Grain to Glass

Craft Distilleries Lean on History for Hooch

By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 10.01.21 – Feature, Food & Drink, History

Maryland rye whiskey was an early American favorite. Its popularity boomed during the Civil War when Union soldiers gathered here and came to appreciate the smooth, spicy libation with a breath of sweetness, carrying that fondness home with them. In the decades after, even distillers in far-flung states boasted of their “Maryland-style” whiskey. The recipe varied, generally starting with hearty rye and a precious portion of corn (about 80/20) plus a bit of other grain, such as malted barley for flavor and enzymatic assistance.

Thirteen years of prohibition crushed legal producers and few Maryland-based distilleries weathered the drought. Indeed, between 1972 and 2008 none were in the state, until Blackwater Distilling started in Stevensville. Today, Maryland has more than 30 distilleries, seven in Frederick County, which leads the state in total wineries, breweries and distilleries.

Why? Partly because humans get a kick out of alcohol and partly because we’re wired to delight in novelty. Naturally, demand breeds opportunity. America learned to love craft beer in the 1990s, spurred by its accessibility and relatively reasonable price point. Opinions shifted on wines, too, tearing away its snobby façade in favor of casual enjoyment; new wine lovers learned to “drink what you like” instead of bowing to rules on pairing and etiquette. Since people already prized alcohol as a celebratory indulgence, the craft movement notched up its appeal with innovation and excitement. So, it follows suit that distilled spirits would be the next domino to tip.

Imagination Unleashed

Monica Pearce is founder and owner of Tenth Ward Distilling Company, named in honor of its original location. “I was inspired by the brewing boom but preferred distilled spirits. At that time, the distillery industry had not grown much in Maryland. Then it blew up. … I also think that Frederick County does a really good job of facilitating that growth.” 

A longtime local with a hospitality and marketing background, Pearce appreciates consumers’ thirst for the next big thing. Her company slogan, “Ward Off Ordinary,” plays between its name and its inventive, Instagram-able “cocktail lab” on East Patrick Street. Here, friends can meet up and imbibe creative, elevated cocktails featuring Tenth Ward spirits, listen to music or order in food from Maxwell’s Kitchen next door. Wednesday is for rolling draft cocktails beginning at 5 p.m. and Thursday is jazz night. “I think the ‘experience’ is trending,” she continues. “People want the tour and tasting. They want to do something they’ve never done before, something out of the mainstream.” 

Feeling connected is important, too. “People want to know what they are consuming,” says Pearce. “They’re trying to support local as much as they can.” Tenth Ward, for its part, sources grain from a Ripon, W.Va., farmer who also does the malting (a process that transforms starches into enzymes and sugar). 

This fall, Tenth Ward will offer seasonal apple brandy made from McCutcheon’s cider alongside year-round favorites: buttery Smoked Corn Whiskey, Genever Inspired Gin and Honeyjack made from Orchid Cellar’s mead. The distillery is Maryland’s only absinthe producer, which Pearce confidently describes as “fun, delicious and award-winning.” On site and at bars around town, visitors can partake in the traditional ritual, with or without a sugar cube, as ice water flows into a goblet of the naturally colored absinthe, releasing its aroma. Ready-to-drink canned cocktails, seasonal favorites and limited-edition spirits motivate fans to return again and again. There is also a quarterly whiskey club and a monthly canned cocktail club that are free to join, giving members exclusive access to goodies they can’t get anywhere else.

Thoughtful Stewardship

McClintock Distilling, started in 2015, is practically around the corner. It’s tucked down an alleyway, into a century-old brick garage with huge windows and string lights that make the place bright and airy. The site was built when Model T Fords were new, before the national road system. Its creative reuse fits co-founders Braeden Bumpers’ and Tyler Hegamyer’s sustainability initiatives. McClintock is the first and only certified organic distillery in Maryland and one of a handful in the nation.

“People are good about supporting farm-to-table. They focus on free-range and organic, but they haven’t fully connected that to alcohol yet,” says Bumpers, and he’s leading the change. Alcohol is an agricultural product with few basic ingredients, so purity counts. McClintock is using 140 tons of grain this year, all grown within 10 miles of Frederick and milled on-site to exacting standards. “We work with five different farms to grow our specialty grains, free of herbicides and fungicides.”

Bumpers chairs the American Distilling Institute’s sustainability commission. He’d like to see McClintock’s zero-waste/carbon-neutral business model become standard. He explains, “We donate spent grain to a local organic farm as feed for cows and pigs. People make candles or soap from our spent gin botanicals. One local manufacturer uses them to make ginger beer or The Wine Kitchen next door might use them to flavor a pork loin.”

Sarah Murphy is a McClintock fan and co-founder of the Guide House Grill in Knoxville. Local spirits make up her core drink menu. Inspired, she sells up-cycled McClintock bottles as self-watering planters filled with “cocktail garden herbs,” such as mint, basil, thyme and sage, so customers can add flourish to their favorite concoctions at home.

Collaboration is a common thread. “That’s another reason why I love Frederick,” says Bumpers. “Everybody in the alcohol industry is connected. … We’ve probably done barrel aging with almost all the breweries here.” McClintock made brandy with Willow Oaks organic cidery in Jefferson, distilled beer from Monocacy Brewing Company into whiskey and have ongoing projects with Olde Mother Brewing Co. This fall the distiller will offer shade-grown Peruvian coffee beans from ChocoSombra that were aged in cognac-gin barrels. Such spirited projects complement their consistently popular Maryland Heritage White Whiskey, Epiphany Vodka, Reserve Gin and seasonal cordials.

Trifecta Treats

North of Frederick City, the Springfield Manor Winery Distillery Brewery is—as its name suggests—a little bit of everything. It spans three categories of alcohol production, but it’s even more than that. The classic country estate is an upscale bed and breakfast with a storied past and grand, picturesque event space among fields of intoxicating lavender blossoms, plus corn and grapes used in making award-winning beverages. There is even an active apiary with 35 beehives. 

Owner and head distiller John St. Angelo obtained a distilling license in 2011, building a repertoire over subsequent years. He says, “The craft beverage industry seemed a great way to share our 100-acre farm with Frederick residents.” Its prime location along U.S. 15 attracts tourists from Maryland and beyond. He is particularly proud of his rye whiskey because it is straight from the farm. “We grow all the corn that is used in our whiskeys onsite. It is mashed, fermented, distilled, barreled and bottled right here.” 

The signature Lavender Gin is a bestseller. St. Angelo shares, “We have customers from all over the country, from Ireland, England and Australia, who have heard of and sampled our Lavender Gin. It recently earned a silver medal in the London Spirit Competition.” In season, visitors can take home bunches of lavender flowers, as well as a lavender vodka. 

“One of the most interesting flavor additions we have at Springfield Manor is actually our limestone spring water for which the farm was named.” The property sits on a limestone shelf with artesian springs. “It has the perfect balance of natural minerals, perfect pH and very low iron. It is an important element in the mouth feel and flavor of our distilled spirits.” Springfield serves up another unique vintage, Italian-style grappa that is a St. Angelo family tradition.

Fantasy Realm

Dragon Distillery next to Frederick Municipal Airport is another destination hotspot. Founder Mark Lambert reached back into his family’s moonshiner roots for recipe inspiration, but the place is more Dungeons & Dragons than bootlegger chic, complete with axe throwing in the “Dragon’s Den” and suits of armor. “We always encourage people to come and wear costumes,” says Ashley Perez, Dragon’s director of marketing and events. The place’s playful atmosphere belies a serious dedication to craftsmanship. Lambert runs the production line while his wife, Tania, and their son-in-law, Hirad Yaladei, run the business.

Dragon has an extensive catalog of spirits, all sans sugar. “They didn’t want anything unessential or artificial,” says Perez. “It messes up the fermentation process. And without the sugar, the other ingredients shine through.” It also helps minimize hangovers, since the liquors are fairly potent. She is gratified when customers gush about flavor highlights. “In our Chainmail Cherry Vodka, you taste the almond then it finishes with cherry.” The Lancelot Flaming Love Vodka undulates from sweet mango to peppery Sriracha while the Strawberry Cheesecake Moonshine gets its indulgent tang from Madagascar vanilla and fresh local strawberries.

It’s a celebratory atmosphere with plenty of events to keep the party rolling. This fall, Dragon is hosting a women’s empowerment craft market with Soul Street, a rollicking Kiss My Axe drag show with SADBrunch Entertainment and a Harry Potter-themed weekend. They do trivia nights, paint parties and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games.

And there’s food. It’s an extra layer of licensing, so most distilleries rely on food trucks or surrounding restaurants. Dragon has its own tight menu with eats like cheesy quesadillas, bourbon BBQ pulled-pork sandwiches and Crabby Mac & Cheese. There’s a new cheesecake flavor each weekend from a local baker and spike-able cupcakes from 4 the Love of Sweets.

Cultural Celebration

Puerto Rico Distillery is one of the area’s newest. Its space next door to Dragon is one cavernous bay with a modest tasting room and an industrial production area. Its most striking feature is a wall of supporters who made its March 2020 launch possible, despite the coinciding pandemic crush. This family-owned distillery is led by father-daughter team Angel and Crystal Rivera. The idea came from their other labor of love, Cultura Plenera, a community-building nonprofit focused on traditional Puerto Rican music.

When hurricane Maria decimated the island in 2017, they looked for creative fundraisers. Wife/mom and top fan Albita Rivera explains, “My husband had been playing with infusions. He thought it would be a great idea to do something like that for charity.” Laws made it trickier than a bake sale but that didn’t dampen the spark. When they looked around, no one else was making pitorro, the traditional Puerto Rican spirit akin to rum. “It kind of represents our experience because it bridges Puerto Rico and Maryland.”

The family tried to start their business in Howard County but wound up selling their house there and moving here because they were impressed with the Frederick County Office of Economic Development’s warm welcome and resourcefulness.
They connected with an established distillery in Puerto Rico as a mentor and studied with mountain moonshiners there, too, ensuring that each ingredient is authentic, from the specific yeast to unsulfured molasses and high-quality honey from the University of Maryland.

Their unflavored pitorro is a blank canvas for infusions like coconut, pineapple, almond or coffee, which they flavor with Puerto Rican-grown beans. Their most popular version is a family recipe steeped with raisins, prunes and cranberries. Albita River says it’s a fun way to celebrate Frederick’s cultural diversity. “We didn’t open a distillery just for the sake of making a spirit. It is something that is dear to our hearts. And we didn’t have to change who we were to bring it to the community. They are embracing us for exactly who we are.”

Still Growing

Two other newbies recently joined the scene, Fordham Lee in Middletown and American Shochu Company, located just south of the city in Frederick’s Innovative Technology Center. Both expect to expand into larger spaces soon. Fordham Lee, named in honor of the owner’s son who passed away, recently released its fourth handcrafted product, a cream liqueur called Cherry Charm. New fans can still find last season’s Blueberry Swirl on liquor store shelves in a matching white bottle, while their Zachary Edward High-Rye Bourbon Whiskey boasts hints of caramel and cinnamon with a peppery kick.

American Shochu’s flagship product is called Umai! It’s made from organic barley with a name that means “it tastes good” in Japanese. Founders Taka Amano and his wife, Lynn, started the company to introduce Americans to the goodtime drink that outpaces sake sales in Japan. Amano says it’s smooth, infinitely mixable and won’t elicit a raging hangover. As the smallest distiller, American Shochu took a hit with COVID-related supply chain disruptions but founders are ramping up again as the only stateside shochu maker.

Undeniably, consumers vote with their wallets and it appears Maryland’s distillery scene has plenty of room to grow. That’s good news all around, since industry reports show that every dollar spent in a distillery translates into seven dollars for the surrounding community. Like a perfectly balanced cocktail, this revival blends passionate producers and popular demand with economic opportunity. And that is something to celebrate.