Turns out that moonshine, that infamous illicit spirit, has a lot of appeal among law-abiding people, too.
The founders of Belle Isle Craft Spirits, a premium moonshine maker in Richmond, say their business is on track to have its best year ever in 2018.
Founded in 2013, Belle Isle went from sales of about 2,000 cases in 2016 to more than 5,000 in 2017. Sales are up 200 percent so far this year, and co-founders Brian Marks and Vince Riggi are confident of hitting about 12,500 cases in 2018.
The company has established a fan base with its moonshines infused with natural flavors, such as honey and habanero peppers.
“It starts with an awesome product and a great production team,” Riggi said of the sales growth. “Our sales team and marketing team have really elevated the brand and created brand equity with the product.”
Belle Isle products are now sold in 12 states, up from seven states two years ago. The business does not disclose its financial results.
The flowering craft beverages scene in Virginia and the Richmond region has helped the company promote its brands elsewhere, Riggi said.
“There is this coolness factor about Richmond that really resonates outside the area,” he said. “It is certainly a strategic advantage to be located in Richmond these days.”
Overall sales of spirits made by Virginia distillers were up 30 percent in 2017 to $14.6 million, according to research conducted for the Virginia Distillers Association by the College of William & Mary.
There are 57 licensed distilleries in the state, with more than 60 expected to be licensed by the end of 2018.
With production expected to push 150,000 bottles in 2018, Belle Isle also is likely to be ranked among the nation’s top 50 craft spirits makers this year out of about 1,500 craft distilleries nationwide. Marks and Riggi said Belle Isle was ranked No. 68 in 2017.
Belle Isle has been successful at selling through ABC stores and has become “really influential in the marketplace,” said Amy Ciarametaro, executive director of the Virginia Distillers Association.
“I think they are really savvy at creating a product that works well for both professional bartenders and the at-home bartender,” she said. “Their products work really well for making fun and exciting cocktails that don’t have to be complicated. Or you can get really cerebral with them.”
After starting with just a handful of workers, Belle Isle now employs 25. At its 7,000-square-foot production plant and office in Richmond’s Manchester area, the staff is still doing all of the bottling and labeling by hand.
“It’s an endeavor,” said Gregg Brooks, the production director. “We take pride that we do it by hand.”
One of the company’s big challenges at this point, he said, is “just being able to keep up with the demand and making sure the product going out the door is up to our quality standards on a weekly basis.”
Belle Isle sources pure corn moonshine from a supplier and cuts it down to 80 or 90 proof at the Manchester facility, where it also infuses some of the moonshine with flavorings.
Along with its Belle Isle Black Label and Belle Isle 100 varieties, which are straight moonshine and not flavored, the company makes flavor-infused Honey Habanero, Ruby Red Grapefruit and Cold Brew Coffee moonshines.
This summer, the company plans to release a blood orange-infused moonshine.
“This is going to be just a Virginia product,” Riggi said. “We will be launching it in our top ABC stores. Like all our other products, we do not use any artificial colors or flavors. Everything is real.”
Belle Isle uses locally sourced ingredients for its flavor infusions. For instance, the coffee beans for its Cold Brew Coffee Moonshine come from Blanchard’s Roasting Co. in Richmond.
“We’re very meticulous and do a lot of R&D when it comes to new flavor infusions,” Riggi said. “We don’t just roll out a lot every year. We are strategic about what we want to do.”
Back in 2016, Belle Isle announced plans to open a tasting room at its Manchester production site. While that could still happen, the company has decided for now to put its resources into expanding distribution and marketing, instead of adding a tasting room.