A few weeks ago I posted about a new (to me) bourbon I had picked up in Blacksburg, Va. – made by Reservoir, a small distillery in Richmond. Fast forward to this past weekend, when I was down in Richmond to sit on a panel at the Library of Virginia. The next day, I stopped by the office of Dave Cuttino, a co-founder of Reservoir who trades bonds as his day job.
As Cuttino explained, his background isn’t as unconventional as it might seem: he has undergrad and graduate degrees in chemical engineering, and his years in finance – part of which was spent in New York, no less – have helped him manage the ins and outs of what is, at its heart, a high-risk startup business. After deciding to move back to his native Richmond to go into whiskey making, he spent the better part of a year interning at Tuthilltown (and it shows – just look at that bottle!).
Reservoir actually makes three whiskies: along with the bourbon, there’s a rye and a wheat. So far, so conventional. What sets Reservoir apart from other craft distillers is that each expression is 100 proof, 100 percent single grain – the bourbon is all corn, the rye all rye, the wheat all wheat. Then they age them in an assortment of 3-, 5-, and 10-gallon barrels made by Gibbs Bros., of Arkansas, and the Barrel Mill, of Minnesota. The Gibbs Bros. char, according to Cuttino, is particularly heavy, with an unusually thin stave, while the Barrel Mill selection is a more conventional cask.
I’ve been pretty critical of small-barrel whiskies; there aren’t many that come close to drinkable, and those that do manage it by hewing close to a bland, down-the-middle flavor profile. So imagine my surprise: not only did I enjoy all three Reservoirs immensely, but I found each to be a unique expression of what its respective grain could be.
The rye is the star, by far: rich and round, with dark, savory flavors of tea and burnt caramel. It has the expected rye pop, but it is balanced enough to drink with just a few drops of water. The wheat, meanwhile, is fiery when uncut but settles down quickly with a little water; you wouldn’t want more than a splash.
I wasn’t that impressed with the Reservoir bourbon I bought in Blacksburg; it’s a slightly better-than-average craft bourbon, which is to say it has immense grain notes, like watery Corn Chex, but with a broad caramel note that deepens the palate. According to the label, that particular whiskey was made in 2012, batch 2, barrel 114. The bourbon I tried with Cuttino, though, was something completely different: the grain was almost gone, mellowed into a chewy, almost smoky flavor, with notes of pencil shavings, caramel and oak (for reference, it was bottled in 2013). According to Cuttino, the first was aged in Barrel Mill casks, the second in the Gibbs Bros. What a difference a barrel makes: this was one of the most unique, compelling bourbons I have ever tasted.
Since Cuttino and his partner are Reservoir’s only employees, the distillery isn’t exactly churning out bottles. Cuttino says they are adding another still soon, and plan to expand northward in the coming year. One reason I hadn’t heard of Reservoir, he said, was that they do almost no advertising – like many craft distilleries, demand is already so high that it’s all they can do just to service the mid-Atlantic region. In any case, he said, they’d rather be at the still making whiskey than at the bar making contacts. And thank God for that.
I’m not saying there’s an inverse relationship between a craft whiskey’s visibility and its quality, but it’s certainly the case that there are distillers who spend all their energies on marketing, and there are distillers who spend their waking hours distilling – and improving. If that means it takes a little longer for a distillery like Reservoir to hit the big time, that’s fine with me. It’ll be worth it. Clay Risen