Open since 1927, the Historic Cavalier Hotel & Beach Club has lived up to its namesake in many ways, including its reigning title as the first and only distillery in an American hotel.
It all started in 2010 when Virginia Beach native Andrew Yancey sought a location for his craft distillery, prioritizing the area’s waterfront. Simultaneously, Bruce Thompson, CEO and Founder of Gold Key PHR, was spearheading the renovation of the Cavalier Hotel (with an unbeatable beachfront address).
“I took the business plan and the idea to Mr. Thompson and he immediately said, ‘let’s do it,'” Yancey told Forbes. The distillery became Tarnished Truth Distilling Company, at the center of the Historic Cavalier Hotel, providing craft spirits like bourbon, crème de bourbon, vodka, gin, moonshine and canned cocktails for tours , in the tasting room and in the on-site restaurants.
“Tarnished Truth’s branding and name is a nod to the infamous history of the original Cavalier Hotel and the prohibition era, blending southern history and culture era with today’s appreciation of locally distilled spirits and timeless elegance,” said Yancey, now co-owner and operator of Tarnished Truth and The Hunt Room. Further emphasizing the spirit of America, all stills and equipment were handcrafted in the USA by Vendome Copper and Brass Works, while the distillery team was developed by Master Distiller, Larry Ebersold , “the godfather of Rye Whisky” in America.
Today, Tarnished Truth continues to evolve its guest programming with the launch of its new “Buy Your Own Barrel of Bourbon” experience, which Yancey outlines below. He also reflects on the history of Tarnished Truth and how it became an award-winning distillery.
Jillian Dara: Why did you think the initial partnership with the Cavalier suited the distillery you envisioned?
Andrew Yancey: The hotel, now known as the Historic Cavalier Hotel, opened in 1927. Mr. Thompson’s plan for a meticulous restoration [to] its original grandeur, combining the timeless luxuries of a bygone era with the conveniences and technology that today’s travelers crave, was the perfect fit for the Tarnished Truth brand to maintain the distinction of being the first and only distillery in a luxury hotel, in the United States.
Dara: Did you set out with the intention of being the only hotel distillery in the United States? What does this distinction mean to you?
Yancey: Not initially, it was more about the beachfront location for me – turns out there wasn’t one [a hotel distillery]. With that though, there’s even more appeal to the distillery and its tours, because the experience itself is so unique. The distillery is an amenity available for hotel guests to book, and vice versa, the luxury hotel serves as a host for guests to explore before and after their tastings, whether it’s a dinner and beverages in the Hunt Room or appropriate cocktails in the Raleigh Room.
Dara: What about the most unique distillery in the hotel and property?
Yancey: You can take a tour of the distillery, taste the spirits, then try one of our spirits in cocktail form at the on-site restaurants. It is also a truly unique activity for guests. No matter the weather or time of year, the distillery is open for an informative tour followed by a tasting of our spirits. Each Cavalier restaurant serves cocktails made with our spirits, especially the Hunt Room which is known for its extensive cocktail menu curated by our team to make the best use of the spirits we distill. We also have a shop attached to the distillery where customers can purchase any of the spirits we distill.
Dara: Does the hotel have an exclusive cocktail offer?
Yancey: The Hunt Room offers a full menu of cocktails using only our spirits. The Smoked Old Fashioned is the clear favorite along with our High Rye Bourbon. This popular command is offered in the hunt room. Fun fact, the Fourth Handle Gin is named as a nod to another moment in the Cavalier’s history. Bathtubs once had a fourth handle to bring in cold (filtered) Atlantic seawater, and the Gin is now named for this fact in connection with the origins of the hotel.
Dara: Are there any special experiences guests can book at the distillery?
Yancey: Tarnished Truth hosts many groomsmen tours and tastings for weddings on the property. We also make specialty barrels for guests with their names and wedding dates on the head of the barrel.
Something to look forward to: We’re also working on a “Buy Your Own Barrel of Bourbon” package that we hope to have in place this year.
Dara: What can customers expect with this new plan?
Yancey: The guest would descend and be presented with a few barrels to taste and ultimately choose which one they would like to purchase and bottle. We will then work with the customer to create the custom bottle label. Once bottled and labeled, the guest collected their bottles and could keep the barrel empty. The barrel program will be limited to 10-15 barrels per year.
Dara: Why did you think it was so important to offer this type of equipment to your guests? And how did it prove itself?
Yancey: It’s unique, and that’s what customers are looking for. You won’t be bored in a cookie-cutter hotel with a typical gift shop. We typically host about 10,000 tours and tastings in any given year and rank #1 in things to do in Virginia Beach on TripAdvisor. Customers can book an affordable tour/tasting, wander through the spirits or merchandise of the Tarnished Truth Shop, try new cocktails made with the spirits, and more.
Our canned spirits and cocktails are now award-winning year after year and have generated huge demand for our annual Virginia Bourbon Invitational, hosted by the hotel and Tarnished Truth Distilling.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.