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For generations, visitors have come to West Virginia for the scenery and a taste of adventure, but over the past few years, they’re coming to sample something else.
Jeff Arthur at Mountain State Distillery on Capitol Street in Charleston said he was making whiskey in West Virginia before making whiskey in West Virginia was cool – or at least before it was legal.
“I grew up in an area where moonshine was pretty common,” Arthur said. “I knew some people that made it and I eventually learned how to do it myself.”
Across town at the Bullock Distillery, Tighe Bullock said he got into the whiskey business as a way to become part of the neighborhood he was building in.
“I think it’s such a great American endeavor, such a great American task,” Bullock said. “You take some water, you take some corn, you care about what you do and you care about every step of the way. You put some heat in there and you have a really good product. Whiskey comes from Ireland and Scotland, but it’s an American thing.”
Brooke Glover at Swilled Dog, a Cidery and Distillery in Pendleton County, got into the alcohol business because she said her family saw an opportunity.
“Well, the cider market had a big boom, especially in Virginia, around 2016. And that’s when we really came onto the scene,” Glover said. “We found that there was a need in the state of West Virginia that wasn’t being served. There was only one other craft cider in the state. They make amazing cider, as well. We thought that there was a need and we thought that we could use that local agriculture. So, cider which is something that we love to make, and we saw a need in the marketplace.”
They each said they hoped locals would embrace the neighborhood craft distillery much in the same way they embraced neighborhood craft breweries. What they didn’t really count on were travelers stopping by on their way through or tourists seeking them out.
“We really started with people who were coming over and didn’t know about us, had heard about us from locals or just kind of searched for something on Google,” Glover said. “They didn’t have anything to do in the evenings when they were coming over to do climbing, camping and hiking and all those things. That’s how we started with bringing people in. And it has actually changed now to the majority of people who are specifically coming for Swilled Dog. They’re specifically coming to the area and they’re like, ‘What is there to do around you guys?’ And we get to tell them about all the amazing places that we have to experience West Virginia beauty.”
“Some people seek out these kinds of things. They seek out breweries. They seek out distilleries. They seek out that ‘terroir’ of different regions,” he said. “And so we’ve seen people from Brazil, Germany, England, not to mention all the surrounding counties and states. We’ve talked about having a little map where people can put their pins where they’re from.”
It’s been a bonus for some distillers and a real shot in the arm for others.
“It’s very hit and miss,” Arthur said. “When there are events in town, be that Live on the Levee…the regatta was incredible. But even like soccer tournaments down at Shawnee – stuff like that brings all these people here to stay in these hotels. That’s where the bulk of my business comes from. If it wasn’t for tourism, I couldn’t do this.”
Tourists coming to buy products from these distilleries underscores what they say they really want to do –bring outside money into the state and then keep it local.
As much as they can, Glover and Bullock say they buy here.
“We get all of our grains from Mason County, which is old Mr. Yauger. Who, he’s got to be in his late 70s by now,” Bullock said.
Glover said they not only get apples and grain from farms in West Virginia, but they get their oak barrels in-state, too.
“We use West Virginia Great Barrel company barrels for everything that we do,” she said. “They’re in Lewisburg and they’re just amazing. The quality of what they’re producing just ups our quality exponentially. So, it kind of makes it easy.”
The more product they sell, the more local goods they’re able to buy, Bullock said.
The distilleries are trying to be destinations. They schedule live entertainment, host trivia nights and sell merchandise. Some of it comes from area artists or craft businesses.
“We make our money off of this stuff we make in the back, but we have a big tasting room and again like I said, we have a great presence in the capital city of West Virginia,” Bullock said.
“So, while we’re engaging those people, like I said, from Brazil, Germany, people that are visiting us –even if they’re just using the restroom or just getting a sandwich down at the Grill or Gonzoburger or Books and Brews. While we have that opportunity to engage them, why not introduce them to some local honeys, maple syrup that’s been aged in certain barrels? There’s always that opportunity for interaction. If I can help facilitate that, then here I am.”
The distillers all said they’ve had some good experiences with tourism but say the state could probably do more to help them. They did concede that it may not be in the hands of the Department of Tourism.
“Right now, I have a micro distillery license and I’ve already outgrown it,” Bullock said. “One of the main things being that I can’t sell out of state with my current license. I don’t know why the legislature would not want me to sell out of state. I don’t really understand that aspect of it. I think that every license that you have in distilling should enable you to sell at a state. I can’t imagine one good reason why the legislature would want to not allow us to sell out of state.”
Bullock said just allowing small companies like his to sell outside of West Virginia could benefit a lot of people. It would acquaint people with the state’s spirits which might draw fans to come to the state and visit the source. Arthur pointed out people already do this in Kentucky with that state’s popular bourbon trail.
Meanwhile, Glover said the state has been good to them, but they could really use some help from the division of highways. They’re on the wrong side of a mountain.
“Our facility is actually right on the backside of Seneca Rocks,” Glover said. “There’s no road that goes in between. So, you have to go all the way to Franklin and then all the way around. But we’re only like a couple miles just, you know –if you just make a straight line. You can do it. I think there’s like a fire road or something that some people have talked about, but we’re right there. I’m like, ‘Oh, come on, just get off the road!’”