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Anyone who has ever wondered what rum tasted like in Colonial America can find out with a visit to the Williamsburg Distillery.
Bill Dodson and Mike McDaniel share a passion for history and fine liquor, and their new venture combines those aspects to produce rum, gin and bourbon just the way it would have been made in colonial times.
Williamsburg Distillery on Merrimac Trail opened its doors for the first time Saturday, welcoming a sizable crowd of spirit enthusiasts and aficionados who heard about the opening through word-of-mouth and social media.
The Yorktown Silver Rum is the only beverage available for purchase so far, but the owners said it already has rum connoisseurs talking.
“A guy from Barbados came to our opening, and his friend warned us this was a guy who knew a lot about rum,” McDaniel said. “When he tasted it he said, ‘I’ve had every rum in the Caribbean, all over the islands, and this is one of the best ones I’ve ever had’.”
The secret to the smooth, authentic taste is the use of organic molasses, which is exactly how rum would have been crafted in colonial era.
“We’re trying to do everything the way they would have done it from 1620 to 1775,” Dodson said. “Sugar was very expensive and would have been reserved for the tables of the rich, so molasses would have been what they used to make rum.”
Dodson and McDaniel’s commitment to authenticity does not end there. They are preparing to begin distilling their first batch of bourbon, of which corn is a major ingredient, but they delayed the process so they could obtain real American Indian corn, or maize, rather than the traditional yellow and white corn that can be found in the grocery stores.
Since Indian corn is not mass-produced, Williamsburg Distillery has contracted a farm on the Rappahannock River, which happens to be located on the site of old Indian hunting grounds, to grow the corn for its bourbon. This is significantly more expensive than using conventional corn, but Dodson said he believes it is worth it in the pursuit of authenticity.
The bourbon will need to age for several years before it achieves its best flavor, but Williamsburg Distillery hopes to have another spirit out on the shelves much sooner: a variety of whiskey that originally hails from the Netherlands known as “jenever gin.”
Jenever gin, the predecessor to the liquor more commonly known, is a juniper-flavored spirit originally invented because many women did not like the taste of traditional whiskey, Dodson said. As with the rum, Williamsburg Distillery will try to match colonial production techniques as closely as possible to produce a drink much like what a colonial woman might have consumed.
It was the appeal of creating that sort of vivid connection to history that inspired Dodson and McDaniel to commit to their unconventional approach to running a distillery. Both men have extensive experience portraying colonial-era characters for living history re-enactments at the Watermen’s Museum and in historic Yorktown.
Dodson in particular is enthusiastic about reprising a role he’s taken on before, “The Poor Potter,” for future distillery tours and tasting events.
The Poor Potter, otherwise known as William Rogers, was a resident of colonial Yorktown known for going against British law by making and selling pottery in direct competition with British potters. Rogers was also known to brew beer, a connection that, in addition to his entrepreneurial spirit, makes him a natural fit for Dodson to portray at the Distillery.
For those who believe the history is secondary to enjoying a quality beverage, the Williamsburg Distillery will also host more conventional events like bachelor parties and and class reunions.
Members of one College of William & Mary fraternity have already expressed interest in coming out to the Distillery for its 10-year reunion, at which they will have the opportunity to hand-grind their own corn at the stone mill and create a small batch of bourbon that will be put up and stored until they return for their 20-year reunion.
On the horizon for the business is the possibility of getting the Yorktown Silver Rum into ABC stores, which could happen as soon as January if it is accepted by the state board.
Dodson and McDaniel also hope to expand, both in the physical space and in hours. Both men work full-time jobs elsewhere during the week, and so the Williamsburg Distillery is only open on Saturdays for the time being.
“It’s enjoyable, we just love doing it,” said McDaniel. “We love trying to bring the history back, and bring it to the community.”
The Williamsburg Distillery is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays. Click here to learn more.