The white, short-haired, mixed-breed pup Macy races ahead through the brambles of the wide, green field as we humans stroll along well-worn wheel ruts and try not to be distracted by a singularly majestic panoramic view of virtually all of Northern Virginia.
It truly is breathtaking. The faded high-rises of Tysons in the far, far distance straddle the horizon, with nothing but expansive greenery below and blue sky above.
The location will remain a mystery. There are no signs directing visitors into the property, and access — renting the place — is somewhat like a speakeasy. You need to know a secret, which we’ll explain, to get past the doorman.
But here we are now. Ahead of us at the top of this 1,200-foot-high escarpment is a six-bedroom farmhouse, built in 2021, dominated on the inside by a chef’s kitchen, a great room, and a massive fireplace. Four of those second-story bedrooms are intentionally lined up facing that eastward view, the better to see a grandiose, unobstructed sunrise each morning.
Perched on the ridge above and behind the house is a second structure, this one a small steel-and-glass cabin with little more than a built-in propane hot plate, a small fireplace, and a clever table that vanishes into a Murphy bed — and an even better view of all of Fairfax County and most of Fauquier. Dwell magazine says it “marries Scandinavian minimalism with Virginia countryside charm,” and it does.
Below us is a third building, a small cabin made of glass and concrete. The view is not so good — ancient trees and the neighboring vineyard’s grapevines are in the way — but if you wait until after dark on a clear night, the smudgy cloud of the Milky Way will be your night-light, shining through the transparent roof.
There’s more — a pool made from a repurposed shipping container, a wood-fired hot tub on a cantilevered ledge, fire pits, impossible quiet — and while all of this sounds like the ideal Airbnb for a family reunion, a wedding, or a weekend getaway, that’s not the point.
In fact, don’t look for it on Vrbo or Airbnb. It’s not there. And the address is not advertised, although there is a tantalizingly dramatic website depicting the rustic refuge.
You want to stay here? You have to tell your story. And you have to have a good one if you want to be told the location of this 50-acre pastoral retreat.
“We don’t have any pricing,” says co-founder Mark Turner. “That’s not the driver for us. We are more interested in other people’s passion for a little bourbon, good food, the built environment in nature, and the ‘lost’ art of conversation. Given we are a lifestyle brand, that is way more valuable to us than a rental fee.”
This makes no sense. Who would build an environmentally sustainable, barely on the grid, luxury sanctuary, located just shy of an hour away from the city bustle, and not make it available for general rental?
There’s a story here. And some whiskey.
At first glance, it looks like a bottle of high-end dessert wine. LOST Whiskey Club high-wheat and high-rye bourbons are sold in narrow 375-milliliter bottles — other whiskeys are typically sold in familiar fifths (750 milliliters) — and there is a story behind that.
In fact, Turner has a story for everything. He likes stories.
“Our theory is that people are really hooked on too many inputs in their lives — flat-screens and short-circuit news cycles and contentious, self-righteous kind of stuff,” he says as we drive in his pick-up truck to the LOST Whiskey Club compound near Delaplane, nestled — or hidden —between Sky Meadows and the Appalachian Trail. “People are craving, either subconsciously or consciously, the analog of life — simple, nature, craft food, craft beer, and wine and spirits. It’s all connected to the same nerve ending.
“People want to get back to something a little more meaningful. Longer conversations, things that are natural that you can’t produce on flat-screen.”
Turner, 46, is an architect by trade. He’s the owner and founder of GreenSpur, a Falls Church–based design/build firm that develops and brands contemporary dwellings and communities, emphasizing wood and steel and a light touch on the landscape.
In 2016, he co-founded LOST Whiskey Club with Nick Cioffi, a burly, bearded, and gregarious jack-of-all-trades who oversees the production of the bourbons they make and sell from a warehouse in an industrial center near Merrifield’s Mosaic District. The whiskey, Turner says, is a product that “celebrates the art of gathering.”
The buildings they build are intended to inspire gathering. The spin-off businesses, Turner says, are intended to complement each other. At least, that’s his story.
He’s onto something. Stories are told, friendships forged, families strengthened over small tumblers of whiskey and open fires, and have been for centuries. The 375-milliliter bottle of the LOST Whiskey Club is purposeful, he says: “We want you to finish that bottle the same night — responsibly, hopefully — that you finish your story.”
Each bottle since the first one rolled out in 2019 is sealed with a leather strap with grommets on either end. The strap is a keepsake, stamped with the barrel and bottle number. Turner keeps his on his keychain. It reminds him of the time he and his father finished that particular bottle — the first bottle from the first barrel — during a taping of the LOST Whiskey Stories podcast.
“I was just asking him questions about his life,” he says. “That’s maybe the most meaningful bottle of whiskey I’ve ever had.”
His father is 80. When you know who Turner’s father is, and where Mark Turner comes from, the whiskey-nature-stories idea connects: Turner is the son of John F. Turner, third-generation proprietor of the Triangle X Guest Ranch in Moose, Wyoming, a dude ranch among the Grand Tetons where Mark Turner spent his childhood.
The family moved east when John, who had led the Wyoming Senate and made a name for himself as a conservationist, was enlisted to become director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President George H.W. Bush in 1989. He later became assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs for President George W. Bush.
“He brought the wolves back to the West,” Mark Turner says. “He was responsible for conserving 30 million acres around the world.”
While others in the Turner clan continue to run Triangle X, Turner and his wife, Annie, live in Falls Church, in a historic 1866 farmhouse. They have three kids, one in college in Colorado and two at Bishop O’Connell High in Arlington.
Annie has her own story: She’s executive director of Food for Others, a Fairfax-based nonprofit that distributed some $6 million in donated food — 3.4 million pounds — to nearly 74,000 Northern Virginians in need last year.
That’s a good story, too.
LOST Whiskey Club is not named “LOST” because of the clandestine location of the mountain estate. Turner points to a rise in the middle distance of that spectacular view. “That’s Lost Mountain,” he says. No less than George Washington — a distiller, by the way — surveyed it in 1769 on his way to what is now West Virginia. It’s the namesake for the whiskey.
The whiskey’s distinctive label — a mysterious and stark set of sleek elk antlers — harkens back to Wyoming, where the Turners were known to harvest a few in the Teton Wilderness region near Jackson Hole. In fact, Triangle X Ranch is situated on the main elk migration routes from Yellowstone to the National Elk Refuge.
LOST Whiskey Club, at least the 50 acres in Delaplane, was never intended to be a moneymaker. Rather, it echoes the lifestyle brand, the ethos, of all of Turner’s shared interests with his partner Cioffi.
“We have some subsidiary-like partners at small levels, but we do most of it privately,” he says of the financing. “But we’re bootstrappers, and we don’t come from a lot of money. And we put the money right back into the business and try to keep it lean … So in round numbers, with the properties and [whiskey], we’ve put in a couple of million [dollars] at this point.”
They’ll get that back, and then some. The whiskeys — 90 proof wheat and rye, 120 proof cask-strength — are excellent, a testament to their single-barrel origins. Cioffi, who made his own commercial-size barbecue grill from an old propane tank, says making whiskey is “akin to barbecuing. It’s patience and knowing when not to do something.”
There’s a table in the mountain house that sums up the LOST ethos. It’s 16 feet of beautiful burled cherry, wood taken from a fallen tree from the property. The table has no legs. Instead, it is built into the beams that soar to the ceiling on either end.
“We like to say we’re architects with a drinking problem,” Turner says. “Not everyone gets the joke, but when we explain the story and how we approach design and how the whiskey integrates with it, then they get it.
“It’s why that table is important to us. The table is ground zero of the house. We spent a lot of time thinking about no legs and how many people can you seat and the lighting and the view. It’s about how you design spaces where you gather to break bread or share a good night with whiskey and friends.”
Experiences at LOST Whiskey Club — for those fortunate enough to have a good enough story — are “curated,” to use Turner’s word, with details certainly carried over from his childhood on a Wyoming dude ranch. Events might include a personal chef and a wrangler who divides parties into weekend teams of red bandanas and blue bandanas, with the team with the higher cumulative score from the daily games declared the winner. It’s a big deal, according to notes left in the guestbook.
So how do you finagle an invitation to the retreat with a good story?
“Just give us a call or swing by the distillery on Thursday evenings,” Turner says. “Always better to have the discussion in person with a glass in hand.”
If your story doesn’t get you an invitation to the LOST Whiskey Club compound, Nick Cioffi opens the bottling plant for retail sales at 2811 Merrilee Dr., Ste. D, Merrifield, on Thursdays, 3 to 6 p.m. or by appointment. The whiskeys are also sold at Virginia ABC stores.