“It’s just like building houses,” Alex Toomy, the founder of Ragged Branch Craft Distillery, says. “You learn the fundamentals from a person who knows. And then you do it yourself and build up your confidence.”
Toomy is greeting a visitor on the front porch of the Ragged Branch tasting room in scenic south Ivy, near Charlottesville. He’s surveying his 92-acre Ragged Mountain Farm, where, along with the nearby 800-acre Pounding Branch Farm, he and his team grow and grind their own grain; malt, mash and distill it; and finally age and bottle Ragged Branch label bourbon.
On this rolling landscape, smothered and capped by a recent snowfall, one can see cornfields, Black Angus cattle and a barn housing the large 500-gallon copper still that Toomy hooked up himself with the aid of a master bourbon maker. “We don’t do anything unless we do it right,” the gregarious land developer-turned-distiller says. “We do it right, and we do it right now.”
Inside the tasting room—with open kitchen, bar and lounge area—there’s a warm and inviting ski lodge vibe. The Thursday afternoon crowd is light with a few visiting tourists enticed by the Ragged Branch sign on I-64, and chef Josh Rossiter is behind the grill sizzling steak (while it’s illegal to have restaurants in a Virginia distillery, there’s an exception for showcasing agricultural products—like the farm’s beef). A friendly dog named Bootlegger follows the action.
Upon instruction from Toomy, bartender Ellie Barber sets up two shots on the bar for a thirsty writer. He points to the first. “This is our wheated bourbon. It’s four years old, from back when we first started.”
The smell and taste of the liquid have hints of cinnamon, honey and nutmeg. It tickles, not burns, your throat. For a young bourbon, it’s refreshingly full and satisfying. And earthy. “We just make an old school bourbon aged in a 53-gallon charred barrel,” Toomy says. “The recipe is corn, wheat, malt and water and yeast, nothing else.”
Ragged Branch was born out of the recession, and sheer chutzpah. Ten years ago, the longtime Central Virginia developer says, “We had nothing to do. I was getting eaten alive developing. The farming thing was just a hobby. The land we developed, we’d run cattle and make hay on … and then move those cows and hay equipment to our next project, and it was a hobby. Fun stuff, you know…chasing cows on horseback.”
Jokingly, an employee suggested making moonshine to generate profit. Toomy took the idea seriously. “I called a guy I know who had a still and asked about it, and he said, [laughs] ‘Look Alex, you’re going to get arrested.’ So, I looked into what it would take to make a legal spirit. It didn’t matter what it was. I guess I chose bourbon because that’s the old school American thing to do, and I’ve got corn and rye all around me.”
He points to the second shot glass. It’s Ragged Branch’s Rye Bourbon, aged a little more than two years. It has the same spiky notes as the wheat, but it’s drier. The same hints of cinnamon are present, and there’s a subtle mint aftertaste. “Rye is better for cocktails,” Barber tells me. “In the winter, we tend to sell more of the wheat, which is more like a straight sipping bourbon, but I’d say sales of the two are split 50/50.”
“We started making a rye bourbon because my girlfriend likes rye,” Toomy says. “Dave Pickerell just told me the recipe on the phone. He said, ‘Take this out, do at this temp, get this yeast’ … done.”
The late David Pickerell is constantly name dropped around Ragged Branch—not unlike that of a departed Jedi master. Back when he was still pondering the idea, Toomy saw a TV show on the History Channel about whiskey making. “Pickerell was featured on there, and he was known as the chief distiller at Maker’s Mark. I just looked up his number and called him. I didn’t ask him for help; I asked if he knew anybody who could help us get started.”
Pickerell, to Toomy’s surprise, was only too happy to consult. “My son [Josh] and I drove to Louisville and met him at the hotel, and we sat down to talk, and he was like a walking pro forma of the bourbon business. There was not one thing he didn’t know, or couldn’t answer, about how it would work, and how much money it would cost.”
Newly retired, Pickerell flew to Virginia to visit the farm, just before a massive snowfall hit the region. Ragged Mountain Farm was a nice place to be snowed in, and it allowed the master ample time to school Toomy on the basics of bourbon.
“I somehow made it to the liquor store, and he told me to buy every bourbon I could and bring them back there,” Toomy remembers. “I got a bunch of them, and he knew every one of the distillers—this one’s made with this much rye, this one’s made with wheat, this one’s filtered through cold [water]; he knew every ingredient in them and every person who made them. We made a deal that was so ridiculous to set this whole thing up. It was almost criminal.”
Pickerell, who died two years ago, ended up becoming Ragged Branch’s master distiller, even designing the operational machinery—he just wasn’t available to help set it up. “The equipment shows up, and I’m building this distillery based on a set of plans and equipment that he ordered. It took like five or six months, but I put it all together.” (You can find his original instructions framed on the wall of the still house—a sacred document).
Had Toomy ever made bourbon before?
“I had zero bourbon skills. I was a drinker, that’s it. I had made not one drop. I had no idea about ingredient percentage, nothing.”
Nevertheless, he started making whiskey with a single recipe for wheated bourbon he worked out with Pickerell—the recipe and the percentages and the water. “We got it dialed in and we barreled on the Fourth of July, three barrels. We make a barrel a day down there now.”
“That’s the one thing that the partners thought was most important,” Josh Toomy told the Bourbon Show podcast last year. “Creating an old-school bourbon that we made every single drop of, and we aged at minimum of two years. We wanted to make it the right way. We didn’t want to dilute our name by coming out with a vodka or gin or white dog … we’re a bourbon company, and we were that from day one.”
When the company eventually bottled its aged four-year bourbon in 2017, added Josh, who is Ragged Branch’s day-to-day distiller along with Chris Coggin, “It was very, very exciting. We had kept our heads down and kept making it for three years, and it was very rewarding for the first bottle to come out, with a label, ready to go.” The bourbon can now be purchased in more than 80 Virginia ABC stores, as well as selected outlets in states such as Louisiana, California and Arizona.
In the tasting room, Rossiter is producing some heavenly smells. He sets down a plate of medium rare sirloin and rib eye strips and proceeds to heat up a beef patty. “You are in for a treat,” he says with a grin.
The first day a distiller makes whiskey, Toomy says, they have excess bourbon mash, so he—not one to waste anything—started feeding the corn mixture to his cattle. And that’s where the famous Ragged Branch beef comes in.
“We had about 62 steers that we were feeding [on the mash]. Then we sold them to a packing company. We kept two back and took them to slaughter, and the guy came back and said, ‘You have to see this beef.’ We cooked it up right there in the distillery, and it was delicious.”
Rossiter arrives with a burger covered in cheese, and it is melt-in-your-mouth tender with a startlingly tangy flavor that hits you from the first chew. And, yes, concentrate hard enough and you can catch a note of grainy bourbon.
“The beef had intense marbling, good size and it had this intense flavor, a flavor that most times you’ll find in a sirloin. But the sirloin can be tough. Our ribeyes and strips had the tenderness but also the intense flavor. They were just nice, bright red, marbled, nice-sized steaks.” People come from far and wide for the Ragged Branch burgers—and for Rossiter’s other daily specials, like beef tacos and meatball subs—and some selected Charlottesville restaurants, such as Duner’s and Boylan Heights, have added the meat to their menus.
Len, a longtime customer and a self-admitted “beef nut,” drops by with a large cooler bag. He says that he’s buying some steaks to take on a trip to Texas, where his kids live. “It’s exceptional beef,” he says. “Especially for around here. I would describe it as ‘smooth.'”
The pleasures found at Ragged Branch are no longer a Virginia secret. Toomy recently had a meeting with the Emeril’s restaurant chain, based in New Orleans, with the hopes that their franchises would start to carry the farm’s bourbon. “I just grabbed these random steaks and took them in my carry on. And I get there, and I ask them, ‘Hey, can your chef just salt and pepper these, cook them medium rare, and slice them up? This beef was raised on the mash from the bourbon.'”
The end result? Emeril’s bought the bourbon and also wanted the beef, Toomy says with a smile. He’s not sure if he wants to handle the kind of volume a chain like that would need, but the feedback was inspiring. “The beef helps to sell the bourbon … it always does.”