Since 2014, Belle Isle Moonshine has worked to establish itself as the antithesis to the Carolina ditch water you were served in a field at your cousin’s wedding.
Belle Isle is the palatable, reasonably proofed moonshine that can seamlessly stand in for your favorite clear liquor. It won’t make a car run, and you won’t pinch your nose whilst sipping – it’s the gentleman’s ’shine, ideal as the base for a poolside cocktail or a rocky river crawl.
Between November 2020 and July 2021, Belle Isle released a half-dozen new products to the market, including four infusion bottles and two canned cocktails. And the Richmond-born company shows no signs of slowing down.
“Unlike previous tactics of taking moonshine and looking at how it can be a replacement for vodka, our strategy this year is to evolve into other areas in the spirit space,” says Belle Isle’s director of marketing, Brandon Day.
In a 2015 Style feature on Richmond-based distilleries, Belle Isle co-founder Vince Riggi explained that while initially he and his business partners had their eyes on bourbon, they quickly realized that that spirit was too cost-prohibitive.
Forgoing the brown water route, Riggi and his partners instead explored the possibility of producing unaged whiskey, also referred to as white whiskey, white lightning, white dog and moonshine, among other monikers.
Using both the allure of historic ties – soldiers distilled the hard stuff in copper kettles on the small island in the middle of the James during the Civil War – and premium 100% organic corn, Belle Isle positioned itself as the city’s newest niche distillery.
“Our goal at Belle Isle has always been: How can we make enjoying a delicious cocktail easier?” Riggi says. Five years ago, procuring an ABC license to start a distillery took about a year and a half. Today, Belle Isle’s line of bottled moonshine and canned cocktails is available for delivery in 40 states.
“A lot of our innovation today is based on the regulatory changes that have occurred with Virginia ABC,” Riggi says. “The ability to sell online direct to consumer allowed us to explore and test new flavors at a more rapid pace.”
This direct-to-consumer platform has been a boon for both Belle Isle and the booze hounds who love it. Starting in 2020, Belle Isle has been able to ship all its bottles and canned cocktails out of state, which means if you live in New York, “You go to the site, point, click and order just as easily as in Virginia,” Riggi says.
In just nine months, Belle Isle has given us Pineapple Coconut, Strawberry Matcha, Lemon Lavender and Peppermint Patty infusions. The releases are, naturally, tied to the seasons. But the thought process that goes into producing and marketing these labels is far more nuanced than, “It’s hot, let’s do tropical!”
After five years at Belle Isle, “My role has sort of evolved,” says Day, the brains behind many of the company’s original cocktail recipes. “Instead of taking the final product and marketing that, it starts at the inception of the idea – ‘What is the product? How will it solve an issue for the consumer?’”
For instance, Day says he started thinking early on that the herbal, floral, lighter Lemon Lavender could serve as a great gin substitute. “I’m a big fan of gin,” Day says, “but this is a little easier to drink and mix. Before we even finalized that recipe I was already thinking about ideas for cocktails, simple takes on a gin and tonic or French 75.”
“If objectively the fans respond to it, the consumers respond to it, then it graduates to the next level of increased production and expanding distribution,” Riggi says of the new Belle Isle infusions. Eventually, if the product “reaches certain metrics,” you’ll be able to find your favorite infusion at your neighborhood ABC store.
Belle Isle fans have certainly been responding to one product in particular – the company’s line of canned cocktails, first released in 2019. It now includes six flavors.
This April Belle Isle released, back-to-back, the new Honey Habanero Lemonade and the Transfusion cocktail.
The Transfusion can – inspired by “golf’s greatest cocktail” – is a bit different from the rest of the company’s canned goods. Instead of blending an original Belle Isle infusion flavor with a “burst of bubbles,” the Transfusion is made with Belle Isle ’shine, Concord grape, real ginger, fresh lime and seltzer. Described as the brand’s “first true cocktail,” the Transfusion boasts a slightly more alcohol – 7% versus 5% – than its canned counterparts.
“We stick to the truest form of ingredient,” Day says. “We are working with a guarantee that we will always maintain a certain level of quality as pure as possible and tasty as possible. If it needs artificial flavors, then it won’t come from us.”
Corona, Bud Light, Truly, White Claw, Bon V!V, Michelob Ultra, High Noon – the number of available hard seltzers on the market continues to grow. When asked whether he’s concerned about competing with the cloyingly sweet behemoths on every shelf, Riggi says it’s a moot point. They’re not looking to edge out White Claw: “We looked at canned cocktails as another way to engage with consumers through a different channel, to create additional Belle Isle fans,” Riggi says.
More market research would need to be done to create the proper Venn diagram of which customers prefer icy cans, which prefer multi-ingredient cocktails and which are proponents of both. But chances are good that at least some seltzer devotees will spot the Belle Isle brand on their next visit to the ABC store and snag a bottle of an original infusion.
Get a head start on your Labor Day libations by ordering from Belle Isle directly at order.belleislecraftspirits.com.
- Joey Wharton
- Belle Isle Moonshine’s Pineapple Coconut infusion.
Easy Belle Isle cocktails to make at home courtesy of the distillery:
Pineapple Coconut Daiquiri
2 ounces of pineapple coconut
1 ounce of lime juice
½ ounce simple or demerara syrup
Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice, then shake until chilled.
Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with a lime wheel.
Islands in the Stream
2 ounces Belle Isle Honey Habanero
1 ounce lime juice
¾ ounce strawberry puree
Add all ingredients to mixing tin with ice; shake and double strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.
Belle Isle cocktails to try out on the town:
Laura Lee’s Palermo
Belle Isle Ruby Red, mezcal, licor 43, grapefruit, lime, Sprite
Osaka Violet Isle
Belle Isle Lemon Lavender with Lemon, rosemary-infused simple syrup, Blanc Vermouth, Creme de Violet
PBR Mango Tango
Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit, grapefruit juice, orange juice and mango syrup