Catoctin Creek

Interview by Michelle Orabona
Issue 67 • September 2018 • Purceville

When the American Dream goes up against international trade policy, the outcome is never certain. Just ask this smalltown pioneer of Virginia’s distillery revival.

I have a story to tell you about whisky and washing machines. While you may have heard that the beginning is a very good place to start, this story is going to start in what we’ll call the middle—since the ending has yet to be written.

About a century after Scottish and Irish monks decided that anything their European brethren could do with grapes, they could do with better with grains, Becky and Scott Harris opened Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville. When they started distilling whisky and gin in 2009, they were the first legal distillery in Loudon County since Prohibition, and one of only six distillers in the entire state of Virginia.

Scott and Becky Harris | Photo by Mark Rhodes

Becky, Catoctin Creek’s President and Chief Distiller, recalled, “At that time, we were the local whisky for a large swath of Northern Virginia, D.C., and Maryland. That gave us a leg up.” Since then, the number of distilleries in Virginia has increased tenfold, thanks in large part to a gradual loosening of the state regulations governing such businesses.

Catoctin Creek Distillery and their tasting room are located in the heart of downtown Purcellville in what had, surprisingly, once been a car dealership. They are set up for tours, tastings, and retail sale of their whisky, gin, and brandies. Behind the bar in the tasting room, shelves are lined with their award winning products, some bottles draped in the medals they have won. During the interview, Becky was proud to share they are the most awarded whisky in Virginia.

The Harris family is the living embodiment of the American Dream. Their distillery is a small, family-run, locally sourced and staffed business that was founded on a smart business plan and quality products. Not only do they craft their spirits locally, but they are also committed to having their business be a positive actor within the local economy. As Becky explained, “We don’t farm ourselves, but we want to create markets for the people who do. We worked for five or six years finding farmers who would work with us.” The rye is sourced from Virginia farms—most within a 150-mile radius of the distillery. The water is local Loudon County water and they soon plan to transition to barrels crafted from Virginia oak for the aging of their whisky. “When people buy our whisky,” Becky said, “they are supporting the Virginia agricultural industry.”

Catoctin Creek has, from the start, been proud of their local roots, but the respect their brand earned quickly opened up opportunities for international sales, as American whiskies are trendy in Europe. In their research, Becky said that she and Scott learned that “the UK buys as much US spirits as any market in the world.” Hearing the siren call of soaring profits, Scott and Becky made a $100,000 investment in 2015 to begin distributing their handcrafted American Rye in Europe. But in business, things are never as easy as they seem. “Right when it looks like it’s going to work,” Becky said, “suddenly there’s a 25 percent price increase.” This is where the washing machines come in.

Have you heard that we’re in the middle of a trade war with the European Union, China, and other countries? The opening salvo came this past January from the Trump administration in the form of tariffs on foreign-made washing machines. As CNBC reported, there was much rejoicing from American washing machine manufacturers at the time, with Whirlpool Chairman Jeff Fettig quoted as saying, “This is a victory for American workers and consumers alike.”

The parties began to die down, however, when the steel and aluminum tariffs came shortly after. You see, a trade war isn’t so much a war as it is a series of escalating policy moves, made in the form of tariffs and quotas on internationally traded goods. The consequence of the US creating tariffs on imported washing machines, solar panels, and newsprint is that other countries are now imposing tariffs on American exports, including blue jeans, peanut butter, soybeans, and—to bring things full circle—whisky.

That $100,000 the Harris Family invested in expanding into Europe? It’s now at risk, because despite the presence of a market which is thoroughly thirsty for American whiskies, it is now prohibitively more expensive for them to import their product overseas. What started as a measure to support the largest American washing machine manufacturers is now threatening the survival of small family-owned American distilleries—as well as many of the corporations the tariffs were supposed to help in the first place. “The guys with the big financial resources have already shipped stuff over to beat the tariff. We can’t afford to do that,” Becky said. “That means we’re either going to take a hit or we’re going to hold off—and we’re waiting to see what happens.”

As of publication, the whisky tariffs remain in place, though the Trump administration is in negotiations with the EU. This story, as I said, does not yet have an ending. The Harris family and their 20 employees are still in Purcellville, still making their award-winning spirits, still hoping that the protectionist policies that were a “victory for American workers” are replaced with policies that will allow them to keep growing, keep supporting local farmers, and keep hiring local workers; in short, policies that will allow them to continue building an American company that can be successful in the global marketplace.

Catoctin Creek Distillery is located at 120 W. Main Street in Purcellville. Learn more at catoctincreekdistilling.com.

Photography by Michelle Orabona

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