Sloop Betty was Blackwater Distilling's first product on the market. A honey version was introduced shortly after, which uses honey from local farms on the Eastern Shore in the distilling process. (Photo: Marissa Horn)
ANNAPOLIS—Just five years ago, distilleries were a distant—and most likely blurry—memory for Marylanders.
“There’s a great history of rye in Maryland with lots of farmers producing it, and creating rye whiskey from it,” said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association.
Prior to Prohibition, the state led the U.S. in rye whiskey production just behind powerhouse producers Pennsylvania and Kentucky until its last distributor closed its doors in 1983, according to the Maryland Historical Magazine.
“There’s even an exhibit in Baltimore on the history of rye whiskey in Maryland, and there you get to see just how big the industry was before Prohibition,” Atticks said. “So, really, it’s just a resurgence of what used to be, now that whiskey and rye are becoming more popular again.”
Now the Old Line state is again creating a home for the lighter liquor, along with rum, vodka and bourbon. With more than 10 distilleries planning to open doors within the next year and a half around the state and a handful already operating, the movement seems to be a resurgence indeed.
The proof of it is in the air—literally—as 182.5 proof rum runs from the 500-gallon copper still, simultaneously filling the air of Blackwater Distilling’s warehouse with an eye-watering sting.
In-house distiller and marketing coordinator Andy Keller spends most days at Blackwater’s Kent Island distillery running the still and bottling their locally famed Sloop Betty vodka and Picaroon rum.
According to Keller, Sloop Betty inherited its name from an old folk tale that is nearly as old as Maryland’s history with alcohol production. Sloop Betty was the name of a ship anchored in the Chesapeake Bay that was captured by Blackbeard in the 1700s. After finding it laden with wine and other alcoholic beverages, the pirates allegedly got drunk and burnt the ship down, Keller said.
“We thought it was a very Maryland name,” Keller said in between measuring the alcohol content of the post-still vodka.
Keller pours every few gallons that come from the still into a plastic drum that will be hauled into a temperature-controlled room for a six-day fermentation process. In combination with yeast from Martinique, the process brings the rum to a drinkable level—at 12 or 13 percent alcohol.
The company has also decided to invest in the future by barrelling some of the rum and vodka close to their tasting bar. When they are finished aging in two to four years, Keller said, each barrel will taste differently just because of their placement and wood used for the barrel.
“For anything that we decide not to barrel for aging, we put it through carbon filtration, which takes the edge off a little,” Keller said. “Our goal for everything made here is for it to be sippable at room temperature or on the rocks, whichever you like to drink it.”
This isn’t the prohibition era
As the first fully licensed distillery to open in Maryland in decades, Keller said, Blackwater Distillery opened to a market that had all but forgotten the state’s distilling past. When they first began distilling in February of 2008, there were just over 250 craft distilleries operating in the U.S., and according to Entrepreneur magazine’s Food and Beverage Trend report, that number had risen to 623 in 2013.
But getting the company up and running didn’t come without a lot of leg work.
“The laws were all out of date—we couldn’t do tours, tastings or bottle sales out of here,” Keller said. “So we got those laws changed at the end of 2012 and we started to bring people in here in 2013. And then after that, other distilleries started opening up.”
Though the laws are no longer stuck in the 1920s, distilleries are still limited in what they can do, which includes not being able to participate in beer and wine festivals. This, Keller said, can limit their marketing reach.
“It is sometimes unfair that we can’t join in on the beer and wine festivals,” Keller said.
Edgardo Zuniga, owner of Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, agreed that both the federal and state laws are sometimes hard to work with when introducing new types of liquor.
“Every time we bottle with flavors, we have to make a formula and give it to the federal government,” said Zuniga, who opened Twin Valley in 2014. “It takes months to get approved. I am working with four different bourbons since I started distilling, but I don’t want to complicate my life right now—maybe in my third year.”
Zuniga operates the only distillery in Montgomery County by himself and usually works from 3 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day producing an average of close to 225 gallons of bourbon each week, he said.
With so much on his plate—or in his glass—already, Zuniga has found it difficult to both manage the distillery and get alcohol approved by the government. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration can take up to 30 or 40 days to approve labels, he said, which means he is not actually able to make a sale until two months later.
Enter the penultimate factor to solving these issues: the Maryland Distillers Guild, a nonprofit group formed in February by 11 distilleries, including Blackwater Distilling and Twin Valley Distillers.
Atticks, the president of the guild, said they are already beginning to line up sponsors for the spring’s legislative session to mold the laws to better fit the times and needs of the distillers.
At the capital
Some state legislators are also looking to change that in the spring by expanding on last year’s county-specific state laws with new regulations that could make distillers’ jobs a little easier.
The last legislative session brought about several bill proposals, including Senate Bill 523 by Sen. Jim Mathias’, D-Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties, which established a Class 9 limited distillery license in Worcester County. Though the law just took effect July 1, a 12,000-square-foot distillery has already broken ground in Ocean City. Seacrets, the famed bar, is moving their new line of craft spirits from production in Delaware to the new facility close by. Besides creating up to 100,000 gallons of distilled spirits each year, the new distillery is expected to bring jobs and even more tourism to the area when it opens in the spring.
"Over the last two decades, Maryland lawmakers have worked hard to craft policy to promote Maryland wineries and, more recently, micro-breweries,” Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. “It is only logical that we now modernize our rules governing the growing number of craft-distilleries."
Hershey said he plans to introduce legislation during the next session that could loosen the state’s restrictions and allow distilleries to participate in these festivals.
"I can’t imagine a legislative session without changes to the state’s alcohol laws, especially as the craft-production industry evolves,” Hershey said.
Besides Gov. Larry Hogan’s stop at the groundbreaking of Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Distillery in Baltimore in late October, local governments have also joined in on backing local distilleries.
Zuniga said he’s still waiting for Hogan to swing by and pick up the first batch of bourbon that he made for him.
“I have one for him and one for me—a bottle of batch No. 1, bourbon,” he said. “(Hogan) can come to the distillery and get it.”
Queen Anne’s County recently gave Blackwater Distillery $170,000 in grants and low-interest loans for expansion projects. That will include new, steel fermenters, an upgraded still, more employees, “a couple of other things and boom, it’s gone,” Keller said.
“It doesn’t seem like a couple of tanks would cost $70,000, but they will,” he said.
Keller said they plan for a portion of the money to go toward local marketing campaigns. But with 300 to 400 people already coming in each Saturday for taste-testing tours for the duration of the summer, Keller said word-of-mouth seems to be working pretty well.
“There’s a commitment here to support our work and our existing business community,” said Jamie Gilbert, the county’s economic development coordinator. “We think their growth potential, product, marketing and quality of the product is just fantastic.”
Plus it might help that Gilbert is a bit of a fan of the hometown spirit, he said.
“It is one of the best vodkas I have ever had, but that being said, what shocked me is that I am not that big of a rum fan, and yet I believe that Picaroon surpasses the Sloop Betty,” Gilbert said. “Their products keep coming and they are just knocking it out of the park.”
‘It’s more of a comeback thing’
The number of craft distilleries in the U.S. is expected to continue growing, reaching 1,000 by 2020, according to the American Distilling Institute’s annual report in 2014. And counties that are not necessarily Maryland tourist hot spots are feeling some of the effects from the surge, said Connie Yingling, spokeswoman for the Maryland Office of Tourism.
“With (Blackwater Distilling), it’s not just about the vodka products, or the rum, it’s truly an operation,” Yingling said. “It falls into the agricultural tourism for us, and agriculture and seafood are what has driven Queen Anne’s County to be one of the largest producers in the state in those industries.”
Every new distillery that opens offers something different, Yingling said, with some being built in old barns or garages, and others being set on in the middle of a field for a “rustic feel.”
“Each location has its own flavor, and a lot of the alcohol is named after iconic things within the Maryland area, which localizes it,” she said. “A lot of Ruddy Duck’s beers are named after things within the southern Maryland area, while Flying Dog in Frederick—well their names are a little edgier, which sometimes makes it difficult to talk about them.”
The Maryland Office of Tourism and many distillers hope that combining efforts now can provide for a distillery trail, much like the state’s several wine trails, in the future. The numbers for the distilleries’ initial impact aren’t in, but if they are anything like the tourism brought in through breweries and wineries in the state, Yingling said, it could bring Maryland to the forefront of distilling again.
“It’s more of a comeback thing than a new thing, honestly,” she said.