Making SweetShine

Bloomery Plantation Distillery in the Eastern Panhandle is an intoxicating treat.


Published:

Photographed by Elizabeth Roth

One of the happiest places on earth—or at least in West Virginia—has to be Bloomery Plantation Distillery in Charles Town.

At the end of a gravel road in a tasting room in a salvaged 1840s cabin, the booming laughter of Rob Losey rings out as he tells the story of growing lemons in the Mountain State. The Eastern Panhandle distillery is the first commercial grower of lemons in the Mid-Atlantic. It all started when Rob’s ex-wife and dear friend Linda Losey—standing 6 feet away experimenting with flavors on her “science cart”—returned from a trip to Italy in 2010 with the crazy idea to make and sell limoncello. Standing next to Rob is Rita, his girlfriend, who pours a packed room of visitors each a taste of Ginger Shine from what Bloomery calls its cocktail playground. “Our goal is to always provide a ‘Wow’ experience—from the product to the branding to the experience in the tasting room,” says Linda, who co-owns Bloomery with her husband, Tom Kiefer. “Part of that is laughter.”

All of the employees—just over a dozen people help make the Bloomery brand the success it is—wear multiple hats in the business, sometimes literally. The distillery’s award-winning labels grab attention, and the staff sometimes wear outfits to match. “I’m Pumpkin Spice,” Linda laughs. Rob says they wanted the labels to be reminiscent of turn-of-the-century seed packets. From there they personified the labels on the bottles with the “ginger guy” and the “pumpkin girl” and so on.

Rob, co-owner and director of sales and distribution, says having fun is part of building the brand, though the employees really do enjoy themselves. Lively presentations in the intimate, rustic tasting room keep people coming back, but the crew aims to keep the excitement alive long after people leave, too. “One of our biggest challenges is being able to carry that fun experience outside of the distillery and into the market. It’s one thing to have a nice looking bottle but, as a small business, marketing budgets are limited. We have family, friends, and volunteers help bring our bottle characters to life and take them on the road to various events.”

Along with 40 Italian Santa Teresa lemon trees housed in a greenhouse on the property off the beaten path, the distillery harvests 600 pounds of Hawaiian ginger each year and has 2,000 raspberry plants. The team is also working to harvest black walnuts, and pumpkins will be planted in 2014, too. In less than three years, Bloomery has hosted 35,000 visitors, offering up free tastings of the award-winning SweetShine liqueurs. Flavors like Cremma Lemma and the flagship Limoncello are most popular, while bottles of Raspberry Lemon, Ginger, and Chocolate Raspberry have no trouble finding good homes.

“Everything we do starts with 190-degree moonshine,” Rob says, adding that it’s all-natural. The list of fresh ingredients that may go into the nine flavors is short, including lemons, raspberries, ginger, pumpkins, peaches,  and black walnuts. “No colors, no flavors. We offer customers a handcrafted, all-natural, authentic product they really can’t get any place else. More and more people really want to step back and enjoy things that they know where they came from.”

Drinking the liqueurs is also unique. They mix well together or with other ingredients—Bloomery suggests pairing Limoncello with West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler Vodka for a Zesty Mountaineer Martini, or add Chocolate Raspberry to a cup of hot coffee for a Chocolate Lab. You can choose from dozens of recipes on the distillery’s website or simply enjoy the SweetShine on its own. “We sell out of every bottle we make. Our biggest challenge is keeping up with production,” Rob says. “Some of our aging takes about six months, so it takes awhile for it to be ready to sell. We are continually ramping up our production.” You can find Bloomery at liquor stores across West Virginia as well as in D.C., Virginia, and Tennessee. You can also buy from Bloomery’s website, which ships to 42 states.

Linda says it’s hard to be in a bad mood around lemons, but growing crops was no easy feat at first. “It’s been a real learning curve. We weren’t farmers,” she says, adding that folks at the nearby USDA research center and others were a godsend in the beginning. Bloomery also works closely with officials in Jefferson County, one of the few counties in the state to have an agriculture development officer on its economic development team.

“Not that it was news to us, but farming is not easy,” agrees Rob, whose background is in construction. “We certainly have an even deeper respect for farming. A lot of work goes into raising an acre of raspberries.”

Bringing an old cabin back to life was a worthwhile challenge, too. Linda found the 12-acre property with dilapidated cabin on Craigslist and fell in love. “My husband, Tom, was out at a conference and I texted him, ‘I’m going to meet the Craigslist killer.’” But everything turned out just right. The property just needed some tender loving care. Linda and Tom purchased the property in December 2010. “We were one of the fastest distilleries to get their licenses in America,” Linda says. “We had it in less than three months. I’m a researcher and that’s one of the things I love doing—I’m a Googler. I made sure all of my i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed, and we were approved. In less than a year we were open.”

The cabin had been a slave quarters at one time, and it was in serious disrepair. “A building a couple hundred years old—there’s nothing that’s square,” Rob says. “You don’t go to Home Depot and pick up the doors. Everything had to be custom-made.” The roof had to be replaced and geothermal heating and cooling were installed. “In five months we put in a lot of sweat.” But it was close to their hearts, and it captured the feeling the team wanted to evoke. “We knew it’d be some place cool to come visit,” Rob says.

Rob was the first employee working with Linda and Tom, and at first, everyone had two full-time jobs. “I planted the raspberry field and did the greenhouse and did work on the building itself,” Tom says. Tom’s brother, Don, also began working with the group in areas like production. Then, Linda says, it was time for Rob to take charge in the tasting room.

“We look back every day and go, ‘Wow.’ It’s been a wild ride,” Linda says, reflecting back on the distillery’s opening day in September 2011. Even then there were lines out the door, and business continues to boom. In a single month in late spring 2014, visitors from Russia, China, Ireland, Mexico, and even Australia all came through Bloomery.

“It’s been a lot of fun. How many people can say they’re in business with their ex-husband and his girlfriend?” Linda says. “We call this the Land of Misfit Toys because we’re so diverse in personalities, but when we get together, we rock.”

Bloomery Plantation Distillery is open Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Mondays, Thursdays, and most federal holidays from noon to 6 p.m. Live music takes place most Fridays and Saturdays in summer.

Bloomery Plantation Distillery, 16357 Charles Town Road, Charles Town, WV 25414, bloomerysweetshine.com

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