The Vanguard: Virginia's First Brewpub and Distillery
Serendipity. That’s how The Vanguard Brewpub & Distillery Owner Randy Thomas describes a series of events that almost begged him to create and operate the first brewpub in Virginia that also houses a distillery owned by the same group.
In 2015, the City of Hampton put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) in hopes of finding a developer that would turn the historic Armory building on King Street into something more functional. Specifically, they wanted proposals for a brewery, a distillery or a live entertainment venue.
Thomas is partnered in a Norfolk general contracting firm, Spacemakers, that has renovated or constructed several buildings in Coastal Virginia, including Oozlefinch Craft Brewery on Fort Monroe and Mango Mangeaux in Phoebus. Since the Hampton Economic Development team was familiar with their work, they invited them to a site visit at the Armory for those interested in responding to the RFP.
Originally not wanting to own or manage the project, Thomas attended the meeting to see if any of the other developers were interested in using Spacemakers’s services to create their vision. When he saw the building, he instantly fell in love with it. “I was the last person to leave the site visit, and while I was standing outside, I saw where the front door said The Virginia National Guard,” he says. “And I thought, ‘If this was my place, I’d call it The Vanguard, and it would be totally awesome.’”
A few weeks later, Thomas’ business partner, Bjorn Marshall, invited him to an event at Virginia MOCA. At the event, Leonard Sledge, the head of Economic Development in Hampton at the time, recognized Thomas from the site visit and told him that he couldn’t wait to see his proposal. Thomas explained that he didn’t have a proposal because he didn’t have a client. “He said to me, ‘Why don’t you do it?’” says Thomas. During the conversation, Marshall was listening to what was going on. He told Thomas, “I’ve heard you talk about this building and I never paid attention before, but it sounds like a great opportunity. I’ll do it with you.”
Thomas was floored. “Bjorn Marshall is the straightest and narrowest guy you’ve ever seen,” he says. “He doesn’t lose focus; he’s been in construction since he graduated from Old Dominion University, and he’s never deviated one bit.”
They submitted a proposal and were awarded the bid. “All of the pieces just started falling together,” says Thomas. “That was just the beginning of some other very amazing things that fell into place along the way.”
One of those pieces was a statewide change in the rule for distilleries. “Prior to June of last year, you couldn’t have a distillery and a retail license,” explains Thomas. “If we had put this all together a year or two ago, we still could have had the distillery on site, but somebody else would have had to own it. Or the retail license would have to be owned by someone else.” The change happened about the time Thomas was getting the legal documents prepared with the City of Hampton.
“When I originally sent in my proposal, it was for a brewery and live entertainment venue. So when we were getting ready to sign the paperwork to purchase the building, I said, ‘I have something I need to tell you guys.’ There was a big group there, including the head of Economic Development, the city manager, the city attorney and many others. They all just looked at me like, ‘Oh my God. He’s bailing out.’ But then I told them that we’d be putting in a distillery, too.”
Today, The Vanguard offers a quality food menu by Head Chef Tommy Frazier, indoor and outdoor seating with stages for music in both settings, two private rooms for rent that include a separate bar and, of course, the libations managed by Head Brewer and Distiller Todd Emr.
What they brew and distill in the facility is branded under Caiseal Beer & Spirits Company. Caiseal (pronounced “cashel”) refers to a defensive fort in the form of a ring—the very image you’ll see when looking at the Caiseal logo.
Under the Caiseal brand, their current offers (subject to change) are Caiseal House Beer (a Kolsch-style ale), Caiseal Red Ale, Caiseal KG Stout, Caiseal Amarillo Table Saison, Snap Guns IPA, We Came to Dance Pale Ale, Honey IPA, Belgian-Style Tripel (boasting an ABV rating of 9.5 percent), a Coffee Blonde Ale and Chad’s Abbey (their Abbey Ale aged in bourbon barrels).
On the distillery side, they offer gin, vodka, single malt whiskey, “light” whiskey and bourbon. Initially, spirits will be sold strictly in their distillery store on premises. There is a designated space for the store with a separate tasting area and a cigar room with Napoleon-style chairs that were built in the late 1800s.
The Vanguard hosts live music or performances at every evening. “Breweries don’t have a reputation for having good acoustics, so we spent a lot of time building the stage to accommodate larger bands and getting the sound quality right,” says Thomas. “From the very beginning, music was always going to be an integral part of The Vanguard experience, so we wanted to make this a destination for local talent as well as national acts. I think people are going to be amazed by the quality of entertainment we’re going to be providing.”
To review their calendar of events and food menu, visit TheVanguard757.com.