Copper and Oak Craft Spirits only has been open since October 2017, but it is quickly becoming the most talked about distillery in Hampton Roads. Located in the Olde Towne section of Portsmouth, the distillery already has a reputation for changing minds and palates on what gin, whiskey, and moonshine should taste like.

Copper and Oak Craft Spirits Owner Skyer Pittman
Copper and Oak Craft Spirits Owner Skyer Pittman

Church and farmhouse windows adorn the space, the penny laden floor of the restroom was laid by hand by owner Skyler Pittman and his friends, and the attention to detail is a theme that continues into the spirits. Not only is the distilling process done by hand, even each label is put on by hand and numbered. Pittman commented, “It’s an art form for us; we take pride in being involved with the product in every step of the process. It helps with quality control as well.”

Juniper berries used in making spirits at Copper and Oak Craft Spirits in Olde Towne, Portsmouth, Va.
Juniper berries used in making spirits at Copper and Oak Craft Spirits in Olde Towne, Portsmouth, Va.

In addition, Copper and Oak tries to use as many local ingredients as possible. “Everything is within a 50 mile radius; Virginia has good corn which makes for good whiskey-whiskey actually started in Virginia, and local grains give a unique flavor due to the soil and climate,” said Pittman.

That unique flavor is helping to convert those who typically do not enjoy the taste of gin into ardent followers of the spirits made by Copper and Oak. In fact, Pittman hated gin when he started, and created a gin that he would like; he describes it as “gin for bourbon drinkers, and we put our spin on it.”

Copper and Oak Tasting Room Manager Vanessa Nichelson
Copper and Oak Tasting Room Manager Vanessa Nichelson

That “spin” is what allows Bar Manager Vanessa Nichelson to be creative and to introduce unexpected flavors to patrons. “I try to shoot for a combination of pretty and good taste...artful and fun,” says Nichelson. She uses a base of fruits and herbs that are seasonal, including sugared cranberries and rosemary, for instance, and since she makes her own simple syrup, she’s able to control the taste of the drinks even further. According to Nichelson, she’s converted many people who now enjoy gin. This is perhaps due to the combination of flavors, the smoothness of the gin, and the mix of creative ingredients used.

Nichelson also tries to keep the elements that are added to the spirits to make cocktails local as well; in fact, many of the ingredients come from the Olde Towne Portsmouth Market located just down the street. The drink menu rotation is based on the time of the year, and Pittman is often one of the tasters who determine whether or not a drink will be added to the menu.

Copper and Oak Craft Spirits' Winter Dreamsicle Cocktail
Copper and Oak Craft Spirits' Winter Dreamsicle Cocktail

The location of Copper and Oak also has been a positive thing for Pittman. "Everyone is happy that we’re here. There have been really good reviews. There’s a lot of word of mouth, and we are very active on social media. The community has been really helpful since we’ve moved in.”

In contrast to the number of breweries in the area, Copper and Oak, Dead Reckoning Distilleries and the Chesapeake Bay Distillery are the only spirit tasting rooms currently open. Ironclad will be opening shortly. At this rate, Hampton Roads seems to be poised to become a spirits destination, and Copper and Oak is at the forefront of bringing whiskey back to where it all originated, right here in Virginia.

ABOUT SOUTHERN GRIT MAGAZINE: Southern Grit Magazine is a food publication based in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia and aims to open an honest dialogue about food in the region. Each issue is themed, and highlights different food-related issues within that theme. Southern Grit features recipes and reviews as well as more creative content spinning off each theme.