Moonshine and more for second act
Peter Ahlf spent 25 years as a rocket scientist at NASA and a private firm, helping design the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, planning flight missions and more.
But it wasn’t until he retired that he started making a kind of rocket fuel. Today, he crafts an award-winning absinthe, a green, anise-flavored spirit.
Ahlf makes 400 bottles a month of the 140-proof brew from scratch. He grows the potent beverage’s key herbal ingredients — wormwood and hyssop — at the Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery in Middleburg, Virginia.
After many years working or raising children, a number of retirees like Ahlf are reinventing themselves by distilling spirits or making hard cider.
Artisanal craft brew and distilling businesses have popped up all over America as more people are seeking out custom-made, small-batch beer, spirits and cider.
“People are tired of the traditional Smirnoff and soda,” said Brad Plummer, American Distilling Institute spokesman. “Drinking is not just drinking. It’s an experience.”
The number of licensed distilleries in Virginia alone has soared from 10 in 2005 to 70 today. Cideries have had a similar trajectory in the state, exploding from two in 2010 to 50 in 2020.
Maryland is catching up; the state has more than 25 distilleries today.
During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when retail shelves began to empty of hand sanitizer, many distilleries stepped up to put their high-power ethanol — the intoxicating ingredient of beer, wine and hard liquor — to good use making hand sanitizer by the gallon.
They were well-positioned to make this pivot because they already had a license to use alcohol and plenty of stock on hand. (Besides, even though liquor stores remained open, few customers ventured out to take tours or visit tasting rooms with stay-at-home orders in place.)
Some, like Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, Maryland, donated their hand sanitizer products to first responders and hospitals.
A family tradition
Another distiller who adapted to the times is Chuck Miller of Belmont Farm Distillery, which now sells an array of sanitizers and offers curbside pickup.
During his 30 years as a commercial pilot, Miller spent his days off at his family’s 200-acre farm, where he grew corn and made small batches of moonshine — an unaged, corn-based whiskey with a high alcohol content.
So, when airline rules forced his retirement at age 60, he said, making whiskey seemed like the “natural thing to do.”
Miller learned the ropes as a teenager from his grandfather, who made beverages of questionable legality and concealed the containers in brown paper bags.
Miller recalled that, when he was a child, his grandfather’s many milk jugs, and the steady stream of customers for their contents, puzzled him “because granddaddy only had one cow.”
Miller and his wife, Jeanette, turned his grandfather’s farm into Belmont Farm Distillery, where they still grow their own corn and produce whiskey in a 3,000-gallon copper pot still. The still is the “secret of our whiskey,” he contends.
The Millers also make vodka, bourbon and gin, some flavored with cherries, butterscotch and peaches. But by far the most popular product is the moonshine: their 100-proof unflavored Virginia Lightning.
“We are preserving an American and family tradition. We keep the old pot still going,” Miller said.
Antiseptic sanitizers are also for sale at the Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, Virginia, housed in a former car dealership built in 1921 to sell Model-Ts.
Using locally sourced grains and fruits, Scott Harris and his wife, Becky, make gin, brandy and rye whiskey (and, temporarily, sanitizer).
Their flagship product is their premium rye whiskey, which is pot stilled just like in the 1800s, and has won gold medals across the globe.
Twenty years of government contracting headaches “taught me a great love of whiskey,” Harris joked. Feeling “burned out” when he retired, he and wife, a chemical engineer, opened their distillery in 2009.
Now, in their “second act,” the couple’s experience is similar to that of other Virginia families who have teamed up to create craft beverages.
Nothing but the apple
The Shelton family bought a farm in North Garden, Virginia, 10 miles south of Charlottesville. The family patriarch planted the Rural Ridge Orchard, while two of his grown children started studying heirloom apples.
By 2009, the family hobby evolved into Albemarle CiderWorks, with Chuck Shelton, a former radiation control specialist for a nuclear power plant, as the cidermaker.
The Sheltons are now resurrecting the cider culture of old, making a pure, artisanal product.
“There’s nothing in the glass but the apple,” said Charlotte Shelton, a former financial advisor who now oversees Albemarle CiderWorks’ workshops and events.
“Some bastardize it with flavors like berries and pomegranates. I’m exploring what the apple can do,” she said.
Another cidery has taken root in Alexandria, Virginia. Owner Tristan Wright had a commercial banking career, but when he learned he was allergic to soy and gluten, he wanted an alternative to gluten-laden beer.
Wright took some cidermaker classes and was inspired to change careers. He opened Lost Boy Cider in a former warehouse in 2019.
“Nobody was making cider here [in Alexandria],” Wright said.
Using Virginia apples, the former bank executive now crafts “bone dry” sugarless ciders as well as ciders flavored with raspberries, sweet tea or coffee.
Studying at Moonshine U.
Taking on new professional challenges is not really starting over. It’s moving onto the next chapter, some distillers contend.
To Bill Karlson, distilling “is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.”
After a stint in the Merchant Marine, Karlson had a 26-year career in government contracting with Stanley, Inc.
At a Baltimore Ravens game with his U.S. Merchant Marine Academy buddy, John O’Mara, the two floated the idea of making whiskey. Intrigued, Karlson toured Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail while O’Mara took a one-week course at Kentucky’s Moonshine University, where he “studied harder than at the Academy,” Karlson joked.
In 2015, they opened K&O Distillery in Manassas. K&O makes bourbon, whiskey and gin (as well as sanitizer), with local ingredients.
Karlson emphasized that starting a new endeavor involves on-the-job training, hard work and adaptability.
“Success is not about winning. In the second half of our professional and personal lives, when we all have come to realize that life really is too short, success is about making the most out of each day, not only for yourself but for the ones with you on your journey,” he said.
“Having a little bourbon along the way might help, too.”
For most of his life, Arlingtonian Marc Chretien practiced law, served in the New Hampshire legislature, was counsel to a Congressional committee, and advised four-star combatant commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chretien didn’t want to settle for “the classic retirement — go to Florida and play golf,” he said. “When you come out of a pressure-cooker environment, you need something to do. I’m not really geared to sit home.”
So, Chretien tapped his inner entrepreneur, partnered with former aerospace engineer Ahlf, and together they opened Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery in 2014.
Ahlf makes absinthe, and Chretien makes hard cider flavored with bourbon, ginger, blueberries or lemonade, which is served in the airy barn’s tasting room.
Chretien said he’s happy, but he warns retirees who want to open a distillery that it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme.
“Don’t plan on making a fortune,” he said. “You have to be prepared to work for free and have workers earn more than you in some years, if you have chosen something you like doing.”
For more information about distilleries and cideries, visit the websites of the companies mentioned above, or see virginiaspirits.org/spirits-trail, virginiacider.org/explore-cideries or AmericanWhiskeyTrail.com.