of the run to our customers!

We’ll wait patiently as the Blackback bourbon and rye age gracefully over the next few years. In the meantime, there is plenty of Beringei vodka (double silver), Strange Monkey gin (double gold), and Blackback white whiskey to enjoy.

The Strange Monkey

2 oz Strange Monkey gin
2 oz ginger beer
1 oz turmeric simple syrup
½ lime, freshly juiced

Pour over ice and stir. Garnish with cilantro sprig.

Learn more about Silverback Distillery at

Photography by Mike Lesnick

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