Bright lights illuminate an interior room on the ground floor of The Cavalier Hotel.
It used to be where the hotel’s laundry was washed. Now something much different is taking shape: think Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory with shiny copper machinery, pipes, gauges and thermometers.
But instead of candy, this equipment will make spirits – vodka, bourbon, gin and rye whiskey.
It will be one of the only craft distilleries in the world operating inside a hotel.
Restoration of The Cavalier began three years ago. Structural defects have been corrected, the roof has been repaired, crumbling stone at the entrances has been rebuilt and the dilapidated Hunt Room fireplace has been revived.
Built in 1927, the reinvented Oceanfront landmark will have 85 rooms and become part of a Marriott line of boutique hotels.
On a recent morning, the showpiece of the distillery operation arrived. It looked like an oversized copper flute.
The challenge: threading the 25-foot-tall vodka column through a small hole in the roof of the first floor and down a narrow shaft.
Most of the equipment, including a pot still for bourbon- and whiskey-making, was moved in through a hole in the side of the hotel in January. But this last piece, worth half a million dollars, was taller and more intricate.
Taking it apart was not an option.
The column differs from a pot still in that it creates a much higher proof alcohol in a single distillation. It’s used to heat mash – grains and enzymes – to the point that the alcohol turns to vapor.
“As it’s rising up in the column, it gets higher in proof,” said Andrew Yancey, who will manage the distillery with his business partner, Josh Canada.
Then the vapors condense, and the liquid is used to make vodka.
Plans to get the vodka column inside the hotel began two years ago, Yancey said. The column, which was made by Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, Ky., has been stored inside a Virginia Beach warehouse for months.
Typically, distillery equipment is installed in an industrial facility, not a historic hotel undergoing extensive renovations.
Not only has the move-in process been a challenge, but special measures were needed to ensure safety in the belly of the hotel. Alcohol is flammable, and heat is used in the distillation process.
The distillery area had to be “explosion-proof,” with steel-encased windows and doors, Yancey said.
The vodka column lay on its side in the back of a flatbed truck behind the hotel. A crane was positioned at each end of the truck.
The crane operators slowly hoisted the column horizontally. Then one of them lifted the top of it while it was suspended in the air.
Once the column had reached the opening in the roof, the crane operator began to lower it into a shaft to its final resting place. Workers inside the distillery on the ground floor helped guide it into place.
A crew from W.O. Grubb Crane Rental places a vodka column at The Cavalier Hotel, Aug. 31, 2017. The column was lowered through a small opening in the roof and will be part of the new distillery inside the hotel.
The distillery is next to the rustic Hunt Room tavern and its 4-foot-tall brick fireplace, which has been rebuilt. The hotel and its three restaurants could open by the end the of the year. Hunt Room guests will be able to look at the distillery operations through large windows.
Guests on the first floor will get a peek at liquid bubbling up in the top of the vodka column through a glass enclosure next to the ballroom.
All of the distilling equipment was made in the U.S., and grains will come from Virginia, Yancey said.
In the first year of operation, he said, the distillery could be making a barrel of bourbon a week. The liquor will be aged off-site in a temperature-controlled warehouse.
To kick things off, the first batch of bourbon is fermenting in Kentucky now. Larry Ebersold, a master distiller who worked for Seagram’s for 35 years, is guiding the process.
Initially, the distillery will produce vodka and bourbon.
The brands made there will be bottled, packaged and shipped from the Oceanfront hotel. Yancey is working to make them available in area ABC stores.
Tours of the distillery, tastings and dinners pairing Cavalier spirits with the Hunt Club menu are planned. Collector glasses and small-batch bottles will be for sale in the gift shop.
In a nod to Prohibition and the Roaring ’20s, the name of the new operation will be Tarnished Truth Distilling Co.
Just above the distillery, on the first floor of the hotel, workers have been polishing the terrazzo floors and installing ornate cornices in the ballroom. They’re some of the final touches as the hotel gets ready to open in December.