Catoctin Creek’s Scott and Becky Harris pull a dram of whiskey.
Catoctin Creek’s Scott and Becky Harris pull a dram of whiskey. Credit: Warren Rojas

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Mark Osborne is not one to taste defeat.

Back in 2014, the co-founder of Purcellville’s Adroit Theory Brewing Company had his heart set on producing a double stout, but wound up with a major headache instead: The end product was much too sweet. The goal had been to reach around 13 percent alcohol, but the batch yielded something closer to 8 percent due to a problem with the yeast. “Our yeast converted some of the sugar into alcohol, but basically fell asleep on the job,” Osborne says. A dismal effort by slacker fungi. 

He tried “repitching” the brew by introducing additional yeast into the mix—a step akin to jump-starting a car—but that also fell short. “It was too far gone, beyond resuscitating.” His dreams of reclamation dashed, Osborne hung his hopes on a total transformation. “We decided instead of dumping it, we would find a way to put it to alternative use,” he says. 

Osborne consulted Scott Harris, co-founder of nearby Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, about joining forces to do something with the ruined beer. Both men discovered a kindred spirit.  

“Nothing’s a loss,” Harris says. “You can always distill it.” He stresses that as long as the base material is sound, extracting a worthwhile liquor remains a viable option. Harris earlier this year notched an interdisciplinary win when he released Kings Mountain American Malt Whisky, the sold-out spirit he produced in conjunction with Heritage Brewing Co. 

But, he says, Catoctin Creek has turned away lost causes in the past. “We’re not in the fixing wine or fixing beer business,” Harris says.

This case was different. “I consider Adroit Theory to be the Andy Warhol of the beer scene,” Harris said. He leapt at the opportunity to assist Osborne. 

Soon enough, some unforeseen issues bubbled up from the brew. According to Osborne, the distilling process reduced 100 gallons of wort down to a single gallon of hybrid spirit. “It was crazy. It was hoppy,” Osborne says. Then there was the gunk. 

“It was just like slime on the inside of the tank… basically this nasty snot,” Harris says of the gummy residue that clogged valves for weeks after. “But the spirit that it produced was really delicious.” 

He transferred the initial run into oak barrels and set everything aside. 

Next to scrutinize the end result was Becky Harris, Scott’s wife and Catoctin Creek’s chief distiller. As she siphoned the resulting whiskey from its cask, she couldn’t help gush about the collaboration. “I’ve been waiting for this one for two years,” she says as she pulls a dram of the experimental beverage they dubbed “Dia de los Muertos” American Malt Whisky.

“The name of the original beer was Dia de los Muertos. So it made sense to name the whiskey the same,” Osborne says of the ominous moniker he came up with. 

The whiskey smells of roasted malt and shines as brightly as copper. It’s less forceful on the palate than traditional rye whiskey, but still has a rich mouthfeel, conveying definitive hoppiness balanced by caramel notes. 

Harris produced three barrels of Dia de los Muertos. Two are to be released in early November, while the other will be aged an additional four or more years for New York-based Astor Wines & Spirits. 

The roughly 700 bottles to be sold locally ($119.99 a pop) will first be made available to the distillery’s VIP members on Nov. 2. Then, the whiskey will be released to the public on Nov. 12 at a joint event with Adroit Theory. 

Osborne plans to contribute to the festivities by pouring a since-perfected version of the intended stout. “We’re re-brewing that beer, hopefully with more success,” he quips, mapping out plans to age the reconfigured stout in the same barrels Harris used to finish the experimental whiskey, then put it out Nov.12 for a side-by-side comparison. “You’ll be able to taste how it was intended to be,” Osborne said.

Meanwhile, the Harrises are psyched for their next beer run. “We want to team up with different brewers across the region and just do different experimental versions of beers that these guys are making,” Scott Harris said of the soon-to-be-annual tradition.

Click here for more stories from the 2016 Beer Issue.