Since its earliest Colonial days, Virginia’s Newport News has been facing outward toward the Chesapeake Bay and the sea beyond. Initially for trading with England, then later for its shipbuilding industry, Newport News built a storied maritime tradition. It comes as no surprise, then, that the city’s first bourbon craft distillery — Ironclad Distillery — would seek out a waterside location.
“Ironclad Distillery is the only bourbon distillery on salt water,” said Kara King, one of the owners. “The brackish air from Virginia’s James River, balanced with the sweet caramelized oak sap from small barrels, gives it a salted caramel flavor.”
Housed in a renovated 1913 warehouse, Ironclad began selling its bourbon products last year. Ironclad makes its products in small batches, using local Virginia corn, wheat, and rye, along with malted barley, and ages it in new, American oak-charred barrels.
Each batch is double distilled in a half-dozen 26-gallon stainless steel stills, and then aged for two summers. The bonded bourbon sits for four years.
What’s in a name
Ironclad Distillery draws its name from the famous Civil War naval battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, the world’s first armored — ironclad — warships. The ironclad motif threads itself throughout the distillery. The historic warehouse stands within view of that battle site. “This was very much a front row seat,” said King.
While Ironclad is Newport News’ first and only operating distillery, Coastal Virginia and the Tidewater region boasts a plethora of high-quality adult beverage producers. The craft beverage “movement” has definitely found an appreciative audience here. Spread around Hampton Roads, north and south of the James River, from New Kent County to the Virginia Beach oceanfront, nearly two dozen breweries, five distilleries, and eight wineries quench the thirsts of natives and visitors.
‘Toast the Coast’
The “Toast the Coast: Beer, Wine, and Shine Trail” offers a handy, efficient method for exploring the area’s liquid treasures. The trail’s website offers a short video, a downloadable map, and a list of participating establishments, including locations, contact information, and a description of the products. (newport-news.org/visitors/where-to-dine/beer-wine-and-shine-trail)
Each brewery, distillery, and winery is unique, with its own approach to its craft and its own mode of presentation. Tradition Brewing Company, located at the entrance of City Center at Oyster Point in Newport News, uses a 20-barrel Deutsche Beverage Technology brewing system that visitors can see in action while enjoying the output in the tasting room or second-floor mezzanine.
Despite a focus on the technology, Tradition’s vibe is definitely family-friendly. An obvious sign is the stack of kids’ toys and the frequent “Family Days.” The tasting room is also dog-friendly.
The brewers believe that the combination of contemporary brewing technology with traditional ingredients and techniques results in “very drinkable beers.”
Here, just as you are never far from a crafted beverage, you also are never far from history. The two come together in the shadow of Hampton’s Fort Monroe at The Oozlefinch Craft Brewery.
Legend has it that, back in 1905, Capt. H.M. Merriam encountered a strange, large-eyed bird outside the Fort Monroe Officers’ Club. His outlandish tale spread throughout the community, and the bizarre creature became the club’s mascot and was called “Oozlefinch.” The “bird” quickly attained mythic status, and has continued to flourish and amuse.
“All of our beers have a story behind them,” said Michele Hanson, the tap room manager. While the bird may be mythical, the brews are very real.
“We believe beer should be complex but uncomplicated; familiar yet surprising,” said brewmaster Mike Donovan. “Hampton Roads breweries are pushing the boundaries. There is a resurgence in craft in general. We make things as good as they can possibly be made. We want to challenge and please your palate, and make beers that people can’t get anywhere else.”
That could be a fitting mantra for the entire “Toast the Coast: Beer, Wine, and Shine Trail.”
For more info
Newport News Tourism: newport-news.org