Norfolk could get first “microdistillery” in Chelsea

From The Virginian-Pilot

Derek Ungerecht already has the bottles mocked up, one for a spiced rum and one for a clear light rum. But for now, they’re just filled with water – and, for the spiced variety, a little food coloring.

Ungerecht’s company, Dead Reckoning Distillery, wants to open Norfolk’s first “microdistillery.” People could take a free tour, pay for a tasting on-site and even buy a bottle to take home.

A 32-year-old Army reservist who did two tours in Iraq and earned a marketing degree from Old Dominion University, Ungerecht has long wanted to start his own business.

He hopes to capitalize on the success wineries and craft breweries have had in Virginia.

“The timing’s right. The growth potential is there,” Ungerecht said. “And, you know, who doesn’t want to make liquor?”

Dead Reckoning is eyeing a site in Chelsea but doesn’t have a lease yet. Ungerecht likes the area because it’s near craft brewers, including Smartmouth, which he thinks his business would complement.

Virginia has relaxed laws in recent years to help craft brewers and distillers. Though hard liquor is usually only available in ABC stores, distilleries can now become “contract” stores and sell their products directly to the public.

There were just three distilleries with stores in 2010; now there are 19, said Kathleen Shaw, a spokeswoman for Virginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Norfolk would also need to tweak the city code for Dead Reckoning to sell directly to customers.

Under the current code, a distillery can have tastings, but one that sells bottles of its liquor doesn’t fit any zoning category, said Susan Pollock Hart, a principal planner for the city.

So the city is working to create one.

The new category would be called “microdistillery” since it would be the equivalent of a microbrewery. The Planning Commission is scheduled to discuss the change in April. It could go to the City Council in May.

Dead Reckoning would need to get its own council approval later. It would be the first distillery in Norfolk to sell for “off-premises” consumption. Chesapeake Bay Distillery in Virginia Beach also has a store where it sells vodka and rum.

There are two other distilleries in Hampton Roads that don’t sell directly to consumers: The Great Dismal Distillery in Norfolk makes rum, vodka and bourbon; and Ironclad of Newport News makes bourbon.

Dead Reckoning could be at the forefront of a major trend; Ungerecht said he knows of at least a dozen people planning to start distilleries just in Hampton Roads.

There are 43 companies holding distillery licenses in Virginia, 32 of them small producers that make less than 5,000 gallons a year, the ABC’s Shaw said.

Ungerecht, who grew up in Suffolk, now lives in Chesapeake. He has been working on plans for the distillery since around the time he graduated from ODU in 2013. He’s partnering with his brother-in-law, who didn’t want his name printed because of his day job.

Ungerecht loves rum and thinks it’s ripe for growth, since many people associate the spirit more with frat parties than tasting rooms. To those folks, rum is something to mix with Coke or fruit juices, not a fine sipping liquor.

If Dead Reckoning raises around $350,000, Ungerecht will quit his sales job at a truck and equipment firm. But for now, the distillery is a night-and-weekend gig, and he works on the plans mostly out of his car.

He’s envisioning a facility of 1,500 to 3,000 square feet. The process of making rum there would start with 55-gallon drums of molasses.

When yeast is added to diluted molasses, it turns the sugars into alcohol over several weeks of fermentation. The resulting low-alcohol liquid is heated to create alcoholic vapors that are then condensed back into liquid, increasing the potency.

Then you can add spices if you like. For an aged rum, you put it in oak barrels. Once it’s ready, you filter and bottle it.

Ungerecht made one decision about the bottles long ago: no pirates. It’s been done to death.

To start, he would have two varieties, a “craft spiced rum” with the Dead Reckoning name and a clear spirit called Rebel Rum. Ungerecht plans to add more later, including aged rums.

In addition to selling at its own site, Dead Reckoning will work to get into ABC and Navy Exchange stores.

If everything goes well, Ungerecht could sell his first bottles in November or December.

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