Aromatic Øster Vit can be subbed for vodka or gin in mixed drinks or sipped as an aperitif. It makes the best bloody marys, JRD’s Chew says.

Øster Vit is a take on an aquavit by James River Distillery, where Dwight Chew is head distiller.

Virginia Spirits Month, which starts Friday and runs through the month of September, is designed to introduce you to new and different state-made spirits.

Different? If you want different, James River Distillery produces a spirit that’s not only different, but also unique.

The concoction is called Øster Vit. It’s JRD’s take on an aquavit – a traditional Scandinavian spirit flavored with botanicals, such as caraway, fennel, dill and orange peel.

In the Øster Vit production process, JRD uses those four botanicals, plus one more ingredient: oyster shells. Yes, you read that right.

“As far as I know, we are the only distillery in the world doing it,” said JRD head distiller Dwight Chew.

The shells, all fresh from Rappahannock River Oysters, are introduced late in the process of making this spirit.

“We start with Virginia-grown organic corn, which we mash and then ferment, creating a corn beer,” Chew said. “We distill it three times until we have a corn-neutral spirit.

“We then steep the oyster shells, along with the botanicals, in the neutral spirit. We steep for 48 hours, making what is essentially an alcohol tea. After distilling it one more time, we add filtered water to dilute it down to 84 proof, then bottle and label it by hand.”

The result is an aromatic, mouth-pleasing spirit that can be subbed for vodka or gin in mixed drinks or can be drunk as an aperitif.

“The caraway and dill hit your palate first, followed by the fennel, and then it has a delicate oyster finish. Just a hint,” Chew said. “I personally like it just chilled, but it makes the best bloody mary you’ve ever had, as well as an amazing dirty martini.”

JRD partner Kristi Croxton can take a bow for coming up with the concept.

“We knew that we wanted to make an aquavit, … and as we were beginning to think about how we would approach it, Kristi did an oyster shooter with aquavit, and she thought the oyster-aquavit combo was perfect,” Chew said.

“So I began to experiment with different ways of incorporating the oyster character with different botanical recipes. After experimenting with both shells and actual oysters, we felt that the shells gave the best balance and right amount of oyster character.

“The shells add a bit of oyster flavor as well as some salinity and minerality. The flavors perfectly complement the (required) caraway seeds that we use in the botanical recipe, as well as the dill, fennel and orange.”

Once you taste Øster Vit, you’ll probably be hooked.

“I have not met anyone who doesn’t think it is a delicious spirit,” said Shagbark bar manager Derek Salerno. “The uninitiated think it is a delicious curiosity, and the seasoned aquavit drinkers usually agree that it is a wonderful take on the spirit. I will continue to sing its praises to anyone who will listen.”

The same can be said for Virginia spirits in general, especially during September when many restaurants will be offering newly created specialty drinks made with vodkas, bourbons, rums, gins and, of course, Øster Vit.

“We do get a lot of calls for Virginia spirits,” Salerno said. “We have always made a point of featuring and highlighting them on the menu, and people have become more and more curious about them as they learn that featuring them is something about which we are passionate.”

As for the impact of the Virginia Distillers Association, which pushed for a spirits month, Croxton said:

“The VDA is excellent at not only pushing distillery favorable legislation forward but also helping put Virginia on the map for all your spirit needs. These much-needed efforts have been a big boost to all the distilleries involved.”

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— James River Distillery staff

– Dwight Chew, James River Distillery

— Derek Salerno, Shagbark

– Derek Salerno, Shagbark

Jack Berninger’s column on spirits and wine appears every other week in the Culture section. Contact him at

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