Tarnished Truth, the distillery which resides in the basement of the astonishing Cavalier Hotel.
Monday 13 April 2020
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I’ve seen distilleries all over the world – in stately homes, industrial estates, hillside bothys, evening the occasional suburban garage – but I’ve never seen anything like Tarnished Truth, which resides in the basement of the astonishing Cavalier Hotel, in Virginia Beach. The hotel itself is an opulent red-brick testament to the roaring ‘20s, with stunning views of the Atlantic ocean and a roster of famous guests including F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Muhammad Ali and more presidents than you could shake a stick at. I feel slightly ill at ease until I’ve changed out of my trainers and put some proper shoes on. Not quite Jay Gatsby, but I’ll pass.
Tarnished Truth has its home just beside the hotel’s famous Hunting Room, a luxurious and dramatic space, dripping with leather, dark wood and in-your-face taxidermy. Legend has it that ex-president Richard Nixon attempted to burn incriminating documents in this room’s yawning open fire before he was thwarted by the FBI. The veracity of this story though, like so much of the hotel’s sometimes scandalous history, is shrouded in doubt.
It’s this spirit of salacious hearsay that inspired Tarnished Truth’s founder, Andrew Yancey, to give the distillery its unusual name.
“You have all these stories swirling around about speakeasies here during prohibition, around President Nixon, around Al Capone, around celebrity suicides… Some are true, some we’re not so sure, but they’ve taken on a life of their own. And that's where Tarnished Truth comes from. We didn't want to name it just the Cavalier distillery because we wanted our own brand, that still spoke to the history.”
Andrew had wanted to start a distillery pretty much his entire adult life, and was encouraged by his sister who works for Pernod Ricard. Although it was a long and frustrating road – Andrew had to apply to the federal government for special permission to open a distillery in a hotel – he knew at once that it was the right location for him. He also knew, however, that he would need experienced help to do it right.
“My mom's friend contacted me to say she knew a guy who knew something about distilling. It turns out this guy was actually Larry Ebersold, this legendary master distiller with more than 40 years of experience at places like Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark… It just so happened that his wife was working down here on a two-year contract, so he was already flying down here to see her every other week. He loved the unique nature of the project and the venue, so for the next two years I was with him every weekend! It was a huge learning curve for me, but he’s an amazing teacher and it’s the thing I love.”
With this pedigree, it goes without saying that the whiskey itself is outstanding, particularly the High Rye Straight Bourbon, which smells like sweet, maple-soaked pancakes and has Christmas spices and dark fruit on the palate. Even the unaged spirit is deceptively smooth, its oils coating the tongue. It’s a strong recommendation from me.
Andrew also runs the restaurant that now occupies the Hunting Room, and tables are much sought after. I had such trouble deciding what to eat that I just ordered a shrimp starter and then topped up on the bar’s signature old fashioned, in which the liquid is theatrically smoked using char chips from used barrels.
The restaurant offers an up-close view of the distillery itself, which is just as well as this is clearly a distillery that’s designed to be seen. Lined right up against the windows are a beautiful copper still with a long, elegant column and integrated gin basket (Andrew swore never to do a gin, but market demand prevailed) alongside an almost-as-attractive mash tun. The walls are tiled with classic white lozenges and the whole thing seamlessly continues the stylish 1920s vibe; there’s no distilling happening today, but when there is I can only assume Andrew wears a leather apron and grows an ostentatious moustache for the occasion.
Full of shrimp and joie de vivre, I head back upstairs to the cocktail bar, where I’m told there will be entertainment this evening. In his heyday, Frank Sinatra himself performed here, but as he now has other more pressing engagements, we’re instead treated to an excellent tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes from a performer who identifies simply as ‘Frank’. He’s a hit with the well-to-do crowd of ladies, and an excellent distraction for the children who are otherwise enjoying sliding around on the highly polished marble floor. I sleep, dreaming of swing.
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