Gin-Spiration: Craft Distilling Comes to Richmond

By Phaedra Hise / Photography By Tyler Darden | May 01, 2015
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James River Distillery Commonwealth Gin

James River Distillery could have started out making vodka, like many other boutique distilleries, but where’s the fun in that? “With vodka, the whole point is to strip out as much flavor as possible,” says Dwight Chew, head distiller for JRD. “We wanted to make something more dynamic.”

JRD has indeed made something quite daring, even in the fast-growing and funky craft-distilling industry. In addition to the legally required juniper berries, Commonwealth gin is flavored with a distinctive mix of hops, cardamom and cantaloupe. Owners Kristi Croxton, Matt Brophy and Jonathan Staples debuted Commonwealth gin last August, and this spring added a second gin: Continental. In an unusual move, both spirits are created primarily from local ingredients, including organic, non-GMO corn.

The craft-distilling industry (defined as owner-operated distilleries) is growing by 30% each year, according to the American Distilling Institute. Whiskey is the top spirit, with vodka and gin close behind. “There’s a real renaissance going on with gin,” says ADI president Bill Owens. “With whiskey there’s a single note, vanilla, and everyone wants that. But gin has traditionally had lots of herbs. Distillers now are flavoring with what’s local. Even the juniper in Oregon tastes different than in other places.”

Commonwealth is an “American” style gin, a category that encompasses the many new types of boutique gins like Hendricks, Aviation, No. 209 or Bluecoat. These gins each have their own distinctive flavor, and perform best in customized cocktails that enhance their unique ingredients.

Continental is a traditional “London dry” style gin, flavored primarily with juniper. This is your father’s gin— Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray and Gordon’s—showcased in classic cocktails like gin and tonic or Tom Collins.

JRD is making a name for itself by boldly incorporating traditional beer ingredients in an unusual flavor profile for its flagship brand. The company plans to add several other brands in various styles with a continued emphasis on local ingredients.


Although Continental’s traditional flavoring makes it a versatile spirit, Commonwealth’s distinctive flavor isn’t for every gin drinker, and it’s not for every gin drink.

“The predominant botanical is the hop profile, so that’s fruity and citrusy with a bitter finish,” says Sean Rapoza, beverage program director at Balliceaux restaurant. “That makes it a very aggressive gin, and with a commercial tonic the gin will completely dominate. The best mixers are aggressive too, so they won’t get washed out.” Rapoza suggests Pimm’s, ginger beer, fresh cucumber or mint.

In the development process, Chew experimented with a wild variety of flavoring ingredients in addition to hops. “We tried lime peel and lemon peel,” he says. The resulting flavor was refreshing, but a little too summery. He also worked with sarsaparilla and, because it is his favorite spice, cumin. “The cumin was really dominating,” he says. “And it didn’t get great feedback so we abandoned that.” Chew estimates he distilled about 20 different flavor trials, tested by the JRD team and local bartenders.

Richmond’s brewery scene usually captures more attention, but the spirits are making headway. JRD purchased their distillery and equipment from the foreclosed maker of Cirrus vodka, and that distiller has relocated and is back in action as the Parched Group. This spring they once again began making their vodka. In addition, a developer in Petersburg recently announced the launch of Big Trouble Malting & Spirits, which plans to source local grains to make brandy and whisky.

With so much distilling in the works, perhaps a Richmond repository of gently aging bourbon barrels isn’t far behind.

(this story is excerpted from the full print version of May/June 2015 Edible Richmond)

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