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7 lessons you can learn from a distiller that have nothing to do with booze (well, sort of)

Writers and distillers have one sure thing in common: we like to drink. Okay, maybe there’s a second thing: people probably called us crazy when we made our career choices. Luckily we’re okay with both.

Distiller Becky Harris and her husband and marketing master, Scott Harris, will tell you the decision to open Catoctin Creek Distilling Company five years ago may have been easy, but growing it into a nationally recognized brand isn’t. It was the first distillery to open since Prohibition in Loudoun County, Virginia, which is just an hour or so outside of Washington, D.C. (“Little did I know, it’s because it’s really, really hard,” Scott emphasizes), but the company has grown eight-fold since 2009. I came to the company’s gorgeous new downtown Purcellville location just outside of horse and wine country recently to learn more about the company’s range and to discuss the biz with Becky, one of few lady distillers in this country (we later wound up doing the Ladies & Libation panel at Hail to the V by DC Industree). But as we chatted over drams of Catoctin Creek’s pear, peach and Virginia apple brandies, I realized there was more wisdom to be gained than just tasting notes. Frank, a distillery pug who loves him some mash, looked on nearby as we pondered the following lessons about life:

Frank, the Catoctin Creek distillery dog

Frank, the Catoctin Creek distillery dog

1. Trust your gut. Back before Catoctin Creek was a twinkle in the Harris’ eye, Scott was having trouble keeping his head in the game at his government contracting job in telecommunications. Though he was paid well, he wasn’t passionate about his work and had entrepreneurial aspirations. He wanted to start a distillery, and Becky had the right credentials, having been a chemical engineer in the pharmaceutical and plastic packaging industries before taking a brief break to raise the couple’s now teenage sons. With an increased interest in craft distilling among consumers. it was time to just go for it.

Becky and Scott Harris own Catoctin Creek.

Becky and Scott Harris own Catoctin Creek.

2. Most things in life are not black and white. Be flexible and creative, and you’ll find your jam. Though Becky had no formal training in distilling, she knew she wanted to support the local farm culture as much as possible. This provided inspiration and motivation: all of Catoctin Creek’s whiskies are made 100 percent with rye. This is partly because Becky and Scott like the taste and history of it, but also because it’s a native grain to the region (though the distillery’s rye comes mostly from Kansas and Pennsylvania).

3. If you’re not a little afraid, you don’t have enough skin in the game and you’re not working hard enough. Growing a brand from a 10,000 bottle production in 2009 to a projected 80,000 bottle production in 2014 is remarkable growth, but getting started was a remarkable risk. Scott took his Catoctin Creek business plan to the bank thinking he’d be rejected, but walked away having invested all of he and Becky’s life savings and on the hook for a $250,000 loan to get started. There was no room for failure, and the couple had to hustle. “Fear is a great motivator,” Scott says. “We have a nice quality of life but we have to fight for it. You gotta work your ass off.”

Scott and Becky Harris took risks to open Catoctin Creek Distilling Company.

Scott and Becky Harris took risks to open Catoctin Creek Distilling Company.

4. Patience isn’t suggested. It’s required. Catoctin Creek opened in 2009 in an industrial park that some people were timid to visit. It wasn’t exactly inviting, but it suited the couple’s needs. Becky worked two years for free. But just last year, the company was able to invest in a 6,000 square foot facility and tasting room down the street (think end-grain mesquite wooden floors made by a Maine craftsman and original floating tin ceiling from 1921). The patience continues: “We want to remain small. We’re not going to be in every liquor store across the country,” Becky says.

The new tasting room at Catoctin Creek.

The new tasting room at Catoctin Creek.

5. It’s okay to learn as you go. When I mentioned to Becky that the thought of managing the chemical production of anything scared me, she said in her sweet and laid-back way, “the guys doing it up there in the woods aren’t chemistry gurus either. It’s not that hard. I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of actually doing it. There are textbooks out there you can read but…those textbooks bore the hell out of me.” Instead, she knew the basic process of how to distill a spirit and focused on how to put her spin on it based on a mouthfeel and flavor profile she wanted to achieve. “The craft movement is less about the technical this and that as it is about creating a process…with a certain amount of variation,” she says.

6. If you believe in doing something a certain way, don’t let a hater change your course. When the company began making young pear, grape, peach and apple brandies annually from local fruits with a tingly, whiskey-like mouthfeel, customers complained that the brandy wasn’t old enough (both Becky, Scott and Greg Morris, the assistant distiller, taste the juice in barrels at a local rickhouse to determine when they are just right). Someone even brought one back because it wasn’t sweet like they thought it should be. Did the company change their formula to sell more brandy? Hell no! They just had to adapt and learn how to sell and educate consumers differently. Becky explains it like this: “When you look at spirits, it’s like a dog show. It’s not whether it’s a good dog or a bad dog. It’s comparing the dog to the breed standard.”

You don't get your name on the Catoctin Creek door by backing down.

You don’t get your name on the Catoctin Creek door by backing down.

Don’t do something just for the money and do your best at whatever you do. Once Catoctin Creek got up and running, the couple ran with the possibilities, with the end goal of making a high quality product they could be excited about. The company takes the extra steps to certify their products kosher and organic to avoid potential harsh notes in the spirit from pesticides and chemicals. Becky takes pride in her own process, whereby she leaves in more “tails” – the last part of the liquid coming off of the still – for more flavor and nuance. Success is icing on the cake.

 Visit Catoctin Creek

 The distillery holds bottling daysmonthly distillery dinners, live music events, and a guest bartender series, as well as tastings and tours at their downtown Purcellville location:

120 W Main Street
Purcellville, VA 20132
540-751-8404

Weekdays: 1-5 p.m.

Saturdays: 12-7 p.m.

Sundays: 12-5 p.m.

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