March 27, 2022
Holly Kozelsky, Martinsville Bulletin
A history between friends of making wine has turned into a craft distillery in Ridgeway.
Smith River Spirits comes after 20 years of Martinsville businessman Kevin Nelson and Patrick County attorney Alan Black making wine up on the Blue Ridge Parkway just for fun. Some years, when it was good, they bottled it; some years they didn’t bother.
Wine-making “is a labor of love,” Nelson said. “It takes 10 months from start to finish.”
Then the buddies specialized even further into brandy, which is a distilled wine. People liked it, so they decided to take it further with opening their own distillery.
Now Black and Nelson are in business with a third friend, Wes Mills of Martinsville, who used to run a vehicle dealership.
Nelson handles most of the labor of the operation, Black handles the legal end and Mills “does the filing” to fulfill regulations. “That’s what he loves – to create files,” Nelson laughed.
While Mills creates the files, Nelson creates the brandies. He speaks proudly of taking “what nature gave” – just the fruit – and adding no extra sugars.
He started producing brandy at the distillery in 2019 and opened to the public in April 2021.
Brandy gets its start in a column still they had custom-built in Kentucky. It has only four sight-glasses, whereas most column stills would have between 12 and 200, Nelson said – “but they’re just stripping liquor. They’re just running their product and taking every drop of liquor out of it they can.”
A run of brandy has three stages, he said: heads, hearts and tails. “The heads are poisonous. It’s basically methane, so you throw that away.”
Once the methane has cleared the system, “then you’re running the hearts, which is the sweetest part of your run and has all the flavor and sweetness to it and that type thing.
“After the hearts go through then you get into the tails which get real oily and fatty, and we cut off. We don’t use any of the tails. Most people blend the tails back into it because they’re flavoring and coloring their product.”
After going through the still, the brandy goes through a hydrometer, where the proof is measured, then into carboys.
Smith River Spirits has four brandies: Apple Black Red, released in March; Apple Black Green, released in April; and Traditional Brandy, released in November, with the current offering being Batch 1, Barrel 1. A fourth brandy, Apple Black Black Label, will be released soon.
The Apple Black Red is made from the Gold Rush and two other varieties of apples from the Shenandoah Valley. It’s a great addition to egg nog or coffee, he said.
“Theres no warmth,” he said. Rather, it’s “just like biting into an apple. None of that alcohol flavor.” A sip gives the taste of “a real nice mellow yellow apple first, then the tart of the green, then finish with the red sweet.”
That brandy won a silver medal in the World Tasting Competition. The tasting was done in California, and the awards banquet was in Louisville, Ky.
It was still a new brandy then – “the judge said he will give it gold when it is barrel-aged,” he said.
Nelson said he didn’t enter the brandy for competition but rather to get feedback from judges.
The Apple Black Green is made from seven varieties of apples from Wade’s Orchard in Woolwine, chosen by Alan Black “to create the absolute perfect combination,” the company’s flyer says.
The Traditional Brandy, which is called Smith River’s “signature spirit” on the flyer, is barrel-aged brandy from Shiraz wine from Washington, aged for a minimum of two years in triple-charred American white oak barrels from South Carolina and Kentucky.
Apple Black Black is the Apple Black Red brandy aged in white oak American barrels, highlighted by a Gold Rush Apple "with much more earthy, buttery notes," said J. Peyton Gravely, company spokesperson.
The brandies are aged for at least two years in barrels made of white oak “because of the flavor characteristics” that come from the wood, he said. They are charred inside.
Barrels are only filled or emptied in winter. Pressures build up in the spring and summer, he said, but in the winter the grains contract and push alcohol back into the barrel.
The brandy from each barrel “is a whole different barrel run, barrel number … and it’ll have different characteristics because every tree’s a little different.” The tree affects the barrel, which in turn affects the flavor of the brandy stored in it.
“My products will always be a little different flavors. They are just amazing in a true barrel-aged product,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nelson has been planting his land in Ridgeway and some property in Stanleytown with apple trees. He is following his plan to plant apples on land including in Ararat and on Belcher Mountain through 2027.
The trio sell their brandy on site, which means Smith River Distillery is “a registered ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control] store. Everything is bonded,” he said.
As an ABC store, the distillery sends the sales proceeds to the state treasurer, and then keeps its part and sends back the rest, out of which they pay federal taxes, he said.
His brandies are sold at Pickles & Ash in Patrick County and Hugo’s and La Plazita in Martinsville, with other locations in the works, he said.
Smith River Spirits at 1317 Eggleston Falls Road in Ridgeway is open to the public from 1-6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Its website is www.smithriverspirits.com.
‘Just a dreamer’
“Every 10 years I reinvent myself,” said Nelson – “either that, or I’m just a dreamer.”
Nelson is a familiar name in local business. In the late 1980s he and his mother, Nancy Nelson, ran Inside Outlet. Then he ran Nelson Flooring while she ran Glad Rags uptown. The also ran the bookstore The Final Chapter at the former Liberty Fair Mall.
In 2000, he was injured in a wreck to the point he was told he’d never work again, he said – so he moved to Harker’s Island on the North Carolina coast for a life of fishing.
However, “fishing on the ocean is not good every day,” he said, so went into custom cabinetry. After a hurricane destroyed his property, he moved on to Smith Mountain Lake.
For 10 years he farmed his grandparents’ farm, 1,800 acres in Stokes and Rockingham counties, N.C., before turning into a hunting reserve.
Most recently, as Q-Lifts, he was a contractor, renovating spaces so that they are accessible by disabled and special needs people. His clients included the federal government with projects for Wounded Warriors, he said. “That’s a business where I can make somebody’s life a little bit better every day.”