Christine Riggleman, Lauren Riggleman and Abby Riggleman from Silverback Distillery shared their story behind the success of their business with ESU students inside Beers Lecture Hall on Nov. 19, as part of the President’s Distinguished Entrepreneur Series.
ESU President Dr. Marcia Welsh created this series in 2017 in order to bring successful entrepreneurs like the Rigglemans’ to campus to share their secrets with ESU students.
“This evening, we are very fortunate to have the ‘Women Who Distill’ from Silverback Distillery,” Welsh said.
Silverback Distillery is a family-owned business. Christine Riggleman is the CEO and is certified as a Master Distiller. She is the mother to her daughters Lauren and Abby.
Lauren Riggleman is the Assistant Distiller and General Manager while Abby Riggleman is the General Manager of Silverback Distillery’s Pocono location.
“Their story of creating a women-owned internationally recognized distillery with locations in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and more recently in East Stroudsburg is inspiring,” Welsh said.
The Riggleman’s opened the distillery in 2014. ‘Silverback’ comes from Christine Riggleman’s husband Denver and his hair color.
They grew their business from humble beginnings into a very successful enterprise. Today, Silverback Distillery is the proud recipient of 18 international awards. In 2017, Christine Riggleman was the first person inducted into the ABV Network’s Bourbon Hall of Fame.
Before starting Silverback, the family moved frequently because Denver was in the Air Force.
Christine Riggleman had an entrepreneurial background from studying accounting and business in college and always wanted to start her own business.
In 2012, she took a family trip to Scotland and visited the Ben Nevis Distillery.
“I only went to one distillery, and I was hooked,” she said.
Less than 14 months later, the Rigglemans’ had to make some quick business decisions before opening.
They had 50 acres of land in Virginia, decided on a continuous column and built a 27-foot tall still into their distillery. They also chose to make their facility as green as possible by implementing geothermal technology into their distillery. It turned out to be both efficient for distillation and environmentally-friendly.
Their third decision was to make their own whiskey. They decided on clear spirits like vodka and gin since they only took six days to make.
In fact, their gin was so good that within six months of opening their new tasting room, their gin placed in the top ten of the world’s largest spirits competition.
Despite early success, they faced many hurdles in opening a new business. It was difficult to secure permits and comply with environmental regulations.
For example, the Virginia Department of Transportation told them that the curves that they put in were one inch too high even though the curves were initially approved. So they had to replace them with new ones at their own expense.
“There were a lot of things that we were not prepared for in opening a business,” Abby Riggleman said. “But everything we’ve done and faced, and we’ve gotten over those hurdles to create our product here.”
Their first product was a blackback rye whiskey called the Lucky 13 because the whiskey was originally aged for 13 months.
The other initial product was a honey rye whiskey. Most honey rye whiskey is made using corn syrup because it is easier to make, but Silverback’s was made using real honey.
August 29, 2014 was when they opened their doors to the public.
“We really didn’t know much about opening a tasting room and being bartenders,” Lauren Riggleman said. “But what we lacked for in bartending experience, I think we really made up for in customer experience and connecting with people.”
Of course, as they have grown, they have expanded their drink menu. They have even hosted weddings in their tasting room.
“We try to bring people together,” Christine Riggleman said.
Christine and Lauren Riggleman took different paths to become distillers. The mother got hands-on experience by becoming an apprentice at a distillery out west.
According to Lauren Riggleman, distillation for them is about exploiting the difference in boiling points between ethanol and water.
“The distillation is what sets us apart,” she said.
Maturation is the process that follows distillation.
“The maturation process removes the off-flavors and brings out the good flavors like vanilla, butterscotch, and caramel,” she said.
Abby Riggleman talked about some of their growing pains.
The Riggleman’s liked the fact that the Poconos had great tourism. They see more opportunities to market their products and reach new customers here. Splitting their production between Virginia and Pennsylvania has helped them grow their business.
“It is exciting in Pennsylvania. We can actually grow. We see opportunities to thrive as a business,” Abby Riggleman said.
So far, Christine and Lauren Riggleman are the only mother-daughter distilling duo in the world.
Initially, their business suffered from gender discrimination.
“The first competition that I entered was the hardest competition in the world,” Christine Riggleman said.
“I had only been distilling for six months,” she said. “Luckily, we won double-gold. I was ranked one of the top ten distillers in my first competition. That helped us get on the map.”
Their mom released the first bourbon named after a woman. The Christine Riggleman Reserve has been named the best single barrel bourbon at the prestigious New Orleans Bourbon Fest.
“We want to keep growing and keep our product out there because it’s been really successful in these two places so far and hopefully build a legacy,” Lauren Riggleman said.
The hope for the Rigglemans and Silverback is that they will be able to pass on their craft to their children.
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