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Thursday, July 7, 2016

MOVERS and SHAKERS: Christine Blair Riggleman CEO, Head Distiller & Co-Owner of Silverback Distillery Our Coverage Sponsored by Stribling and Associates

Christine Riggleman

For over 30 years, Stribling and Associates has represented high-end residential real estate, specializing in the sale and rental of townhouses, condos, co-ops, and lofts throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, and around the globe. Stribling has more than 200 professional brokers who use their respected expertise to provide personalized service to buyers and sellers at all price levels. A separate division, Stribling Private Brokerage, discreetly markets properties over $5 million, and commands a significant market share in this rarified sector of residential real estate. Stribling is the exclusive New York City affiliate of Savills, a leading global real estate advisor with over 200 office in 48 countries. 

Whom You Know Congratulates their new President, Elizabeth Ann Stribling-Kivlan:

Christine Blair Riggleman is CEO, Head Distiller and Co-Owner of Silverback Distillery, a grain to glass craft distillery located in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Afton, Virginia. Christine is a member of The Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD), has successfully apprenticed as a distiller in Washington State and has been the creative force behind Silverback Distillery since April 2013, when she and her husband, Denver Riggleman, structured the company. 

Christine’s idea for a distillery germinated while visiting Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William, Scotland in the summer of 2012. Her love of cooking, evidenced by her acceptance to Le Cordon Bleu earlier in life (although she could not attend based on her husband’s military service), and her constant search for the perfect recipes, triggered her curiosity while touring the Ben Nevis with the master distiller. She peppered the distiller with questions on mash recipes, process, grains and taste profiles long after the normal tour concluded. Her husband’s recent sale of his Department of Defense contracting company allowed her the opportunity to begin her own career in something she desired. Christine had suspended her college education and left her employment as a Facilitator of the Space Station Freedom project with Barrios Technology in 1992 to accompany her husband as he entered the United Stated Air Force. His subsequent deployments and assignments limited Christine’s ability to finish her university education. She raised three beautiful daughters and was CEO of the household for over twenty years, organizing, planning, scheduling and running the household P&L; with her greatest talent being that of a wonderful, creative cook. The Master Distiller’s answers made sense to Christine, her decades of studying the finer points of food preparation giving her a perspective usually reserved for trained chefs. Christine told her husband, at Ben Nevis, that she wanted to be a Distiller. Her husband said, “Yes.” 

Christine has other talents as well. She appreciates and can hold high proof spirits better than most men. She has a refined eye for design, evident in that the bottle design ideas, images and presentation are mostly hers, with expert assistance from designer Allan Guy, a man she appreciated and loved and who died unexpectedly last year. She named the distillery, Silverback, the nickname given her husband by the family. As Denver wrote the romance copy and created the bottle names and slogans, Christine wrapped the images and branding around the Silverback and various simians, evoking an irreverent, yet classy, image. The winter wheat vodka is named, “Beringei”, the scientific name for gorilla. Strange Monkey gin is named that because the gin is strange yet wonderful---and everyone needs a little strange. Blackback gorillas are young, strong and not completely mature, so “Blackback” bourbon, rye whiskey and grain spirit are all under 10 years old. Silverback bourbon and rye whiskey will all be aged over 10 years. Silverbacks are older and gentle, unless provoked. 

Christine hates gin. Christine loves whiskey. It’s these two forces that helped shape her mash bills for the whiskies and her botanical mix for the gin. Christine lessened the juniper load in her gin, and during research and development, slowly increased the citrus until she reached a flavor profile she liked. It worked. Strange Monkey Gin has become the standard bearer for Silverback. Her disposition does not allow for shortcuts. Silverback Distillery is a true, craft distillery. Christine insists on using locally sourced grains, exact and repeatable protocols and environmentally friendly manufacturing. Silverback is the first distillery in the United States to use geothermal technology for chilling of whiskies and clear spirits. Her vision succeeded. The proof in the pudding, or whiskey mash rather, is Silverback’s eight international awards since early 2015. 

Christine does not distill for awards or acclaim. She distills for the simple joy of seeing the satisfied smiles and warm glows of lucky souls sipping on her craft spirits. A talented, former housewife who ran the family to a driven professional CEO who started a multi-million dollar family-run distillery, mash to spirit, she accomplished her initial goals with hard work, sacrifice and an eye towards the future. The doors to Silverback have only been opened for 21 months. The future is so bright she has to look at sun through her rye whiskey bottles. Christine won’t be completely satisfied until she has 10-year bourbon and rye whiskies…and her very own Irish whiskey, already in development, which Peachy Deegan personally cannot wait for!  We are so thrilled to present Christine Riggleman as our latest Mover and Shaker.  Peachy Deegan interviewed Christine for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: How do you think your life would be different had you attended Le Cordon Bleu? 
Christine Riggleman: 
I honestly have not given much thought to it, except to now that I believe I would have succeeded. Once a window closes on an opportunity I press forward and try not to look back. 

Would you still want to attend Le Cordon Bleu or finish college? 
No, I have filled that need in my life. I am still cooking, but now I am cooking “hooch.” Customers have given me the nickname “Hooch Mama.” A long time ago, I did attempt to put myself through community college, studying business and accounting. I enrolled in every business class that I could in high school. My husband and I married at 19 years old. Marrying at such a young age meant we were completely on our own. I stopped attending college to go into the work force full-time so that we could concentrate on his degree, by him enlisting in the military and then attempting to gain scholarships. It took us 6 long years for him to complete his college education, but he graduated from a prestigious university (#1 in his ROTC class) after winning a military scholarship based on his academics and Air Force accolades. My job was to hold down the fort and run the household during his multiple deployments. It wasn’t easy for either of us, but we only had each other. 

Better yet, do you think Le Cordon Bleu would take you on as a distilling professor and give you an honorary degree? 
That would be an amazing opportunity…as well as very humbling to receive. If something like that happened, well… might be quite emotional. 

What does being an American mean to you?
A sense of pride. A knowledge that if you are willing to put in the time and work hard that you can succeed in life despite your starting line. My husband and I started with nothing. You can achieve your dreams, you can pursue your passions and you can pass down a legacy. No excuse, work hard and navigate through and around challenges. 

Please tell us how patriotism has impacted your life.
I am extremely proud to say my husband served in the United States Air Force. I feel honored and proud that he served our country and continues to do so in the Department of Defense Industry. After 9/11, my husband’s squadron was one of the first squadrons to respond and retaliate on behalf of the United States of America. Being a military family, all of our children were born in different states. We did not have the luxury of having family living close to us or a safety net. All we had were military friends and families to lean on. It creates a special bond and deep friendship. It forces you as an individual to stand alone, to face whatever comes your way. We did not have cell phones, skype, or even a reliable computer to be able to communicate with each other during his time of service. Most of the time I never knew what country he was in. Living through the experiences we had in the military gives me a sense of pride knowing that my husband, along with the support of myself and our children, contributed to the safety of this great country. When the flag is raised and the anthem is played I always place my hand over my heart and stand tall and proud--for all that are serving, have served and all that have fallen. 

Will you be coming out with a recipe book for cocktails?
At the moment no…but possibly in the future and I would include food recipes incorporating Silverback Distillery spirits. 

What are your favorite ways to monkey around?
Going on long walks on our property, taking the dogs for a swim, sipping on our spirits on the back porch watching he river flow by with an occasional cigar or going to the movies. I love the movies. You can escape from your day for a few hours. Other ways I monkey around can’t be put in print. 

We are dying to try your Irish whisky someday. Please comment on its evolution.
I just purchased the grains and have developed my recipe or “mash bill” as distillers call it. I fell in love with Irish whiskey after my daughter’s boyfriend, Danny, had purchased a bottle of Green Spot Irish Whiskey for me on a trip to Ireland. I think my protocol is special and the evolution of the Irish whiskey will be an exciting thing for all of us. 

Are you of Irish ancestry and if so, where is your family from in Ireland and have you visited the mother country?
I have strong Scottish, English and Irish background. I had DNA testing done on my brother (more accurate results for males) and we tested so high for Irish that I’m considered a native. My mother’s family was Irish. My mother’s father passed away before she could meet him, so I am not sure what part of Ireland they were from. I’m working on that. His last name was Curtin. One day when I have time I would love to find out what town they were from.

Some people spell whiskey and others spell whisky. Please comment on this and why do you prefer whiskey?
There is an easy trick that some of the leading producers go by. If the country you purchased it in has an “e” in it then you generally have an “e” in Whiskey (ex: Ireland, United States). If the country doesn’t have an “e” then it’s usually spelled Whisky (ex: Scotland, Japan, and Canada).

Please tell us about IBD and how one would join.
IBD stands for Institute of Brewing and Distilling. Their mission statement is “the advancement of education and professional development in the science and technologies of brewing, distilling and related industries.”  To be inducted as a member one has to be nominated and sponsored by another member. IBD holds workshops in different countries as well as online development. IBD members have a wealth of knowledge and I’m honored to be a part of it.

What should the world know about your husband Denver that they might not know yet? 
Denver is a bundle of energy. I wish we could bottle his intensity. His drive on life is powerful and impressive. His dedication to his family is humbling. He is not afraid to work harder and longer to achieve his goals. He is not waiting for anyone to hand him anything. He is willing to earn it and he has. It was the success of his business that enabled us to start Silverback Distillery so that I could start pursuing my goals and dreams. We are building this together as a family. 

What should the world know about each of your daughters? 
My daughters are my life. They are each so strong and driven. Lauren is a recent graduate from the University of Virginia. She is our General Manager and my apprentice distiller. She will be attending Heriot Watt University in Scotland studying Fermentation and Distillation to help further our production. Abby, my 2nd daughter, graduated from James Madison University from the School of Media Arts and Design. She will be attending the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to complete her M.A in film-making. Lilly, my youngest, is an artist. She loves to sing and perform locally and has a love for physics. She is attending James Madison University and her major is undecided at this time. The girls have lived all over the country. We have had to uproot them from their friends, sports teams and homes too many times to count. They always have had an amazing outlook on life and the changes that have come along with it.

What have been the smartest business decisions you’ve made as a distiller? 
Trusting my instincts. Weather it’s on the mash bill (recipe) or how the still is operating I listen to my instincts. It has helped tremendously. Oh, and my husband is pretty good at running a business, so he makes a pretty good business partner! We knew we had to combine a fantastic product with memorable and unique branding. I believe that producing a quality craft, local spirit but branding it with international growth in mind was also a sound decision. There are so many aspects to this business that the challenges never stop.

What mistakes have you made as a distiller? 
 Well, that’s quite a list! Learning from scratch was much more insane than we initially thought. It has literally rained whiskey from the ceiling on our first day distilling (a pipe had not been sealed and the whiskey was condensing in the ceiling space)!  We’ve received grains with differing consistencies initially and had mash blow-outs, fermenter overflow issues and water problems. We’ve made orange gin. The learning curve was straight up…fun sometimes, but mostly holding our heads in our hands and laughing or crying. You haven’t lived until you’re wading through a waterfall of mash…Fun times. 

Do you think you can add a gorilla zoo to the distillery and if so would you? 
That is funny you mentioned that! My husband wanted to apply for a zoo license so he could have a live gorilla. I thought that probably wouldn’t be approved by our county…at the least. So, I secretly contacted a gifted local artist named Mark Poleski who owns Sleepy Hollow Art in Amherst, Virginia. He created a life-sized, chain-saw carved Silverback. We placed him in front of the tasting room so people can stop and safely pose with a Silverback that is completely harmless. Denver was very surprised and happy…but, he still wants a darn gorilla! He will never stop asking, and his crazy as he is, we might do it one day. He just hates putting animals in captivity, so he wants to buy hundreds of acres next to our 50 acres so that the gorilla can have its own “jungle”. 

Will you be designing sunglasses with whiskey rye bottles?
We do have sunglasses that have Strange Monkey Gin on them as well as one that says Silverback Distillery. They also act as beer bottle openers. We will have Rye whiskey sunglasses!

We love that you are the CEO and love women CEOs; please comment on this and how can more women become CEOs? 
Being a CEO comes with great responsibilities. It’s not just a title. You have the weight of the company on your shoulders. You have to make split second decisions as well as long term goals. You have to lead and set a good example. The term wearing many caps is an understatement. You never really take a full day off. You might not be in the office, but decisions still need to be made daily. I do not take the title lightly. I am honored that I own my own company along with my husband and that I am lucky to have my children sharing in the legacy we are building. I love what I am doing. It brings me so much happiness. As my husband would say, it’s not all love, light and lollipops. A short day for me is 8 hours. My normal days run more along the lines of 12-16 hours depending on production days. I am also the Head Distiller so I am in production all week as well. In regards to being a woman CEO: it is tough to worry about my employees, production schedules, grains, bottle shipments, as well as washing the laundry, feeding the dogs and what we want to eat for dinner as a family. When my husband and I are out at an event or just out and about most people always talk to him first and ask him questions regarding the business. I think it’s because the alcohol industry is dominated by men and they assume he is the CEO and distiller. I do love to see their faces when my husband explains to them that I am the head distiller for Silverback as well as the CEO, and that he was CEO of his own Department of Defense Company. I know I am in an industry dominated by men, but it doesn’t bother me. I love what I do. I am good at what I do. I take pride in what I do. I love being able to have the only mother daughter distilling (soon to also be brewing) duo that I know of. 
As to how more women can become CEO’s: I always knew I wanted to own my own company. I was patient and waited until we as a family could financially handle the outlay of costs and I was at a point in my life that my children did not need me as much on a daily basis. They were my first priority. I knew I wouldn’t be able to freely dive into my own business until I knew that they were on to their next phase of life. I never lost sight of my ideas and my dreams. I didn’t just wake up one morning and then incorporate my company. Think about something you’re good at then build on those skills. Research the industry you are going into. Apprentice in that industry. Look at the location you are interested in having the business. Go and watch that location for traffic flow, the types of people visiting that area (locals, tourists, industrial, etc.) Make sure your business will complement the area. Add a new depth and layer to what is already offered. Don’t be afraid to work hard for it. 

Before you created your own whiskey which did you like the most and were they blends or were they a certain age?
 I am a huge fan of Green Spot Irish Whiskey that is usually aged 8-9 years. I also love Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, aged 7 years. 

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
My mother, Brenda always encouraged me to work hard and go for your dreams. She always has been there to give me pep talks and has supported me whenever I need it. I am also not shy when it comes to working. My father, mother and brothers all worked one to two jobs at a time to make ends meet. You won’t achieve anything by just talking about it you have to actually do the work.

What are you proudest of and why?
My children. They make me so happy and I am so proud of the young ladies they are. They are each so different and at the same time they all have backbones of steel. Luckily not literally like mine. I am so grateful I have them. 

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
I would love to distill with other distillers and learn as much as I can about my craft. Someone called me a master distiller and I told them I am the Head Distiller at Silverback, but I am not a master distiller. Not yet at least. I want to visit other distilleries and distill with them and learn as much as I can. I don’t feel working at just my distillery has earned me the title of Master Distiller. That is something I don’t take lightly. That title should be earned or given to you by your peers not just because you own a still. 

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?
I was ranked as one of the top 13 gin distillers in the country by and Zester Daily. Our products have won 8 international awards in less than two years. 
 Our Awards: 

Beringei Vodka has won:
Gold Medal 2016 SIP AWARDS, Silver Medal 2015 NY World Spirits Competition, Bronze Medal Packaging 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Bronze Medal 2015 World Spirit of the Americas

Strange Monkey Gin Awards: Double Gold 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Bronze Medal 2015 NY World Spirits Competition, Bronze Medal 2016 World Spirits Competition, Bronze Medal 2016 SIP Awards. 

What one word best describes you and why?
Resilient. To be a mom, military spouse, business owner, have multiple back surgeries, having skin cancer when I was 29, losing loved ones. I always had to stand strong. I never knew where and when Denver would return from a war zone. We joke that because of my back surgeries I actually have metal in my spine and we joke I’m also the Silverback. I have had to carry so much on my shoulders and still keep pressing forward, always. I’ve always had to adapt to different situations.

What do you take your sense of identity from?
I am happy with the person I am. I am a grounded person. I grew up with a loving father, mother and two brothers. I treat people with kindness first then if they do not deserve it then I give them something else back. I stand up for what I believe in. My family is my core. 

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? 
 I cannot pick a favorite honestly. New York has so much to offer and so much to do. I love visiting there. I always find new things to do each time we go. From the shows and theaters, to shopping (I do have 3 daughters). 
 And Virginia? 
Afton, Virginia where we live. It has everything you could want. The Blue Ridge Mountains, rivers, beautiful trees, the Appalachian Trail, Sky Line Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, mountains. We are close to Charlottesville and major Universities. I tell everyone if you are bored here it is because you choose to be. 

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan? And Virginia? 
It was a shop that had no name. My daughter Abby did dancing and acting and we would go to auditions in NY. After an audition someone recommended we go to this dress store. They only gave us a street name and said it was on the left hand side. Believe it or not we found it. The dress racks were packed with dresses and were stacked so close together you couldn’t fit down an aisle, well I couldn’t. Luckily Abby is tiny so she just dove right in and would pass me along a dress or two for her to try on. I couldn’t even see her once she went down an isle it was so packed. I could only see her hand as she passed another dress out to me. They were amazing designer dresses that had a small flaw or two we could barely find. She found the perfect dress and our mission was accomplished. It was a unique experience for us, but we had so much fun. In Virginia I would say Oil and Vinegar in Barracks Road Shopping center in Charlottesville, Virginia. I am in love with their truffle oil. I use it to make homemade popcorn. 

If you could hire anybody who would it be and why?
Jason Momoa. I need assistance with carrying my grains and barrels because of my bad back. I think he could help with that easily. As well as lift our spirits up.

What is your favorite drink?
 It’s a drink we make here. It’s a smoked old fashion with our Blackback Rye “Lucky 13”. We have a Facebook post showing how to make it. It involves a blow torch and our product. What more could a woman ask for? 

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party? 
I honestly have not had the time to go to that many. I’ve been working too much.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan? And Virginia? 
 It has been a few years since we have been, but every place we tried was great in Manhattan. In Virginia I would have to say Fardowners Restaurant in Crozet, Virginia. Great food, great atmosphere, great local musicians. 

What is your favorite Manhattan book or favorite character in Manhattan literature? And Virginia? 
I honestly mostly read distilling and fermenting books for the last several years. I don’t have much free time to read as much as I would like. I do love curling up with a good book with my dogs and a nice fire going. 

Who would you like to be for a day and why?
I don’t want to be anyone else. I am perfectly content just being me.

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why? And Virginia? 
A scholarship for mothers trying to re-enter the work force and further their skill set (the same in both states). 

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience? And Virginia?
Driving into the heart of New York. I’m stubborn and pig headed as my family likes to call it. Every time we needed to go into the city for an audition we would drive right in. No subway, no train. Me against the taxi drivers. I think they were more scared of me, a woman with a large SUV with out of state plates than I was of them. I pretended I was on a driving course and went for it. As to Virginia I used to dance. I loved to dance and compete. I can’t choose one experience because I had so many. But, my back has seen better years so I cannot move as freely as I would like. 

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else? And Virginia?
 I love going to a show in New York. In Virginia I love listening to the local bands while sitting at one of our favorite wineries. 

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why? 
My father. He passed away and I miss hearing his voice.

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience? And Virginia?
We were able to see Phantom of the Opera on one of our visits. It was amazing. In Virginia, my friend and my graphic designer Allan Guy had an amazing art show hosted by King Family Winery in Crozet, Virginia. Unfortunately Allan passed away last summer.

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world?
Growing up we did not have a lot of extra spending money. So it has never been about how much money I could give to someone or something it has always been about how much kindness I could give them. I always try to be aware if someone looks like they are having a bad day I try to lift their spirits or try to do something that will help them. 

What do you think is most underrated and overrated in Manhattan? And Virginia?
 I’m honestly easy to please. I couldn’t pick on that one.

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite WhomYouKnow​.com​ column and what do you like about it?
Brilliant Business People. I love to read their history and how their business plan is working. 

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
 That my distaste for gin is what got us to the current recipe for our Strange Monkey Gin. No matter how many different gins I tried I did not enjoy any of them. So I made the flavor profile something that I felt would please old school gin drinkers as well as what I call our “Strange Monkey Gin Converters.” The customers that we challenged to give it a try and now it’s all they will drink. 
Also, my husband and I are actively trying to change the laws that govern distilleries in the state of Virginia. We literally have laws from prohibition. We are in a controlled state and being in a controlled state we are limited growth potential. In the state of Virginia a cidery, brewery or a winery are allowed a better set of laws than distilleries. Allowing them profit margins that would be a game changer for us. For distilleries the laws are not equal. I lose sleep over this. We were born and raised in Virginia, but is difficult to prosper with the current laws. We are actually considering moving our entire operation to the state of New York or Colorado. The distillery laws they have passed recently are very beneficial to growth. We do not want to move our entire operation, but we are willing to do so if needed. 

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? 

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