Heard on the Hill

For the love of whiskey: How a distillery led Denver Riggleman to Congress

‘I’ve only given away probably about 100 bottles’ to new colleagues so far, Virginia Republican says

Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., and his wife, Christine Riggleman, showcase Silverback Distillery in Afton, Va. Regulatory burdens the couple encountered in helping Christine build the business inspired Riggleman to run for Congress so he could help other small business owners. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Denver Riggleman never saw himself getting involved in politics. It was his wife’s dream of owning a distillery that unexpectedly opened that career path.

“I think I’m the only distiller in Congress,” the Virginia Republican said. “Actually, I’m a junior distiller. I work for a master.”

The master is his wife, Christine, who owns Silverback Distillery in Afton, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“What’s exciting is we did this despite all the barricades, blockades, regulation, cronyism, corruption and everything else we faced,” the freshman congressman said this month, as the pair showcased the facility.

Watch: Riggleman still slings whiskey at his wife’s Virginia distillery

Afterward, over glasses of whiskey, Riggleman explained why the same complex liquor laws and environmental regulations that stood in his wife’s way inspired him to run for office.

Silverback Distillery — named after the gorilla that Riggleman’s three daughters compared him to after he became gray and grumpy — was incorporated in April 2013, with construction of the Virginia facility completed in August 2014. But the journey was much longer than that.

“It was this four-year evolution of me fighting, Christine and I using our own treasure and money to fight. At one point it was either fight or flight,” Riggleman said. “It was either we leave Virginia, we set up shop somewhere else, or it was you fight.”

That necessity became clear after a conversation Riggleman had with a lobbyist.

“He said, ‘Listen, Denver, I know you want to try to help people, but if you’re not at the dinner table, you’re on the menu,’” Riggleman said. “That was one of the most frightening things but also one of the most eye-opening things that I’ve experienced.”

After a failed bid for governor, Riggleman decided to run for Congress when Virginia’s 5th District seat opened. Rep. Tom Garrett, who was struggling with alcoholism, decided not to seek re-election.

During the campaign, Riggleman ran into several small business owners who were also struggling with the burdens of federal regulations. For example, he cited a local fruit farmer who employed 105 workers on H-2A visas and, according to a Department of Labor regulation, had to have a $75 card for each one to be able to drive on the farm’s private property.

“I would be like, ‘That’s not real. That’s fake. There’s no way that’s real,’” Riggleman said. “But it was real.”

Hearing stories like that, Riggleman learned that he and Christine weren’t the only business owners who were fed up.

“Entrepreneurs make it not because of government but despite the government,” he said. “And the more regulations we remove, the better we do.”

Although Riggleman’s initial interest was in helping business owners like himself, he has found others to tackle as well. The first bill the freshman congressman, who was appointed to the Financial Services panel, introduced this year would reduce regulations that make it difficult for people in rural areas vacated by banks to loan each other money for housing.

‘One of 435’

Riggleman’s outlook on regulations meshes nicely with the House Republican Conference that he’s now part of after his November midterm election victory. The only problem is that Republicans no longer control the House, so it’s a lot harder for the GOP to continue its regulation-cutting agenda.

“You’re one of 435 as a freshman in the minority, and it’s very hard to actually do anything initially,” Riggleman said. “But you have to make friends across the aisle. And you have to stay true to your principles simultaneously. No matter what you do, 50 percent of the population is going to rip your face off.”

Riggleman recalled some simple advice his grandfather gave him when he was 14 or 15 after he told him he wanted to do work that was fun when he grew up: “If work was fun, they’d call it fun. That’s why they call it work.”

His grandfather’s words have stuck with him as he’s come to Congress and realized pretty quickly that it’s not much fun.

“I didn’t think it would be like this, and I’ve said that,” he said. “But guess what, it’s work. It’s service. ... The amount of decisions you have to make daily, what you have to parse through — everything from your staff, to taking constituent calls to answering letters and all those things, it’s such a monumental responsibility for 730,000 people.”

Offering up samples of bourbon, moonshine and honey rye, Rigglman said he misses working at the distillery with his wife and daughters, ages 26, 25 and 21. The elder two help run the business, with one daughter and her husband running a recently opened second location in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

But despite that, and congressional work being harder than he expected, Riggleman is enjoying the service and plans to seek re-election in 2020.

“I’m starting to enjoy the challenge without it being fun,” he said, noting he still has a lot to learn and accomplish.

In his first two months of Congress, Riggleman has started to build relationships with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. The distillery, he acknowledges, has helped with that.

“I’ve only given away probably about 100 bottles so far,” he said. “You have to lubricate the gears of bipartisanship.”