Silverback Distillery opened on Rt. 151 in Afton just before Labor Day and has already outgrown its space. New buildings for tasting rooms and spirit storage are underway. The distillery offers 80-proof vodka named Beringel, 80-proof gin called Strange Monkey and 90-proof grain spirits called Blackback White. Some of the grain spirits are now beginning the aging process to become bourbon.
“We’re on Rt. 151 and there were no distilleries here,” said Denver Riggleman, who owns the distillery with his wife Christine, who is CEO and manages daily operations. “We got the idea in Scotland. It’s mostly my wife’s idea. Shout out to her. We thought we could do it all craft and make it work. We went to the Isle of Skye and the Ben Nevis distillery. It was the feel of them. They made things there, and we wanted to do that in Virginia.”
Riggleman said initial annual production should be around 300,000 bottles, but he expects to raise it soon to nearly 700,000 bottles and to reach 1.2 million bottles yearly within five years. They are about to fill 75 white oak barrels with bourbon that will age for periods of three, five, seven and 10 years. “We want to have 1,000 barrels aging in the next two years,” said Riggleman. Silverback aims to meet the standard achieved by Maker’s Mark. “And we want our vodka to beat Gray Goose. Our gin has been compared to Hendricks.” A distiller for rum and absinthe is also contemplated.
Christine, joined by Blake Rhodes, who is in charge of distilling, went to distillery school in Washington State, which has many distilleries in operation.
Opening a distillery in Virginia is not easy, Riggleman said. “Catoctin Creek distillery in Purcellville was an inspiration to us. They helped us.
“The regulatory process is onerous. We opened 16 months after we incorporated. This is a $2 million facility. This is no joke. The gin is made through continuous distillation in a 24-foot-tall column that was custom-made for us.” The distillery also has a geothermal system for production chilling. “We’re green,” said Riggleman.
The distillery’s name comes from an occasion when Riggleman’s daughters, who had learned about Silverback gorillas, called him a Silverback gorilla when he got angry at them. “I went gray early,” said Riggleman. “We named the distillery after that nickname stuck. ‘Gentle but formidable’ is the idea about a Silverback.”
Beringel is the scientific name for a Silverback gorilla, Riggleman said. Strange Monkey, the name for the gin, refers to the mandrill monkey and a Blackback is a young Silverback whose coat has not yet turned white.
The distillery offers tasting flights; state rules allow up to an ounce and a half per person per day. It uses an ID system that scans drivers’ licenses to track customers’ drinks. Straight liquor is offered or any of nine mixed drinks.
“There are certain rules you have to meet to do tastings,” said Riggleman, who sold a defense technology consulting business he owned before starting the distillery. In two months, tasting customers have carried 800 bottles out the door with them, he said, and tastings are consuming 30 bottles a day. The distillery has had three surprise inspections by state ABC officers since it opened August 28.
Silverback liquors are stocked in 100 ABC stores across the state (including Crozet) and Riggleman expects to be stocked in all 300 stores by next year. Virginia’s liquor sales total $2 billion a year. Bottles of Silverback vodka and gin go for $29.95 and a flask of Blackback sells for $14.95
“A lot of people want to be craft and sell in their area. But we want to be national. Our liquor is so-o-o smooth. We’re going for it.” He predicted that Rt. 151 will soon see more distilleries along it, and he believes Virginia will soon have as many as 20. The Rockfish Valley area has water with the ideal hardness for distilling, he said.
The distillery is federally licensed and can sell anywhere in the U.S. It’s only in Virginia for now, but Maryland and North Carolina are next, as well as Missouri, New Hampshire and Colorado, three states where alcohol is less taxed and new distilleries have better economics for getting their liquors in the market.
“It’s a volume game,” explained Riggleman. “You have to sell a lot to make it. We are not a small distillery. We tried to grow slowly, but it’s been explosive. We’re riding a Silverback without a helmet!”
The available parking for 50-60 cars is being expanded. Hours are Mondays through Thursdays from 12:30 to 6 p.m., Fridays from 12:30 to 7 p.m., Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. The distillery is closed on Tuesdays.
“I hope area people will come, said Riggleman. “Now we have regular weekly customers. We’re the first real distillery where you can taste and have fun. This road will be full of distilleries in 10 years. We wanted to be first.”