Last Saturday, Elizabeth and I drove out to Shenandoah National Park to view the fall colors along Skyline Drive and to do a bit of hiking.  We were accompanied by our friend Nell and Murphy, our cocker spaniel.

And because we’ve been warned about the bumper-to-bumper traffic that can snarl the Skyline Drive during peak foliage-viewing weekends, we resolved to set out bright and early.  REALLY early…even before it was actually bright.  So at 6:30 AM we picked up Nell and took off along Route 66, following it all the way to Front Royal and the northernmost entrance to the park.

Our planning paid off beautifully, allowing us to take a leisurely drive and stop for a strenuous but enjoyable 6.5-mile hike to a singularly disappointing “waterfall” (that trickle in the middle of the photo).  After packing all this activity into the morning hours, by the time 2 PM rolled around we felt pretty good about heading out to come home.  But rather than retracing our route back to Front Royal, we took an alternate exit from the park and found ourselves in scenic Sperryville, where “antique tables” are made daily.

As we soon found out, that’s not all they make in Sperryville.  Join us for a taste of Rick Wasmund’s amazing applewood-smoked whisky and a tour of the distillery after the jump.

When you follow directions from a stranger to a distillery that does little to advertise its location, you never know quite what you’re going to encounter.  Visions of Uncle Jesse (from The Dukes of Hazzard, not Full House) and his moonshine still immediately came to mind.  Instead, we were greeted by the super-friendly Rick Wasmund, who was happy to show us around.  His Copper Fox Distillery recently opened for regular tours, and if the one he gave us is any indication, it will soon become quite the destination for whisky lovers and anyone in the mood to try a new spirit.

Wasmund has been in the whisky business since 2000, but Copper Fox Distillery has only been malting its own barley at their current distillery since November of 2005.

That’s right.  They malt their own barley.  It’s just one of the things that sets Copper Fox apart from the hundreds of other whiskies, foreign and domestic, on the market.  Wasmund has developed a relationship with a local grower to provide him with a specific breed of barley that meets his exacting standards.  He gets the grain fresh from the farm and then sets about fermenting it on site.  After a few days in a water bath to bring about sprouting, the barley is spread on the floor for ‘traditional floor malting.’  It is raked by Rick’s Manager Of Malting (you guessed it – his MOM) for several more days until it is malted and ready to be smoked.

And that’s where Rick has really introduced some innovations to the time-honored techniques he learned in Scotland.  Rather than drying the malted barley over a fire stoked by peat or basic wood, Wasmund introduces applewood and cherry wood into the mix, creating that rich, nuanced smokiness that bacon-lovers around the world have come to associate with some of the best artisanal pork.  This fruitwood smoke (and the chips he suspends in the barrels during the aging process) impart a flavor that is smooth and deep.

You know a man is passionate about the whisky he makes when he not only takes careful notes on every batch he turns out, he publishes those notes for the world to see.  While we were at the distillery, he was particularly excited about something new that he introduced with batch XXIII – the first of those bottles are just hitting the shelves at Pearson’s, Wine Specialist and Schneider’s, so we’ll be on the lookout for this latest edition.

For now, do yourself a favor and pick up a bottle of batch XXII if you can find it (at a suggested retail price of $34.99, it’s well positioned among its competitors).  The flavors are one-of-a-kind when it comes to whisky, and the subtle notes make it as easily drinkable as Maker’s Mark is among bourbons.  You can enjoy it on its own, or follow our lead and take a stab at a variation on Poste’s new Kentucky Cider cocktail.  Mix four parts cider with two parts Wasmund’s and shake vigorously.  Top off with a few dashes of Angostura bitters and some cinnamon, add a few bourbon-soaked cherries and serve over ice.  Now that’s a way to celebrate some truly beautiful fall colors.