The Women of Reservoir
Reservoir is a small craft distillery established in 2008 in Richmond, Virginia. From the get-go, they specialized in a core range of 100% single-cereal mash bills from locally grown organic rye, corn, and wheat. Their whiskeys are aged in custom-made charred white oak casks. They also have a range of experimental bottlings in collaboration with other artisanal producers. Everything is painstakingly handmade from pot-still distilling to small-batch bottling. They've won dozens of prizes and accolades for the elevated quality and loving attention to the territory of Virginia. At Reservoir, we found three amazing specialists who contributed to change the image of women in the whiskey world. Get ready to meet them!
Mary, you told me many times how you were quite fond of whisky well before working at Reservoir. In your opinion, what's the biggest difference between appreciating whisky as a drinker and appreciating it as a distiller? Does it become more difficult to fully appreciate other whiskies? Can you still simply sit down, relax, and enjoy a dram of whisky?
I think making whiskey has allowed me to gain a greater appreciation for the spirit in general. I not only know the brands/types that I like, but I can understand some of the reasons I might prefer one to another. I can begin to identify the role that all the different parts play, be that grain type/mash bill, time or style of aging or any of the myriad other things that go into creating the final product. And I certainly have a greater respect for the amount of time and energy every company puts into crafting their final product. Working with the same product every day can skew your palate a little, I think. When we taste for a bottling or just to see where some of the barrels are in the aging process, we are always looking for that distinctive Reservoir flavor. I must remind myself when trying other things that I am no longer looking for something that tastes like Reservoir! That being said, I will almost always opt to try something I have never tasted over an old standby. I like to see what is out there and continue to challenge my palate and its preconceptions.
Shelley, your job is one of the coolest. There's often a sense of “secrecy” about distilling techniques and styles, especially in the Scotch world, that make us wonder if you are not sometimes considered a spy. What does it imply to be always updated about the latest resorts in whiskey making? Do you have any colleagues out there?
I wholly agree on the job description, and I pinch myself practically every day wondering if there's going to be a crushing “Damn, it was all a dream” reveal. and I'd also agree with the “secrecy” aspect of proprietary information. Donkey’s years ago, as I travelled around Scotland and chatted with (read: plagued with questions) distillers and production operators, I found a consistent response: surprise that a woman wanted to understand the mechanical and substantive logistics of whiskey making, and the eyebrow raising question of “who sent you?” ultimately, I was typically fed some diverting but evasive answer period cagey to be sure, but their reticence only fueled my appetite. Over the years, and certainly within the last decade, the world of sharing information and offering education has bloomed—somewhat due to the growing resource library the Internet has provided. I definitely have a few “in the trade” doppelgangers out there, although the majority of individuals I work with outside of reservoir, that school me and help further the benefit of a distillery employing someone in a position like mine, are chemists, biologists, and engineers, and farmers. And once I grasp the complexity of the subject, I’m able to optimize that information into usable data for either our team or for the public as I aim to educate.
Leslie, how did you build up Reservoir's brand image? Did it come up naturally, or did you struggle to position your name of “out-of-Kentucky bourbon” as a quality product?
As the third distillery outside of Kentucky making bourbon, Reservoir’s story is what marketer’s dreams are made of—authentic, transparent, and true to its craft. So, my approach has always been the same—welcome people into the Reservoir family, tell our story, and get to know each other over a pour or two. I think consumers are much more educated about the fact that bourbon does not have to come from Kentucky to be bourbon—it simply must be 51% corn. We really lean into the fact we are a Virginia-made product. It's a wonderful differentiator in a market that can be overwhelming. Our heritage and terroir are the foundation of everything we do--our grains come from within 45 miles of the distillery, the trees for our barrels come from within the state and we have incredible partners right in our neighborhood. Reservoir is sold in Kentucky and the locals have graciously welcomed us.
Mary, Reservoir’s relationships with surrounding farms and grain producers are a big part of your image. Can you tell us more? How do you select and distinguish the quality of grain harvests and vintages? How do you see the concept of terroir developing in whiskey making?
We are fortunate to be based in an agriculturally rich area. Most of the time, we can get all the grains we need from within an hour or two of our facility. We have been working with Virginia grains exclusively for about five years now. There can be something of a balancing act when selecting grain varietals. It is exciting and positively challenging to work with heirloom grains, but they can be costly and often do not yield as much final output as some more standard varieties. At Reservoir, we have the good fortune to work with the best of both worlds. We have the grains we work with day to day, which are more common, but still give a sense of place because they are all grown right here. But we can also branch out and try some fun side projects. I recently ran a couple of batches of an heirloom variety corn called Bloody Butcher in collaboration with some friends of ours at Autumn Olive Farm. The initial mash and distillate had significantly more earthy and floral notes than what we see with our normal bourbon. It will be interesting to see where it ends up. “Terroir” has certainly become a more predominant concept, especially with the advent of so many craft distilleries. Everyone is looking for a way to set themselves apart, and working with what you are given, where you are, is one of the easiest ways to get there. I think we have an extra leg up in “terroir” because we are sourcing everything as locally as possible, but we are also doing it while focusing on the single grain. With Reservoir, you are not only able to taste what “Virginia Whiskey” tastes like, you can taste what “Virginia Wheat,” “Virginia Rye,” and Virginia Corn (Bourbon)” tastes like.
Shelley, we like to imagine that the reason behind your “continuous education” is that your colleagues at Reservoir want more and more stimuli. What are the new techniques and developments you have been considering? How are you facing the growing challenges of climate change and ecological transition? How important is the balance between technology and tradition for Reservoir?
Curiously, I have not witnessed the phenomenon of ennui here at the distillery, and although I would love to attribute some of that to my efforts to help heighten our team’s level of understanding their positions and the processes they're contributing toward, I think Reservoir totally lucked out by hiring incredibly creative and inquisitive people. A simple lunchtime conversation, or a brief sidetracked tangent during a team meeting, is where I often find direction when pursuing either a fresh take on an old technique, or the need to research innovative developments within our industry to determine if they might apply to our work. We’re exploring and experimenting with everything from proofing techniques to stave aging, terroir-driven flavor (grain, water, wood), to taking advantage of seasonal meteorological changes within the warehouse. It's mind-blowing to realize the myriad opportunities we are presented with to create better whiskey. We've definitely faced climate change and environmental impacts over the most recent years, and they introduce a level of complexity to our operations that thus far have compelled the team to become more innovative. Everything from procuring Virginia grains—despite harvest hardships—to recognizing negatively impactful obstacles with our water, are now cropping up with increasing frequency. One of Reservoir’s principal goals is to provide the answer to the question “what does Virginia taste like?” Devising a method to produce that flavorful physical response requires profound relationships with our farmers, foresters, and water chemists. The world is changing, and we all must appreciate our roles for conscious and responsive adaptation. The tricky parts are mindfully using our resources and still creating a beautiful spirit in a balanced manner that does not compromise our patch of earth or the flavor we acquire from it.
Leslie, Reservoir now has a strong and important brand image. What are the next challenges? Your core range is appreciated everywhere, but your top limited releases are still quite in a niche outside of the US. Are you going to expand to other markets as well? Did the global pandemic make it more difficult for you to reach other regions?
Thank you! And yes, our limited releases, like our Holland’s Line (Holland’s Ghost, Holland’s Blade Rummer, and Holland’s Milkman), are less known but have a cult following for those in the know. We are hoping to start bottling more of them in the coming months. They will still be limited releases, but we may be able to start getting some of them to our distribution partners. The pandemic allowed us to look at what was working and what wasn't in terms of distribution. We brought in some new partners, launched domestically in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and internationally in Australia and relaunched in Germany. There is a huge American whiskey boom happening in Australia, and I am loving the creativity and energy coming from our distribution partners there! I’m not sure which market will be next, but I have a few folks reach out every few weeks on Instagram asking when they can get Holland’s Blade Rummer in Asia – I can’t wait to be able to give them a date.