It didn’t open at the end of 2017 as planned, but Dry Fork Fruit Distillery is still in the works to come to the River District this year.

Vincent Puccio, a partner with the whiskey distillery, said he and William T. Willis plan to open the distillery, retail store and tasting room at 534 Bridge St. near the Community Market in the spring.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a soft opening for several weeks to make sure we can operate properly,” Puccio said.

Getting an ABC license to make the whiskey, making sure the operation meets city code, and seeking contractors for the project caused a delay, he said.

Needed upgrades include work in the still area, installing a drain, and making bathrooms handicapped accessible, Puccio said. Also, Puccio and Willis must also get an ABC license for the retail part of the business and put a wall up separating the tasting room from the distilling area to meet ABC requirements.

Charles Fulcher, inspections supervisor with Danville, said the city is waiting on re-submittal of building, plumbing, electric and mechanical plans from the project’s architects and engineers.

“We are waiting for them to submit their re-submittal back to us for corrections,” Fulcher said.

His office reviews the plans and makes comments and the architects and engineers make corrections to meet code, he said.

Dry Fork Fruit Distillery makes 100-proof and 80-proof whiskeys, including corn and fruit whiskeys. Flavors include blueberry, strawberry, blackberry, and Damson plum. Its products are all-natural with no artificial flavors. The distillery will also offer brandies and rye whiskey, Puccio said.

They make their whiskey using a steam process with stainless steel and no direct flame. The distillery produces about 2,500 gallons of whiskey per year.

Craft spirits — including beverages such as whiskey, tequila, gin, rum, and vodka — have grown in popularity, with production exploding over the last eight years, said Margie A.S. Lehrman, executive director of the American Craft Spirits Association.

In 2010, there were about 200 craft distilleries in the United States. There were nearly 1,600 as of August 2017, including 42 in Virginia, according to an October 2017 Craft Spirits Data Report.

“It is astronomical,” Lehrman said.

Regulations on distilleries are much more intense and the cost of opening a distillery is high, she pointed out.

Much of the growth has been driven by consumer choice, especially among millennials, Lehrman said. They have access to more disposable income and want to be savvy with their money, she said.

“They’re going for a true experience as opposed to just drinking,” Lehrman said.

The surge in popularity for craft spirits parallels that of craft beer and eating locally grown food, she said. It’s all part of buying local.

“Craft spirits have stories behind them,” she said. “When we talk about going local and farm-to-table in the restaurant industry, we see a farm-to-glass movement in the craft spirits industry.”

Distillery tours are becoming as popular as winery tours, she pointed out. And just like with wine and beer, whiskey drinkers look for certain tasting notes and other characteristics — such as appearance, texture, finish, aroma, how the alcohol is integrated with other ingredients, she said.

“It really is going to depend on who you are going to speak with,” she said.

Making whiskey is not for the faint of heart, Lehrman said, calling it “the most fascinating chemical experiment that you’ll find.”

“There are a lot of chemical engineers who are distillers,” she said. “The process is so very complex.”

Puccio and Willis owned and operated Dry Fork Fruit Distillery in Meadows of Dan in Patrick County, but they wanted to move to Danville because they couldn’t sell their products on premises there because the county didn’t allow liquor by the drink.

During an interview in August, Puccio said Danville — especially the River District — is becoming a destination for visitors.

“You’ve got tourism and entertainment down there,” he said in August. “It all works together.”

Puccio’s and Willis’ original plan was to open the distillery near Willis’ farm in Pittsylvania County, according to a June 15, 2015 article from the Martinsville Bulletin. Although the Pittsylvania County Board of Zoning Appeals approved the location, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors denied the zoning request.

In March 2014, Puccio and Willis filed for a special use permit to put the distillery at a former body shop on Chatham Road in Axton, according to the Bulletin. However, about 40 members of two churches on the road attended the Henry County Board of Zoning Appeals meeting to oppose the distillery, and the board rejected the request.

The duo later opened the distillery in Meadows of Dan.

Their whiskey is sold in about 38 ABC stores across the state, including those in Danville.

Danville City Council voted in August to create a definition for distilleries and allow them in the city.

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John Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact him at jcrane@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7987.

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