Mt. Defiance Cidery & Distillery was the first distillery in the region to start producing absinthe in 2015. More recently, the Middleburg maker has branched into another product not typically made nearby: agave spirits. (Think tequila—though it can’t be called tequila unless it’s made in Mexico.)
Distiller Peter Ahlf says it started as a side project for Leesburg restaurant Cocina on Market. The Mexican spot had previously worked with Catoctin Creek distillery on a house spirit for margaritas, but Catoctin wasn’t able to continue giving attention to such a small batch project and passed the baton to Mt. Defiance about two years ago. Flash forward, and Mt. Defiance is now producing four different agave spirits that are distributed throughout the region. As far as Ahlf is aware, he’s the only agave spirit producer in Virginia.
“It is a tough thing to get to ferment well… There’s a technical challenge that I enjoy in making it,” Ahlf says. “And we also like to make things that a hundred other people aren’t making. What can you say about the next hand-crafted bourbon?”
Ahlf notes that it’s not so practical for American distilleries to use the agave fruit (unless, maybe, they’re located near the border), so his spirits are made from syrups imported from Mexico. For that reason, “I’m not trying to replicate tequila. I’m not trying to replicate mezcal, because you’re starting with a different form of the plant,” he explains.
Mt. Defiance started with two blanco spirits: one made from blue weber agave syrup and another made from a wide variety of agave plants, which are sourced through a Mexican government collective that buys up surplus pinas (the heart of the plant used to make tequila) from small farmers. Over the past couple weeks, the distillery started selling its first anejo, which is aged for at least a year and has notes of lemon, minerals, sugarcane rum, and wood. A reposado, aged two-to-six months, was just bottled this week. Going forward, the distillery plans to play around with different types of barrels, new and used, for aging.
In total, Mt. Defiance is putting out about 200 to 300 bottles of agave spirits a month—more than any other spirit it makes. You can find bottles at the Middleburg distillery, online, and at various retail locations, including Cordial at the Wharf in DC.
“The anjeo that I make, it’s one of my favorite aged spirits that I personally have made,” says Ahlf, who also produces rum, whiskey, absinthe, and liqueurs. “It’s super smooth, super tasty. It has an incredible sweetness to it.”