On November 6, 2021, over 800 eager guests spilled out across the rolling and pristinely manicured Great Lawn at the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach to take part in the Third Annual Virginia Bourbon Invitational. Many delicious spirits from across the Commonwealth were present, as well as some that were distilled only a few dozen yards from the ocean-facing lawn where tents and tablecloths fluttered in the brisk sea breeze. This event, which took a hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was orchestrated by Tarnished Truth Distilling, America’s first (and to-date only) distillery to operate within a hotel.
With commemorative engraved Glencairn® glasses in-hand, guests strolled the historic grounds, sampling spirits from eighteen distilleries (fifteen from Virginia and three from Kentucky) and partaking in handcrafted small plates from six different Virginia Beach dining establishments. Cigar vendors, fire pits, Adirondack chairs, and water stations interspersed the distillery tasting tents, while a live band belted out ‘80s hits on the hotel patio overlooking the festive proceedings.
Many distillers submitted their bourbons to a blind judging conducted by a panel of spirits experts. Caiseal Brewery & Distillery from nearby Hampton, VA took home first place in the friendly competition, lending credence to the notion that great whiskey begins its life as beer. The winner’s circle was rounded out by Manassas-based KO Distilling and Richmond’s Reservoir Distillery, whose spirits placed second and third, respectively. The winners of the blind judging and an additional balloted “people’s choice” competition received commemorative trophies crafted using barrel staves.
Andrew Yancey, co-founder and operator of Tarnished Truth Distilling, could be found directing logistics, fielding questions from vendors, and ensuring that no tents were at risk of flying away during the blustery November afternoon at the seashore. Dressed in a light brown work jacket and sporting a baseball cap, Yancey could be confused with any of the distillers proudly sampling their products that day, but he comported himself with a quiet urgency suggesting just how important the Virginia Bourbon Invitational has become to him, his team, and the Virginia distilling community at-large.
“I think it’s an experience that is unlike most other bourbon events,” observed Yancey. “And that’s what I’m most proud of. People say to me: ‘I have never been to a bourbon or spirit tasting event of this caliber with the food options that you guys have, the spirit availability that you have, and the ambience and setting you offer.’”
In a world where few bourbon events seem able to escape the consonant refrain, “and barbecue,” the Virginia Bourbon Invitational is a noteworthy outlier. Ticket holders old and young were dressed to the nines, and sumptuous small bites were plated, garnished, and served à la minute. The atmosphere was jovial, but not raucous, as if everyone involved was aware that they were participating in a celebratory legacy far older than the amber spirits in their glasses. This mood was due in no small part to the rich history of The Cavalier Hotel.
Gateway to a Different Era
Almost a century ago, in 1927, the Cavalier hotel opened its doors, welcoming vacationers from across the country who traveled by a non-stop passenger train of the same name. The hotel grounds were the end of the line for affluent guests from Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and the rest of the Eastern corridor at a time when bootleggers lurked just a few miles offshore, hawking everything from Barbados rum, to French Cognac, to Canadian rye whisky.
In those early days, patrons with a sporting bent could enjoy playing a round at the hotel’s private golf course, with some holes on the 6,060 yard course modeled after holes from the world’s most iconic Scottish courses. But perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Cavalier Hotel’s heyday is its appeal to hunters. Horse shows and fox hunts were reportedly held on hotel grounds, and sportsmen could also strike out to pursue waterfowl in the diverse coastal bays and wetlands. Once bagged, hunters could bring their game to The Hunt Room, the Cavalier’s subterranean club and dining venue, where it would be prepared and served fresh by chefs.
The hotel and its connected surfside beach club served droves of wealthy patrons through the 1930s before it was surrendered to the US Navy in 1942 to act as a radar training center. This closure marked the beginning of a long, gradual backslide for the original Cavalier Hotel, which never quite recovered from the blow. It reopened again in 1945 and served for a time as a private club in the 1950s and 60s. In 1972, its sister hotel (The Cavalier Oceanfront) opened nearby and the venerable “Cavalier on the Hill” was closed for several years of renovations.
Despite its sporadic ability to operate, the hotel exerted an almost mystical pull on America’s wealthiest and most elite stars, tycoons, and politicians, with notable guests including the likes of F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, and Muhammad Ali. In June of 1929, Adolph Coors (founder of the famous brewing company) allegedly committed suicide by jumping from a sixth floor window. Ten US presidents visited The Cavalier, from Calvin Coolidge to Jimmy Carter. But by far the most intriguing presidential visit can be described with a Clue-esque snapshot: Richard Nixon in the Hunt Room with a fire poker.
During the Watergate scandal, Nixon was a guest at the hotel until the FBI swooped in and closed The Cavalier, emptying it of guests. Their investigation seemed to center on the six-foot-tall, seven-foot-wide fireplace in The Hunt Room, as if some important documents had been destroyed there.
“Some people don’t believe it,” said Yancey, “but I have the FBI report. It shows that they closed down the hotel, cleared everyone out, went into The Hunt Room, and took the ashes out of the fireplace.”
A New Lease on Life
The fully restored Hunt Room remains a focal point for both the Cavalier Hotel and Tarnished Truth Distilling, whose fermentation tanks and distilling equipment can now be observed through the bar’s interior windows. In 2012, The Cavalier was put up for auction, and it was revealed that the building suffered from severe structural problems that would require massive renovation. Only one group, comprised of local entrepreneurs, submitted a bid for the property that did not entail demolition. In fact, when they secured the property, they went so far as to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It was at this point when Andrew Yancey knew he had an opportunity on his hands. Not only was the Cavalier Hotel a cherished part of his childhood (he fondly recalls taking swimming lessons at the hotel pool and climbing up to the bell tower with friends), but he had been cultivating a love for bourbon and working as the Assistant Economic Development Director for the city of Norfolk. He derived great fulfilment from bringing new business opportunities to coastal Virginia, but also craved the chance to build something with his own hands. At a moment when the historic property seemed poised for a rebound, he didn’t hesitate, and Tarnished Truth Distilling was born.
The below ground distillery space was built with an eye toward both industrial efficiency and guest engagement.
“I wanted to look at the distillery space from a guest perspective,” he said. “How would the tours flow through? How could a guest sit in The Hunt Room and view the different pieces of equipment? How could they really get integrated into the tour so that they’re not just looking up at a bunch of tanks, but instead looking down at them, smelling the aromas that come out of the fermenter, and seeing each piece of equipment labeled so they can understand what it does?”
Distilling the Future
To design the distillery space and develop the first whiskeys that Tarnished Truth would produce, Yancey turned to Larry Ebersold, legendary former head distiller at the Seagram Company (now MGP). With over forty years of experience making bourbon and rye whiskey at massive scale, Ebersold’s sharp eye for process-based improvement (and keen nose for faulty fermentations) was instrumental in getting the distillery off the ground. Equally important, it turns out, was his instruction to Yancey to hire a chemist to oversee the day-to-day distilling operations.
Enter Distiller Justin Boyle. Yancey found him behind the stick at one of Virginia Beach’s best whiskey bars. Densely bearded, tall, and square of frame, Boyle would cut an imposing figure if his warmth and bookish curiosity didn’t immediately overwhelm him the moment someone mentions a mash bill, tasting note, or barrel finishing technique. He personally developed Tarnished Truth’s award winning Fourth Handle Gin. Named after a unique plumbing feature that allowed guests at the original Cavalier Hotel to pump seawater directly into their tubs, this “New American” style gin celebrates its proximity to the ocean with seaside-friendly flavors like cucumber, rose, and grapefruit, alongside juniper and other citrus and spice botanicals.
Despite the brand’s success with unaged and botanical spirits, sweet offerings like their Old Cavalier Bourbon Cream Liqueur, and even a line of canned RTD sippers called “Coastal Cocktails,” whiskey is the beating heart at the core of Tarnished Truth Distilling. They currently offer an in-house high-rye bourbon whiskey based closely on the MGP recipe taught by Ebersold, and they have also dabbled in sourcing as evidenced by their Old Cavalier Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which carries an impressive 11-year age statement.
Yancey remains open and flexible regarding future sourcing initiatives and limited edition barrel finishing projects. He has voiced the desire to continue expanding in-house barrel aging while acknowledging the reality of limited cooperage resources and fickle supply chains. One thing he makes abundantly clear is that Tarnished Truth will continue to release excellent aged spirits and will compromise neither on quality, nor transparency.
Early in 2022, the brand plans to release its highly anticipated wheated bourbon, with a completely original mash bill that represents a lighter, but still classic look at “America’s Spirit.” The Virginia Bourbon Invitational is also slated to make its return on November 5th, 2022, and as usual the event is expected to sell out. Spirits enthusiasts are encouraged to visit VirginiaBourbonInvitational.com to learn more about the event. More details about Tarnished Truth Distilling can be found on their company website and their affiliated social media accounts.