When I was in the first half of my twenties I lived in Richmond, Virginia, where I was finishing college at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and cooking on the line at The Village Cafe. I have never known another place like The Village. The booths were filled with tattoo artists, professors, hustlers—it was a Lou Reed song come to life in the South.
It’s hot in Richmond, and The Village was aggressively air conditioned. Pitchers of iced coffee were cheap, and Dika Newlin, one of the last living students of composer Arnold Schoenberg, would come in and drink a Stinger next to Blind John (three eggs soft scrambled with extra cheddar, double bacon and rye toast).
I cooked French toast for Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys there. More often than not, someone connected to the heavy metal band GWAR was around. Hillary (the best manager I ever had) was engaged to the tour manager, I think, and the band’s singer Slymenstra Hymen (AKA Danielle Stampe) was a good friend of hers.
GWAR was, at the time, inescapable. I was more of a Kepone guy, myself, which was GWAR adjacent, closer to indie rock and punk than GWAR. GWAR was over the top. A GWAR show is like a heavy metal wrestling tournament. Real Grand Guignol fantasmagoria with double kick drums, stag horns, enormous prosthetic phalli and fountains of fake blood soaking the crowd. GWAR took the tongue in cheek Thanatos driven performances of bands like Iron Maiden all the way to the edge. At GWAR shows, members of the audience are fed into a gigantic meat grinder set up in front of the drum risers. (I’ve always wondered if there’s a green room down there—after you are lowered through the molded foam teeth of the grinder are you greeted with a PBR and some merch?)
During the two decades I spent up in New York before moving back to Virginia, GWAR doesn’t seem to have lost any momentum. There’s GWARBar in Richmond, which serves half-pound burgers “freshly ground in the GWAR meat grinder” and beer-battered seitan nuggets called “Seitan’s Balls.” You can “bring peace to your inner scumdog” with GWAR’s Bud of the Gods CBD products. Still, it’s hard to imagine a crossover with the more staid world of craft distilling, and I was surprised and excited to learn that Catoctin Creek distillery in Loudoun County, Virginia, was working with the band to create Ragnarök Rye ($99). The second batch of the 92-proof spirit was just released.
How does that partnership work exactly? According to the press materials, the distillery first “conducted experiments on aging the blood of GWAR” using barrels charred by a comet. The white dog, or however one would accurately describe the resulting distillate, was diluted with melted Antarctic ice, and GWAR “hurled the whiskey barrels into the orbit of the moon,” where they spun through “the deathly coldness of space and the life-giving heat of the sun.”
Seems totally legit. The result is pleasantly oaky, with big rye toast, spice and orange oil flavors on the palate. There’s a sweetness tying the whole profile together that’s probably because of the sugar maple wood staves in the barrel it was aged in rather than the intergalactic blood, but who knows. Each bottle is sealed with a topper made from “rare metal ore sourced from the fillings of trolls” and cast in the likenesses of each of the members of GWAR: Blóthar the Berserker; Balsac the Jaws of Death; Jizmak da Gusha; Beefcake the Mighty; and Pustulus Maximus.
Let me explain a bit more about GWAR’s shtick. Once upon a time, according to band mythology, the GWAR members fought as part of a troop of intergalactic warriors called the Scumdogs of the Universe, but they were banished to Earth for disloyalty.
If I’ve got the story straight, they wiped out all life and managed to start it all over again. Naturally, they then decided that the best way forward was to pretend that they were wearing costumes and that the “band” had originated, not in the far reaches of outer space, but in the punk rock DIY culture of the 1980s.
Or maybe they were a bunch of art school kids that found that their love of representational art, wrestling, comic books and horror movies had no comfortable place in the abstractionist minded studios of VCU.
But I’m splitting hairs here.
In 1984, Hunter Jackson was making a low-budget space pirate movie called “Scumdogs of the Universe.” His motto was, “Don’t talk about it. Do it.” The band, then known as Death Piggy, borrowed some costumes (a mix of futuristic and horror) from the movie, and everything fell into place.
Michael Bishop, an early member of GWAR who returned to the band to take on the role of Blóthar and sing lead vocals in 2014 after the death of founding vocalist Dave Brockie, told me: “It came through punk rock, and the idea of making fanzines, and making bands, and making shows, and making your own entertainment, and really doing without the idea that what you were doing was trying to sell something on a larger scale. You were just making it, without the thought of what was going to happen down the line.”
At first, the marriage of Catoctin Creek and GWAR would seem unlikely, even ill advised. GWAR isn’t exactly the sort of music you put on to enhance your contemplation of the complexities of aroma rising up from your tasting glass. Scott Harris, who founded Catoctin Creek Distillery with his wife Becky in 2009, told me “I’m kind of a Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand kind of guy.”
The reason the union makes sense, however, is because Catoctin Creek comes from a very similar place. Different medium, different aesthetic, but Scott and Becky Harris got into the distilling with the original handful of small scale distillers. Back then, it wasn’t clear that distilling was a viable business. It wasn’t even clear that you could get a fire marshal to give you approval for a distillery. In fact, the odds of it working were perhaps longer than the probability that a horror movie-inspired heavy metal band would take off in a college town.
When Catoctin Creek started, people didn’t drink rye whiskey and their customers were astonished to learn that someone might make spirits nearby using locally grown raw materials and sell the product to people in their own community.
“For us, craft meant it was completely, 100 percent tied into the local foods movement,” said Scott Harris. From the jump, they wanted to be “local whiskey, made by a local family using local ingredients and local vendors.” They always wanted to make it themselves, and they always wanted to make it from scratch. In the beginning, they even designed the labels themselves.
GWAR and Catoctin Creek are very much products of Virginia. “Both things” said Bishop, “are a product of our locality.” When GWAR first got in touch with the distillery, Scott Harris said he told them that it sounded fun, but he didn’t know how to even design it. The Scumdog motif, as it were, is a little out of their wheelhouse. Of course GWAR has people for that, but anyway that’s just the packaging.
The core values of the original set of small-scale American distillers focused on craft, regional influence and doing it yourself. The very same values, in other words, that gave us GWAR. Don’t talk about it. Do it.