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When life gives you lemons, you’re supposed to make lemonade. But Chris Richeson prefers something with a little more kick.

On a bright Thursday afternoon, the owner of the Chesapeake Bay Distillery helped a co-worker squeeze the life out of a case of little yellow fruits. Eventually, the juice will add pucker to the distillery’s signature lemon drops, served one shot at a time in the new tasting room.

After opening late last year, the Chesapeake Bay Distillery is gearing up for its first sunny season in Virginia Beach’s ViBe Creative District.

Crafting small batches of vodka and rum is not a new venture for Richeson. He started mixing and bottling signature spirits back in 2005. The biggest change for the Chesapeake Bay Distillery these days is the scenery.

“We were maxed out in production and knew we needed a bigger facility with higher ceilings, ” Richeson said.

After months of searching, Richeson fell for the old Hotline Surf Shop building at the corner of 17th Street and Baltic Avenue. The Virginia Beach Economic Development Authority awarded the distillery an Economic Development Investment Program grant in the amount of $15, 000 based on a capital investment of $1.2 million in the property and improvements.

Setting up shop in the ViBe District also makes CBD eligible for special tax exemptions, rebates and fee reimbursements.

At about 3½ blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, CBD won’t necessarily be at the center of the tourist universe, but for Richeson, it sure beats life in a Lynnhaven industrial park.

“ViBe district is massive for us, ” Richeson said. “There are some benefits financially, but it’s great having a bunch of local artists down here creating an atmosphere where people want to come check things out.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with a Lynnhaven industrial park. But for the 46-year-old owner, it was time for a change.

“Being down here at the resort area gives us a great opportunity to present the brand, promote the product and allow more people to come see what we’re doing, ” Richeson said. “And to be able to take a 10-minute break and check out the beach? That’s not a bad way to live life.”

Even when he isn’t free to step outside, there’s plenty of sunshine inside. The building’s massive windows flood the distillery’s production space with natural light. Each piece of equipment glistens like a polished metal sculpture, helping the setup feel more like a modern art museum than a factory floor.

For the distillery illiterate, it can be a bit overwhelming. The production area features a squadron of imposing steel fermenters, a towering still, a huge boiler, a reactor tank and a storage tank. There are dozens of pipes and tubes and valves and knobs that all make sense to the man at the controls.

It’s like an enormous musical instrument, or better yet, an orchestra of precision manufacturing equipment. Richeson is the maestro, conducting a culinary and chemical symphony of actions and reactions. But instead of an opus, the end result is a really killer martini.

“When I started it, I was passionate about making something that was really good, ” he said. “It was a lot of trial and error and research. Since then, it’s really become art for me.”

Why spirits?

“Vodka was what I liked and what I knew, ” he said.

More than a decade ago, Richeson literally stepped off the assembly line to take his chances as an artisan distiller. Amid a career in industrial automation, Richeson left to break out on his own.

He earned quick affirmation that he made the right choice after one of his first batches of Spirits of the Blue Ridge Vodka won a gold medal at the International Tastings Institute.

“When I first started out, I was obsessed with it being smooth, ” Richeson said. “As I developed, I became much more interested in the flavor. Now I’m always working on that balance between smoothness and flavor.”

After distilling more than 100 batches of various vodkas and rums, Richeson said that he’s developed an advanced sense of smell and taste. He can speak with authority about the technical process, casually dropping phrases such as “stacking the column in reflux mode to get out all the nasties.” And he’s obsessed with smoothness.

“I love to create, and every batch we make is a little bit different, ” Richeson said.

One batch that will definitely be different is CBD’s new Ghost Pepper Vodka – a spicy spirit that Richeson suggests has the power to transform an ordinary Bloody Mary into “a religious experience.”

In 2007, the Guinness Book of World Records rated ghost peppers the hottest on the planet, tipping the scales at more than 1, 000, 000 Scoville heat units (habaneros top out around 350, 000). The key ingredient in CBD’s Ghost Pepper Vodka is a sinister-looking, salsa-like concentrate.

Richeson opened the Mason jar and offered a whiff, with a serious warning not to breathe too deeply.

It definitely had a kick.

Richeson figured that things could get interesting once they go into full-scale production on the eye-watering concoction.

Source: pilotonline.com
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