When Ivar Aass moved to Charlottesville six years ago, he had one purpose in mind: distill high quality spirits. And, at Spirit Lab Distilling, the distillery he runs with his wife, he does just that. From a bare bones warehouse facility on 6th SE, Aass distills tiny batches of spirits that already have a following not just here in Charlottesville, but beyond. With characteristics of both Scotch and traditional American whiskey, for example, his flagship Single Malt Whiskey forges a new style: American Single Malt. Bottles of it and other creations have earned spots in the bars of acclaimed D.C. restaurants like The Dabney and Rose’s Luxury.
As much as Aass loves distilling, though, he has fallen hard for another crush during his time here: Charlottesville itself. In 2012, Aass and his wife had grown weary of life in New York, and were ready for a change. At the suggestion of a friend, they visited Charlottesville. After just a weekend here, Aass and his wife were smitten. So smitten that they signed a lease two weeks later and have been here ever since. “I am continually blown away by how awesome Charlottesville is,” says Aass, citing a combination of small town benefits with the cultural amenities of a big city. The “coolest part,” Aass says, is how nice everyone is. “It’s kind of easy to be a nice person in Charlottesville,” Aass says.
His latest spirit, then, is a tribute to Charlottesville: a bitter apertivo called Charli, similar to Campari. The idea came from Lampo’s Andrew Cole. Aass says a great aspect of brewing in such small batches in a city like Charlottesville is the opportunity to respond to specific, local demand. Aass enjoys sitting with local bartenders, learning of needs and ideas.
In this case, Aass was at the bar at Lampo one afternoon when Cole suggested creating a local apertivo that would revive the use of crushed cochineal beetles as a coloring agent. For decades, this was how the beloved Italian apertivo Campari got its distinctive red color, before switching to artificial coloring in 2006. Aass loved the idea, and set out to make Charli, his homage to Charlottesville.
Aass started with his own neutral spirit made from wheat malt and sugar. To that, he added botanicals like bitter orange, bergamot peel, and gentian, among others. Some he added during distilling, while others he added to the completed spirit afterwards as a maceration. Determining when to add each, Aass said, was part of the learning process, trial and error. Finally, he added the crushed cochineal beetles.
The result is an apertivo that Aass likes best with nothing but a little soda water and a lemon twist. He also suggests it as a substitute for Campari in cocktails like negronis, and hopes that Charlottesville residents will be proud to invent their own creations using a spirit named for their hometown. In tribute to its inspiration, Charli’s label features a lightning bolt similar to Lampo’s logo, as well as the shape of a road sign, a nod, Aass says, to The Charlottesville 29 (Thank You!). Yes, at The Charlottesville 29 there is no shortage of love for both Charlottesville and negronis.
After much anticipation, Charli is now available. Find it at the distillery itself, or order it through your ABC store. $40.79 / 750mL and $21.99 / 375 mL.