In 2009, Alex Toomy approached his friends and colleagues Russell Nance and Chris Sarpy with an idea: to produce bourbon whiskey the old-fashioned way — no shortcuts, no other spirits, using local resources from start to finish.
“It was an ambitious idea, certainly, and for three people who knew nothing about the whiskey business, it was a bit daunting,” Nance said.
The three had experience in farming and building, not in producing liquor, but they had roots in the area and decided to take a chance founding the distillery.
“We genuinely care about the area and wanted to create a good, local product that was sustainable and utilized crops from Albemarle County. And we stuck to that,” Nance said. “We are truly an Albemarle product, and we are certainly a taste of Virginia.”
Ragged Branch Distillery, located on Taylors Gap Road in the southern part of the county, only uses crops grown on the surrounding land. The tasting room above the distillery opened in April and sells wheat and rye bourbons, as well as beef from cattle raised on Ragged Branch’s farmland.
The cows are fed hay combined with the mash left over from the distillation of the crops, which Toomy describes as hot corn oatmeal.
“So we’ve taken that crop right off that land, we’ve taken the love off of it, and we’ve fed it right back,” Toomy said, describing the operation as its own ecosystem.
For guidance starting out, Toomy cold-called Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, after seeing him on TV.
“He’s arguably the No. 1 bourbon distiller in the world,” Toomy said. “He’s easily in the top three or four.”
The Ragged Branch team came together in early 2010 to consult with Pickerell, who taught them what Toomy calls the “old school” way to make bourbon.
Ragged Branch produces only “straight” bourbon, a federal designation meaning the whiskey has aged for at least two years in a new, charred, American white oak barrel.
After barreling the distillery’s first batch of liquor, it would be more than two years before anyone could taste the product. The founders agreed that waiting during that first aging process, both for taste and to begin sales, was the biggest challenge.
“But that’s part of who we are, and we stuck to our guns,” Nance said. “I think we’ve created a superior bourbon that is a local product. It’s a Charlottesville-Albemarle product that we are proud of and I think the locality can be proud of, too.”
Come July of next year, everything sold and served will be aged a minimum of four years.
“Four years is an extra commitment to doing it right,” Toomy said. “You cannot rush good bourbon.”
Many other people in the craft distillery market produce other spirits in addition to whiskey, but the Ragged Branch team agreed that it would stick to bourbon.
“When you make bourbon, you need to be committed to bourbon,” Toomy said.
The distillery currently makes 275 bottles a day, and is continuously barreling more to begin aging in the barn.
“Now we’re in the process of marketing it, selling it, really spreading the word of what we have here,” Nance said.
One tasting room customer from Barboursville, Tina Miller, called the Ragged Branch whiskey the finest she’d ever tasted.
“I have had a lot of bourbons and whiskeys in my day and I have to say I have just had my favorite!” she wrote in a note to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Ragged Branch’s bourbon will be sold in 50 Virginia ABC stores starting in October.
“I’m very happy, I feel like we’re a year ahead,” Toomy said. “I didn’t think we’d be in the ABC store for a year, and I didn’t think we’d be distributing to Washington for a long time.”
In September, Ragged Branch’s bourbon will be sold in D.C., Maryland and Delaware.
It’s already sold in bars and restaurants around Charlottesville.
“The best part of being a partner in this business is to be able to go into a restaurant and to see our bottle on the shelf, and we’re just now getting to that point, so it’s a very exciting time,” Sarpy said.
The tasting room, which is licensed as an ABC store, includes a bar, a living room with couches and a fireplace, and a patio overlooking farmland and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Toomy said he just wants guests to feel welcomed.
“Just sit down here and talk, sit by the fire, go outside, bring a lunch if you want, and enjoy the views,” Toomy said. “We’re not trying to be hoity toity — we just want everybody to have a good time.”
Guests can hold small weddings, rehearsal dinners and business parties in the space if Ragged Branch closes the tasting room to the public for an evening. Toomy said there have only been a few events, but that he would like to see more.
“I would really like us to do something like Bourbon Sunsets,” Toomy said. “We [could] sell tickets for dinner and have a featured chef come in, and he’s using our bourbon to make sauces or whatever. And we could do it when the sun’s going to set over this mountain here and it just shines out through that valley — it’s pretty incredible.”
Toomy calls himself “just a builder,” someone who has built houses and handled cattle his whole life. But with his team, he follows Pickerell’s instructions to operate the distillery every day and couldn’t be more pleased with the product.
“I’m tickled to death with this,” Toomy said. “I love it, love it, love it. It’s very pleasant to drink any way, on the rocks, in a cocktail … When people describe bourbon, they say it has notes of pumpkin and notes of this. I’ll tell you what, it’s just good bourbon.”