Rebecca Harris had a background as a chemical engineer when her husband and business partner, Scott, came up with the idea of opening a distillery. Eventually Catoctin Creek was born and the rest is history!
BW: How did you find yourself owning a distillery and distilling whiskey?
RH: Life can take you strange places, for sure. My husband and business partner came up with the idea of starting the distillery as a second career after being in government contracting for many years. My background as a chemical engineer in multiple industries using electrochemistry (plating copper and nickel on plastic computer housings) and polymer chemistry (making contact lenses and polystyrene foam trays) made me comfortable and confident that whatever the job required I could learn. I took on the job of running the production process, and he handles the business side. Although I was not a whiskey drinker much prior to starting in the business, I learned to love exploring different spirits and learning how their flavors are created.
BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early months of distilling whiskey?
RH: I learned just how much physical labor was called for starting up at our level. It was years before we were in a position to hire another production employee to help with the endless cleaning and labor that the job entailed, let alone the kind of equipment that makes a difference in the physicality of the work.
BW: Tell me about your involvement with the STEPUP Foundation and what the Foundation aims to accomplish.
RH: This has been an incredible project of which I am so proud to have been a part of launching. The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA), the trade association for small distilleries, created this separate nonprofit to create meaningful internship opportunities for under-represented folks in the spirits industry. We will give our interns a year-long course in all aspects of the spirits business learned from those who do it. They will work at three different distilleries of different sizes, and a distributor, learning everything from production to sales and marketing, and how to run a tasting room. They will have access to mentors and career coaching. After this year, we believe that each graduate will be well-prepared to contribute in a real way to the industry, whether they work for an established company or choose to launch a venture of their own. We are starting with two interns in 2022, and hope to grow each class to as many as 15 people annually depending on funding. Diageo is our first Cornerstone Partner donor and is making it possible to get this effort underway. We really hope to bring on every single major producer as a partner in this effort, and to create a network of professionals in the industry such that white faces won’t be the predominant ones at industry conferences anymore!
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to become distillers?
RH: When I started in the industry in 2009, there were so few women in the production side of the spirits business. That has been changing, especially for white women. More and more distilleries are giving women roles which they were unable to land before. Right now, the demand for workers in craft distilleries is very high, and the supply low. Especially if you are willing to relocate, opportunity is out there! I would encourage people to connect with STEPUP at stepupinternship.org. We hope to connect all of our under-represented aspirants with skills, a network, and the connections to launch their careers in the spirits industry. Consider joining ACSA – our organization has tremendous live and online educational resources available to members, and can help people make connections to others in the business.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Virginia.
RH: I love exploring the outdoors here in Virginia. Hiking through the Blue Ridge Mountains in the autumn is one of my favorite weekend activities – Sky Meadows State Park is a favorite. I like to go out on the early side, before the trails get crowded. After enjoying the fresh air and views, I like to grab a bite in Marshall at the Red Truck Rural Bakery – their sandwiches, cakes, and pies are so good! There are so many places in our part of northern Virginia that are fun to spend the afternoon – Purcellville has some of my favorite vintage, thrift, and consignment shops, like Nostalgia, right down the street. There are so many great restaurants in the area that whether I’m in the mood for oysters, BBQ, or Thai food, I can find something great nearby where I can have dinner and my favorite whisky to sip on as well.
Photos Courtesy of Catoctin Creek Distillery