Virgil Kaine Bourbon, the All-Inclusive Version
If simple desire is the mother of invention, then all Jake Johnson and David Szlam wanted was a good, stiff drink. Harkening back to the nights they would wind down after a long shift on the line, the former chefs set out to revisit their college love of a simple bourbon and ginger ale. And out of that simple desire, Virgil Kaine was born.
"We've been friends for about 15 years," Jake said. "I was Dave's sous chef and we just started thinking about ways to get ourselves out of the restaurant business. We always drank Makers [Mark] and ginger in college, it was sort of our drink. So we started thinking about ways we could replicate that, but in a bottle."
Rooting the product in the South, the pair chose lyrics from The Band song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" to give the bourbon a name. In the song, Virgil Cane was a railroad conductor tasked with supplying Civil War troops with supplies. Taking a bit of historical liberty, Johnson and Szlam's "Kaine" smuggled his homemade hooch to thirsty troops via his train line.
The initial batches of the ginger-infused whiskey were cooked on Dave's stovetop. "Dave is the mastermind behind the recipe," Jake said. "He literally took some bourbon and infused it with all these flavors. Later he called me over, we tried it and tasted it with a friend and we said: 'We may be on to something here' so we just went with it."
The small-time, stovetop operation soon became full force when the pair brought on third partner Ben Capa and fortuitously met with Terressentia, a local spirit making and bottling company and arranged contract distilling through them. Batches of two-year old, "baby bourbon" are sourced from Kentucky and infused with local John's Island ginger and other recipe ingredients. Then the infused spirit is "treated" using Terresentia's patented technology, which not only removes impurities (in the case of bourbon, the tannins imparted from barrel-aging) from the liquor but also adds an aged taste to the final product.
The whiskey is a deep brown, much the color of a tawny port. The infused ginger hits the nose immediately and tames any boozy aroma from the whiskey. The sweet bourbon and the natural ginger add a sweet flavor profile to the whiskey, but it doesn't sip cloyingly sweet. Think more a complement to the bourbon's natural sugar content. The straight shot does drink more like a mixed drink simply over ice and I've found that is arguably the best way to enjoy it. As the ice begins to melt, it continues to mellow into a smooth sipper.
Virgil Kaine started a year ago and this past January saw the full product launch through local distributors, Ben Arnold. But the fledgling company is by no means thinking of keeping it only local. "We are moving into Georgia next, Tennessee and then probably North Carolina," he said. "We're thinking the southeast and SEC football. A lot of college kids drink bourbon and ginger ale so we're trying to push towards that."
While Johnson and Szlam are continuing to push Virgil Kaine into the local market, they aren't putting all their eggs in one basket either. "We're going to launch a few new products this coming year, maybe not a bourbon but different brands," Johnson said. "But I can't really talk about them because they are just in the development stages right now. But we certainly want to get more products out into the market."