A photograph of Russell Nance, L'97, standing on a row of bourbon barrels, in a rickhouse full of additional bourbon barrels stacked to the ceiling. He is smiling, and wearing dark rimmed glasses, a blue t-shirt and jeans.

Lives Of Purpose

Will the real Russell Nance please stand up?

Spiders appearing to live two very different lives both call themselves Russell Nance, L'97. What’s going on?

One Russell Nance is a Manhattan tax attorney. He wears dapper, color-coordinated business-lite outfits to his 34th-floor office in a tower on the Avenue of the Americas. When he looks out his office window, Radio City Music Hall, the Rockefeller Center, and other landmarks of Midtown are spread out before him, not that he has a lot of time for sightseeing. He has an advanced law degree called an LL.M. in tax law from New York University, which he pursued after earning his J.D. from Richmond Law. He is a partner at Mayer Brown, a global law firm and the only firm worldwide, as its website notes, “with approximately 200 lawyers in each of the world’s three largest financial centers — New York, London and Hong Kong — the backbone of the global economy.”

According to this Nance’s Mayer Brown profile online, his expertise is in representing “sponsors, managers, issuers, and underwriters in virtually every manner of asset-backed transaction, including account receivable; auto loan; auto lease; collateralized bond, loan, and debt obligation; commercial and residential mortgage, including REMICs; credit card receivable,” and more. That’s just the first half. When I ask him to put his legal work in plain words, the most succinct explanation he can offer is, “My practice focuses on the tax aspects of securitizations and structured finance transactions.” This answer does not advance my understanding significantly, but it does underscore that his work is highly complex and very technical and involves transactions whose dollar figures include many, many digits.

This Russell Nance bills his time in six-minute increments.

And then there is the other Russell Nance, the one I met on a Friday in September after driving an hour west of Richmond into the Albemarle, Virginia, countryside. I knew I had turned into the right place because of a sign I saw from the road. It read:

Ragged Branch Distillery
Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Beef & Bourbon Available Seven Days a Week

This, dear reader, is how you compose a welcome sign.

This version of Nance invited me in through a doorway attached to a barn labeled “Hunt Camp.” He wore violet checkerboard Vans, blue jeans, a periwinkle blue V-neck T-shirt, and a tan sport coat with a casually folded satin pocket square, also periwinkle, peeking up out of his breast pocket. A wood-burning stove sat near one wall, and taxidermy lined many of the other walls. There was a full open kitchen, a big-screen TV, and enough leather furniture around it for a decent-size college football watch party. But off in the corner was also a large desk with piles of paperwork, for I was meeting Nance in Ragged Branch’s business office.

A photograph of two men and a black Labrador Retriever sitting on a leather chair and a leather couch in a sun lit room. Alex Toomey, the man on the left is in the chair, and is wearing a baseball cap, a button up shirt, and jeans with a large belt buckle. Russel Nance, the man on the right, is on the couch, smiling, and petting Bootlegger the dog. He is wearing a tan blazer, blue t-shirt, jeans, and dark rimmed glasses.
Alex Toomy and Russell Nance, with dog Bootlegger, in Ragged Branch's multipurpose office space

The man who usually sits behind that desk, Alex Toomy, was there, too. Toomy is a genuine Virginia cowboy. He was once a champion horse cutter, a rodeo discipline focused on separating one calf from a herd. He looked the part, from his work boots up to his jeans capped by a large oval belt buckle to his multiday stubble and a head topped by a ball cap.

Toomy and Nance go back. They are longtime friends and, for a while by marriage, were legally family. Toomy used to make his primary living as a builder and developer, and he often hired a teenage Nance to work construction projects around central Virginia. Despite their city mouse/country mouse vibe, their ease with and mutual respect for one another is obvious.

“Under this gruff exterior,” Nance assures me, gesturing toward Toomy, “lies the heart of an artisan.”

Today, the two work together as partners. They are two-thirds of the founders of Ragged Branch, a bourbon distillery. Nance jokes that they look like an odd pair, but the more serious truth is that this partnership with Toomy is giving Nance more of the life he wants. Don’t get Nance wrong — his life as a New York City tax attorney is fantastic. But life at Ragged Branch? It’s unlikely, impossible even, surpassing even what he thought reasonable to dream. But it’s also really his life, as real as the one he’s built in Manhattan. And he works harder than he ever imagined for it, too.

Ragged Branch was born out of a crazy idea that poked its head up in front of Toomy and wouldn’t go away. Like a lot of people in real estate development and construction in the late 2000s, Toomy saw his work dry up almost overnight when mortgage-backed securities took a nosedive at the start of the Great Recession. He was idled with nothing to do, unsure about his next steps, and watching as his friends were in the same boat. On Thursday nights, they commiserated at happy hours in his horse barn. One of his friends joked at one point that since they had nothing better to do, they might as well make whiskey. Later, a bored but curious Toomy searched online about the preliminary paperwork, but he was killing time more than making plans.

That changed when he plopped down on the couch one day and flipped on The History Channel. “I happened to watch this show called Modern Marvels,” he said. “The episode was called ‘American Whiskey.’ I was watching it just coincidentally as I had looked into getting a license, and this guy was on there called Dave Pickerell. He was the master distiller at Maker’s Mark. So I cold-called him.”

Garden & Gun magazine once referred to Pickerell as “the Johnny Appleseed of American whiskey.” For reasons Toomy still doesn’t quite understand, Pickerell took to this upstart Virginia bourbon idea and became a sort of guru and mentor, coming to central Virginia to teach the distilling process, which is both chemistry and art. One piece of Toomy’s big idea was suddenly falling into place.

Nance’s involvement from the start was another critical piece. Even after Nance moved to New York in 1997, he had remained connected to Toomy — who was his brother-in-law at the time — as a property investor. When Toomy had a new development to build, Nance would buy a few lots up front. It juiced the early sales and gave Toomy capital to get the development going, making it easier for Toomy to sell the rest. After the development was well-established, Nance would sell his lots, often for a tidy profit. It was a good deal for both of them.

So it wasn’t unusual for Toomy to approach Nance about an investment. The initial amount was consistent with other deals they’d done together, but Nance didn’t take the idea of going into the bourbon business all too seriously at first.

“My reaction was, ‘Sure, you do that. It’s never going to happen, but I’ll say yes,’” Nance said. “And it was that, but also at the same time, [I was] holding a conflicting view, which is ‘Man, that would be really cool. I really would like to do that.’”

One of the greatest things that U of R did for me was it taught me how to think: to think analytically, to think objectively, to try to jettison subjective bias when I'm trying to make decisions.
Russell Nance, L'97

The pair recruited a friend from Louisiana, Chris Sarpy, to be a third founder, and they formed the company in 2010. Sarpy handles the finances, keeping the company’s accounts in order. Nance’s wife, Chrissy, doesn’t have her name listed on any of the filing documents, but she is also a solid member of the leadership team. During my visit in September, she was off in Louisville, Kentucky, for sales and marketing meetings. For the company’s name, the team drew inspiration from a creek running off nearby Ragged Mountain.

With Pickerell’s guidance in distilling, they built the business from the ground up — literally, and always with a backup plan in case Ragged Branch didn’t work out. They bought 92 acres of undeveloped land and then built a house on its highest spot — all the better to sell the property later if that’s how things went. They built the Hunt Camp and its attached barn and installed a 500-gallon copper still in it. Next to the barn, they built a rickhouse, a long, high building designed for storing barrels of aging bourbon.

Bourbon is a distinctly American spirit. As one of Ragged Branch’s marketing people pointed out at a tasting, Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey were developed in the British Isles before the Columbian exchange. Corn was unknown to them, and it’s the ingredient that makes bourbon whiskey different from other whiskeys and uniquely American. When you drink it, “you’re drinking the flavor of the barrel, and you’re drinking the flavor of the grain together,” Toomy says. “When you first try it, you get this wonderful front end, front-of-the-palate flavor. I think it’s unique because it’s usually caramelly, butterscotchy. Sweet on the front. When it goes down on the back of your palate, you get these other flavors. Ideally, you want that bourbon to be smooth. You don’t want to be punished for drinking it.”

Aside from all of the infrastructure the Ragged Branch partners built, they also developed two other key assets: extraordinary patience and faith in their plans. All of the core business’s cash flow in these early years was outbound, and the flow was significant. The first batch they finally distilled, in 2014, needed to age a minimum of two years to meet the legal definition of bourbon. That’s why the company’s first bit of bourbon revenue, a trickle really, didn’t come until a small release in April 2017. The team still debates whether that was ultimately a good move — two-year bourbon is mocked in aficionados’ circles as if it were a child’s finger painting being proffered for a fine art collection. Anyone who takes bourbon seriously will tell you that five years of aging is the minimum threshold for true quality. The company finally launched its first full product line in 2019 after almost a decade of work and investment.

For the headline of a profile featuring Nance, Law360.com plucked a single word from a quote describing these early years. It reads, “Mayer Brown NY Tax Partner’s ‘Idiotic’ Path to Bourbon Maker.” His firm’s PR people weren’t exactly pleased, but Nance doesn’t quibble about the accuracy of the depiction. A lot of craft distilleries in the early stage of development stay afloat by turning to what’s called sourcing — filling their own branded bottles with someone else’s product for a few years to generate income. Ragged Branch, instead, waited patiently, distilling a barrel a day every day and stacking barrel after barrel after barrel of bourbon in the rickhouse, where they wouldn’t generate income for years.

One of the company’s mash-fed cattle.

The “idiotic” headline “really plays into, ‘Is it hard because you’re doing such a good job, or is it hard because you’re not working smarter?’” Nance told me. “We took a bunch of money, we threw it down a black hole to put this place together, we started distilling, and then we kept distilling and sat and waited and continued to dump money down that hole for years until we could get to a point where we can actually sell and generate some revenue. That’s a really hard business model. It’s so hard that very few craft distilleries do that. I mean, ‘very few’ might be one.”

Patient tenacity is one quality that distinguishes Ragged Branch. Another is self-sufficiency. Every grain of corn, rye, and wheat that goes into its still comes from farms the company owns or leases. (One of them is the Caroline County farm where the legendary racehorse Secretariat was born; bourbon from those ingredients is sold as a special expression named for the Triple Crown winner.) The sole sourced ingredient is the malted barley, a finicky input for which they rely on the expertise of a supplier who delivers a consistent enzyme count, which is important for flavor. Ragged Branch also grinds, mashes, distills, ages, and bottles everything on its property.

“We do it all because of control,” Toomy says. “We control every kernel of corn we get. We have all of next year’s already ready. We control making the whiskey. We control bottling the whiskey. We don’t depend on anybody but ourselves.”

It’s an old-school approach that they believe has earned them respect as a worthy newcomer in an industry whose titans are steeped in tradition.

“Alex has been [distilling] for nine years,” Nance says. “From my perspective, the way he’s accepted by the community and the way he’s developed his skill has been shockingly fast and shockingly good. He’s accepted by a lot of the old-school bourbon community, even in Kentucky.”

Toomy describes Nance as similarly indispensable to Ragged Branch. “He’s an attorney, and he’s very successful, but I can talk to him on a different level because he worked on our construction crews,” he says. “Russell is ridiculously smart, not just in a law way. He’s just a very smart guy. When you’re pulling a measurement across the house to lay out windows and stuff, you can yell out to him ‘Six and five-eighths, two foot four and a quarter,’ and such, all the way across that house, and he’ll have that number at the end of it. He’s a different level of smart.” Toomy credits the unique mix of the trio of owners for how well the company has developed. “We all get along, and we all make decisions together,” he says. “It’s a big deal having these three guys. I’m a bricks-and-sticks guy. Sarpy is definitely a money guy, and Russell? Russell’s definitely the logical guy.”

Russell traces his analytical skills back to his three years at Richmond Law. As an undergraduate at Virginia Tech in the early 1990s, he knew that if he did the work, the grades would come. Law school was another beast entirely.

He’s a Renaissance man. He’s not just incredibly bright, but he has a lot of different interests and depth of understanding.
T. Huntley Thorpe, L'97

“Law school is intense,” he says. “It was the first time in my life that I couldn’t just show up to class. I had to work at it, and that was a surprise for me. One of the greatest things that U of R did for me was it taught me how to think: to think analytically, to think objectively, to try to jettison subjective bias when I’m trying to make decisions.”

That training, combined with the experience he has subsequently had in his legal practice, has been most important when the stakes are highest — as when something as basic as their ability to put bourbon in a bottle was threatened. In the early years, they relied on a bottler who ran a custom mobile facility from the inside of a trailer. One day, he let them know he was getting out of the business and had a buyer from Texas lined up to buy the trailer and all of its equipment. The Ragged Branch team knew the man’s setup did exactly what they needed, but the price was very steep if they wanted to put in a counteroffer.

“There have been a lot of really hard decisions, like, ‘Do we buy a bottling machine?’” Nance said. “It’s not an easy decision to make in the context of a small business just getting off the ground. Being able to divorce myself from emotion — it’s not just U of R but the legal practice as well — helps me realize, ‘You’re being affected by emotion. You’re being affected by some anxiety within the business. Don’t do that. Let’s think objectively. Is this a good idea?’”

After a lot of conversation, Ragged Branch made the counteroffer, a move consistent with its ethos of self-reliance. Today, the trailer is parked between the distillery barn and the rickhouse and ready to fire up whenever Ragged Branch needs it.

Time after time, the business has been confronted with unforeseen challenges that they have turned into successes. Often, like with the bottling equipment, the right answer was to go bigger. Even though it means even more investment, significant rewards usually follow. For example, the distilling process generates large quantities of mash as a by-product, which has to be disposed of. Toomy started feeding it to his cattle to get rid of it, but he noticed it enhanced the quality of his beef. Ragged Branch mash-fed beef is now another signature product for the company. The house on the hill that they built as a just-in-case hedge went on the market for a bit, but it didn’t sell. The team reevaluated, and now it’s a tasting room with a homespun feel and spectacular views. It and the beef are now both significant revenue streams.

For better and worse, that’s been their business model, Nance says. “Most of the things we do, we’re like, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and as we’re doing that, we realize, ‘No, we don’t want to do that. We want to do this other thing, but hey, I’m glad we started this.’”

To say that business is good in 2023 is a serious understatement. Today, the bourbon flows at a rate of about 100,000 bottles a year, and it is sold in 23 states. It also wins top awards at the annual World Spirits Competition, the industry’s equivalent to the Oscars. The company is currently making investments that will allow it to expand its production capacity eightfold in the near future. Nance — a self-confessed beer guy when all of this started — now finds himself hosting barreling parties and tastings. He also has a killer icebreaker with clients, and, he adds, his experience as a business owner gives him new understanding of the challenges many of them face. All of his clients and colleagues, he says, want to talk about the bourbon.

“Other big law attorneys love to talk to me about Ragged Branch. I get on a conference call, and that’s the first thing they want to talk about, which is great.” He says a lot of people with positions like his dream of quitting their day job and opening a restaurant or creating a tangible product with their hands. “The dream is always, ‘I’m going to stop doing this and do that,’” he explains. “It took me a little bit to figure this out, but I think part of the reason this captures people’s imagination in big law is that I’m creating that dream without quitting my big law job. I think that’s what makes people say, ‘What? You can do that?’”

Sharing this part of his life with legal colleagues is one thing. Sharing it with his law school buddies is even better.

T. Huntley Thorpe, L’97, has watched over the years as his onetime Richmond Law roommate has built a practice and, with Ragged Branch, a business. “It’s really neat to see somebody start something from scratch and be successful,” Thorpe said. “One thing Russell said that I remember is, ‘This shouldn’t have worked, but it did.’ Meaning, you know, this seemed like a crazy, sort of implausible idea, but they stuck with it, worked at it, and it’s obviously been very successful.”

Back when they met as first-year law students in August 1994, Nance styled himself after the Seattle grunge scene and had the long, Eddie Vedder-style disheveled hair to pull it off. That hair is long-gone, but the friend Thorpe met then is, at core, the same guy today — super friendly, a little goofy in all the best ways, and hyper smart. Thorpe was on hand when Ragged Branch celebrated its first barreling of bourbon in 2014. He says that Nance’s decision to go into this business in particular — distilling — is maybe surprising, but his success is not.

“He’s a Renaissance man,” Thorpe says. “He’s not just incredibly bright, but he has a lot of different interests and depth of understanding in almost everything from pop culture to politics to his tax work and now a bourbon distillery. In a lot of ways, it’s not surprising because he is so bright and has so many different talents and interests.”

If I could go back to a 23-year-old me, I would be like, ‘Oh my God, you are not gonna believe how this turns out. Really awesome.’
Russell Nance, L'97

In July, Ragged Branch was the setting for a mini-reunion. Nance and Thorpe, plus Richmond Law classmates Sam Stathos, Patrick Skelley, and Werner Versch, and everyone’s spouses, spent a long weekend on the property. They stayed in bedrooms in the private area upstairs from the tasting room and spent their days sipping bourbon and sampling mash-fed beef as they looked out at the Virginia countryside. The weekend offered a long, slow look at what Ragged Branch has become and, most importantly, extended time together with genuine friends.

“What Russell has created there with his partners is incredible, but what stood out was seeing my friends and getting together for the first time since COVID,” Thorpe said. “We were all close in law school. We remain close, but we don’t have time to see each other as much as we would like because life intervenes, but we all just picked up where we left off, like we were all transported back to 1997.”

This, ultimately, is what makes Ragged Branch fundamentally different than the land deals Nance used to do with Toomy. It embeds Nance with friends and family in the place where he grew up. Much of his family still lives in the area. It also creates a potential legacy for his children and maybe even grandchildren, if they choose it, as well as other people he is close to. That potential legacy is already visible. Toomy’s son Josh — also Nance’s nephew — is just a few years out of college and one of the distillers. For Nance, coming to Ragged Branch, whether physically or just via video conference from Manhattan, is coming home.

“When I stop practicing, what will probably happen is I’ll split time between this place [Virginia] and that place [New York]. That’s a pretty fantastic plan,” he says. “If I could go back — not mess things up but go back to a 23-year-old me, I would be like, ‘Oh my God, you are not gonna believe how this turns out. Really awesome. Now the hair? Yeah OK, that’s a lost cause. But other than that, good job.’”