It started with smoked pork shoulder and brisket. Chef Edwin Wright was planning a special anniversary menu in 2015 for the Hilton Garden Inn in Arlington, where he runs the kitchen and dining room, and opted for barbecue. Hooked on the smokey flavor he captured in the meat, he began experimenting with infusing whiskey, rum, tequila, and vodka with smoke.
“Hands down everyone liked the whiskey,” Wright says. “They said, ‘You should sell it. You should sell it!’”
Virginia passed a law in 2014 allowing bartenders to infuse spirits in-house. “I took it to mean you could infuse with anything you wanted,” Wright explains. “I started using smoked cherrywood, maple, applewood, and hickory woods.”
Ultimately Wright built a device that infuses smoke using a proprietary method and shared some of his infused liquors with his future business partner Ray Robinson. “Last year in October, Ray and I decided to form a company and ever since then we’ve been chugging along building a whiskey distillery.”
The Whiskey Wright distillery is located in Waynesboro, Virginia, near Charlottesville. So far they only sell their signature cherrywood smoked whiskey, but Wright says they’re also toying with rum and brandy. “The smoke gives the whiskey a sweet flavor and the smoke is something completely different from everything else,” he says. “The way we infuse the smoke makes it really smooth. Other whiskies have a bite to them. This one goes down really smooth.”
Wright recommends sipping it neat or in a cocktail, noting that it pairs well with spicy food, steak, and cigars. It’s currently for sale at two D.C. liquor stores: Minnesota Liquors (2237 Minnesota Ave. SE) and Georgia Avenue Food Barn (6205 Georgia Ave. NW). The Elroy, a bar located at 1423 H St. NE, is also pouring it.
Wright ultimately hopes to leave his hotel restaurant job and grow the distillery. He’s already looking to expand distribution to Virginia and North Carolina and aspires to become one of the few African-American distillers to bring his product to an international audience. “I think there are a couple of ladies who have a distillery in Virginia, but there really isn’t a lot of black distillers around here now like there used to be,” Wright says. “We’re getting there.”
Wright will offer samples of his products this Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Minnesota Liquors.