By Stephen Smoot
West Virginia continues to outpace the nation in expansion of the state tourist economy. As this trend continues, Pendleton and surrounding counties use creative measures to not only attract tourists to scenic locations, but steer visitors to tourist friendly businesses.
The heart of the On the Rocks Craft Beverage Trail lies in Pendleton County. Swilled Dog operates a state of the art distillery and tasting room at the industrial park in Upper Tract while Dry Run Spirits Distillery follows local agricultural traditions that go back nearly two and a quarter centuries in the region.
Northwest of Upper Tract sits the northern terminus of the trail at Still Hollow in Harman. To the southeast is Big Fish Cider of Monterrey, Virginia. Connecting Pendleton County to neighboring counties that focused on tourism served as one of the main goals of the project.
As Amber Nesselrodt, executive director of the Pendleton County Convention and Visitors Bureau explains, “it started last year as a collective effort between economic development authorities, CVBs, and the distilleries.” She added that “it’s important to keep forging these kinds of relationships.”
Though a 2020 Robert C. Byrd Institute study examined the possibility of a major craft beverage trail effort linking counties in and around Charleston and Huntington, On the Rocks remains the only craft beverage trail established in the Mountain State.
On April 20, Swilled Dog celebrated its fourth year of official business operations. As Kim Kirk, chief experience manager, noted, “it’s an important milestone to celebrate how far we have come in four years.”
Swilled Dog’s crafted beverages date back to initial efforts with cider starting in 2010. Six years later, the family transformed their basement into a cidery. By 2017, the product was ready for sale to the public.
Today, Swilled Dog welcomes locals and tourists alike to its distillery and tasting room. Rich dark wood walls, comfortable leather furniture, and other amenities keep visitors in the mindset of visiting a cozy and intimate space. This space, however, can seat over a hundred people for major events like the Pendleton County Chamber of Commerce dinner.
A smaller room to the side gives all who legally can an opportunity to sample liquors that have competed well on elite national and global stages. Their sherry cask “is technically the second best small batch bourbon in the world.”
Swilled Dog relies heavily on partnerships to forge strong ties around the area and across the state. Two nearby farmers provide non genetically modified corn. Even the groundwater flows from the area’s natural limestone caverns, not unlike those underlying western Kentucky’s traditional bourbon heartland.
Kirk says that “we immerse ourselves in the whole experience, start to finish. We hope that translates to the customer experience.”
She also described a “gold rush” partnership, one of several with West Virginia University. Gold rush “uses source apples from the Davis College of Agriculture.”
Swilled Dog also takes pride in giving back. As Laura Hagman, operations manager, explains, “we focus on animal charities.” The company mascot, Lucy Pickles, was adopted as a rescue and remains the inspiration for animal charity support. One dollar from each beverage poured from “Lucy’s Tap” supports a charity known as Walk the Dog.
Farther off the beaten path in Dahmer sits the historic Ananias Pitsenbarger farm established in 1799, currently the home of both Dry Run Spirits Distillery and also Loafer’s Glory, which provides lodging.
The distillery and surroundings developed by Jeff Munn could not be more different than the modern ambiance of Swilled Dog, but that is by design. Nesselrodt explained that “it’s important to give visitors different experiences.”
“We’re more than a distillery,” Munn notes, “we’re a part of Pendleton County.”
On the crest of the hill above the modern Dry Run Road sits the main house and distillery. Munn constructed an old fashion pavilion festively illuminated with Edison lights, providing an atmosphere that encourages storytelling, singing, and laughing.
Such was always the reputation of the farm, known as “Loafer’s Glory,” dating back to the early 19th century. From the visitors’ pavilion, one can peer downhill and see much of the farm as it was 200 years ago. The view includes a farmhouse in its original wood, surrounded by a springhouse, work structures, and outbuildings lovingly preserved by the Munn family. Munn pointed out that watercress surrounding the trickle of water emanating from the springhouse meant “that’s a sign of absolutely pure water.”
“It took my wife two years to get us onto the National Register of Historic Places,” Munn explained.
Initial settlement took place in 1793 by Henry Amick. After his death, his wife sold to “Stiller” John Propst who may have introduced production to the farm. Until modern times, Dry Run Road ran through the farm toward Sugar Grove, allowing owners to sell liquor directly to travelers on the road. “This was the old wagon road,” Munn showed.
As Munn says, “This is the fourth distillery in 186 years. For 140 of 186 years, someone’s been distilling hard apple brandy on this property.” Apple production and harvesting has continued so long that many trees on the land have outlasted the typical 50 to 100 year life span. Munn, however, carefully preserves each apple strain on the property by cultivating new growth.
“The biggest problem is that I cannot make it fast enough,” Munn says. Also calling himself a “one man show,” he distills from a 20-gallon copper still.
In recent years, Munn has added maple moonshine to his repertoire. Unlike most “maple” potent potables, Dry Run produces directly from maple sap instead of merely adding flavoring. He relies on local producer Ricky S. Harper to supplement 66 percent of his total sap used.
Both distillers underscored the importance of cooperation over competition. Hagman from Swilled Dog shared that “it’s important to bring the county together.” She added that “we have a lot of tourists who come around.” Many drop in after a full day of adventure sports or sight-seeing.
Munn added that “the change in Pendleton County in the last 10 years is incredible. It seems like it’s accelerating.”
He also agreed with the purpose of the craft beverage trail itself, saying “we broke the invisible wall at the Virginia-West Virginia border. Why should we just do it for our county and not include them?”