Written by Kaitlin Hill | Photos by Jennifer Gray
Famed photographer and Academy Award-winning costume designer, Cecil Beaton, wrote in 1957, “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of commonplace …”
His call to creativity is the fitting slug line of Colony Cocktails, a wine-based cocktail company and brainchild of Middleburg residents Philip and Jessica Miller. With whimsical flavors and punchy brand designs, including a jovial narwhal, the Millers are certainly daring and delightfully different. Though, they might add a line about their love of community too. In addition to their imaginative vision, being Middleburg-minded is a driving force in their company, and a shared personal practice.
“Christmas in Middleburg is when we fell in love with the town,” Jessica says. “It was 2009 and the Christmas in Middleburg Saturday had a big snowstorm.” Nervous about driving conditions yet determined to see the small-town sights, the Millers came the Sunday after the parade for a day trip that would turn into a life goal.
“It was gorgeous – snowfall on everything, the shops are all decorated,” Jessica says, reminiscing. “After that, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great place to live?’ We were living in Arlington, and we just had to maneuver some things in our lives to make [moving to Middleburg] happen in terms of work and commute.”
With logistics sorted, the couple wasted no time making Middleburg their home. “We got married here, at the Red Fox Inn, on a Friday and the next Friday we moved into our new place,” Philip says, laughing. “We’ve kind of built our life around the town,” Jessica says.
For Philip, building a life in Middleburg is both personal and professional. “I worked for Mark at Highcliffe for many years, and in 2014, I joined the board of the Middleburg Professional Association,” he says. “In 2016, I ran for town council and was elected then. I’ve been on various committees, including economic development. I just love it. I love this town. I love the community that it serves.” His love of community led him to the vice mayorship of Middleburg, a post he took on this year after being nominated by his predecessor, Darlene Kirk.
Philip and Jessica Miller in Market Salamander. Photo by Jennifer Gray.
In 2017, the Millers conceptualized their own business, Colony Cocktails, to be based in Middleburg. “The brand was born in Middleburg when we had the idea back in 2017,” Jessica says. “We are big cocktail enthusiasts, the two of us, and we have a fully stocked bar. We would get really creative with different types of bitters, making our own simple syrups with infusions of this and that. We realized, most people aren’t going to do that at home, but should these people be denied a good cocktail when they are not at a bar?”
With the category of “ready-to-drink” growing in popularity, Philip’s bartending experience dating back to his college days at Tulane, and Jessica’s 20-some years in marketing, they began the process of transforming their business vision into a chicly canned reality. “It was an evolution as we started to do our research, before we even put our formulas together,” Jessica says. Wanting to provide an authentic cocktail experience with a higher alcohol percentage and wider distribution in mind, the Millers had to reframe their idea of what a canned cocktail could be.
“A lot of the canned cocktails we knew that were already out there used distilled spirits,” Jessica says. “When you get into the laws, we’re in a controlled state here in Virginia. We realized we would have to be in ABC Stores if we used distilled spirits. We quickly pivoted to wine-based cocktails … because that would allow us to be in any sort of market.” “It really opened up our distribution channel,” Philip says.
“We worked with a flavor development company … and we asked, ‘Can you get the same spirit, the same flavors as the original [cocktail] being wine-based?’” Jessica says. “And they said, ‘Absolutely.’” For the Millers, achieving those flavors played to Philip’s bartending background and their undeniably fun personalities.
“We were really having fun and messing around with flavors,” Philip says. “We knew we wanted to have something that appealed to the whiskey drinker with the Charleston, which is more bitter aperitivo, herbal forward. We wanted to have something more fruit forward like the Tangier, which is grapefruit balanced by cardamom and rosemary. And we knew we wanted to do the French 75. We were just looking for things that stuck to different people’s tastes.”
Their three offerings – The Charleston, The Tangier, and their original The Biarritz, based on the French 75 – are all made with a base of Sonoma wine. The wine is blended with all-natural simple syrups and botanicals, achieving a refined cocktail experience that just happens to have a pop top. The 250-milliter cans pack punch too, with between 10 – 11.5% ABV depending on the flavor.
And while Colony Cocktails don’t contain distilled spirits, community spirit is at the heart of what they offer. “What we stand for as a brand is bringing people together … we feel very passionate about that,” Jessica says. “We all get so wrapped up in our lives and we are very busy as a culture. We need to spend more time connecting with each other. That’s really the brand’s main goal.”
Philip Miller in Market Salamander. Photo by Jennifer Gray.
And it remains their goal, even during COVID, where gatherings are challenging and require safety protocols. “Hopefully, this offers people an opportunity to do some socially distanced outdoor gatherings with family and friends and not have to worry about glassware,” Philip says. “And that goes for the spring too. Hopefully, we’re able to do the spring races, picnics, polo matches, and all the fun stuff we all miss right now. Because the idea of Colony Cocktails was to take something complicated, make it simple, so that you can just enjoy, bring people together, and live vibrantly. That’s it.”
Colony Cocktail products are available from Arlington to Occoquan and beyond, as they were recently picked up by Whole Foods Market in Virginia. In Middleburg, Market Salamander and Salamander Resort and Spa carry the cocktails. And nearby, they can be found at The Whole Ox, The Locke Store, and The Market at Bluewater Kitchen.
“Around here there are so many little markets that we respect, and we shop at ourselves,” Philip says. “They were incredibly supportive from the very early stages. Now we have a distributor for Northern Virginia and other parts of Virginia, but we wouldn’t have been able to get there without all the support. It’s been really wonderful, and I can’t thank people enough for their support as we launched this.”
And Middleburg should be thankful for the Millers too. They truly embody all the best qualities that make Middleburg what it is. Their community engagement, ability to bring people together, imaginative small business, and love of where they live are all the makings of great neighbors, and a good cocktail hour too. ML
Published in the November 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.