Reviving Maryland's distinguished distilling tradition
Reviving Maryland's distinguished distilling tradition
Maryland’s distilling roots run deep. Prior to Prohibition, Maryland proudly produced what was widely regarded to be the nation’s finest whiskey, a distinct style called Maryland Rye. During the 13 years of Prohibition, Maryland’s enterprising farmers continued to turn their plentiful harvests into high-proof “swamp lightning” in stills hidden among the coves, inlets, and marshes of the Chesapeake, and oystermen and crabbers smuggled the “good stuff” up and down the Bay, evading Federal Revenue agents and the Coast Guard and finding safe haven among the close-lipped communities that lined the tidewater.
But rarely did they face harassment from local authorities. Maryland, the only state never to enact a Prohibition enforcement law, was known as the “wettest state” during Prohibition. It was during this time that Maryland figures such as Governor Albert Richie and author and Baltimore Sunpapers columnist H.L. Mencken rose to national fame for their vehement opposition to what they viewed as an egregious overreach of Federal authority, and rumrunners like Pete “King James” Kelly rose to infamy.
At Blackwater Distilling, founded in 2008 and Maryland’s first fully-licensed beverage alcohol distillery since 1972, we celebrate this brash, enterprising, and fiercely independent spirit by crafting distinctive spirits that stand apart from the crowd, using organic and local ingredients when possible.
Our first product is Sloop Betty vodka, which blends spirits from organic wheat and sugar cane for a dangerously smooth and complex vodka. Sloop Betty has won three Gold Medals, including "Best Vodka in Show" at the 2012 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, and a 94-point rating in The Tasting Panel Magazine. For Sloop Betty's counterpart, Sloop Betty Honey, we blend raw, unpasteurized honey from Maryland's Eastern Shore with Sloop Betty to create a sippable vodka that can be enjoyed on the rocks or used to sweeten cocktails.
Picaroon means simply one thing: rogue. With Picaroon Maryland Rum, we went a totally different direction from the more common blackstrap molasses-based rums. Rather than molasses, Picaroon begins with raw sugar from a single source in Brazil. We ferment at tropical temperatures using a yeast sourced from the Caribbean island of Martinique and distill to a high purity for a sippable white and gold rum with notes of tropical fruit, cream, and vanilla, and a sweet, lingering finish.
Chris wants to live in a world where spirits and cocktails distilled and crafted in Maryland harken back to a time before prohibition; where choices were plenty and uniformity was frowned upon—and dogs were welcome at work.
Chris brings twenty years of project and people management experience to the Blackwater team and a decade of expertise related to state and federal statutes ranging from excise tax to formula and label approvals. Active in local political circles, Chris spearheaded statewide legislation in 2012 with the help of local state representatives whose aim was to open the business doors for all Maryland distilleries to onsite tours, tastings, and sales.
Responsible for overall business operations, Chris is committed to making Blackwater Distilling a destination location for all who cross the Bay Bridge.
The younger of the two founding brothers, Jon oversees production strategy and high-level operations at the distillery. Hopefully one day Jon will send us the rest of his bio.
Andy's passion for all things alcohol has taken him from a small family winery in Napa Valley to the baijiu factories of China, of which he saw many during a 10,000-mile bicycle ride around the country from 2009 to 2010. In the distillery, Andy obsesses over the quality and consistency of our award-winning products and is always looking for ways to add a new twist to a classic spirit. On the side, Andy is an avid home brewer, cocktail shaker, and Chinese translator. When he's not staring intently at the still, you'll find Andy cycling around the Eastern Shore or checking a breathtaking hike somewhere in the world off his bucket list.
At Blackwater Distilling, we have a riveted focus on quality and creativity. Our philosophy has always been that marketing and advertising might be able to get someone to buy the first bottle, but it can’t keep them coming back for more unless what’s inside is of a singular quality. It’s all about what’s in the bottle for us, and we’ve grown to where we are today largely on word of mouth about world-class spirits being made right here in Maryland. For us, that means working with a combination of spirits we distill in-house and spirits we source from outstanding producers around the world—and, most importantly, being honest about which is which.
“Produced and Bottled” vs. “Distilled and Bottled”
There is, unfortunately, a lot of dishonesty and downright deceit in the craft distilling world. One example: about ninety-five percent of the rye whiskey sold in America comes from one distillery in Indiana but it’s sold under countless brands trying to convince you they make it from an old family recipe by the “small batch.” In our opinion, that’s disingenuous. What’s not dishonest: transparently sourcing spirits from other distilleries and crafting them in unique ways through blending, filtering, or aging them in barrels. It’s estimated, for example, that 60-70% of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the barrels it’s aged in. We, like you, want to know what we’re buying when we pull a bottle of “handcrafted” spirit off the shelf. So we would offer the following lesson in transparency. And really, who else would offer this much detail?
If you look on the back of a bottle of our Sloop Betty Handcrafted Wheat Vodka, you’ll notice the words “Produced and Bottled by Blackwater Distilling.” Those words are our honest acknowledgement that we do not distill the spirits that make up Sloop Betty, but we are transforming spirits distilled elsewhere into something uniquely delicious at our distillery.
When we set out to make Sloop Betty, we wanted to make a vodka that would stand out against other top-shelf vodkas with millions in marketing dollars behind them based on quality alone. To accomplish that, we did a number of recipe development distillations on our three-gallon Holstein still (the biggest still we could afford when we founded the company in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis!), and settled on a combination of organic wheat and organic sugar cane as our base. We then went in search of distillers who could make truly outstanding neutral spirits out of those two raw materials.
We found a distillery in Italy that makes a bright spirit from organic Italian red wheat with wonderful berry-like notes, and a distillery in Brazil that makes a clean sugar cane spirit with just a hint of sweetness and vanilla, which we use as an accent in our wheat vodka to naturally cut the burn usually found in grain-based spirits. Sloop Betty is a blend of those two spirits: 80% organic wheat, and 20% organic sugar cane. At the distillery, we lightly filter the combination of spirits through a blend of activated carbon that highlights, rather than eliminates, the berry notes from the organic wheat, and bring the vodka down to bottle proof with water from local aquifers that we filter on site.
On the back of a bottle of Picaroon Maryland Rum, you’ll see the words “Distilled and Bottled by Blackwater Distilling.” This is how we indicate that we are making Picaroon entirely from scratch, right here in Maryland. We start with a cane sugar that is as raw as you can get—nothing added, nothing removed—and a strain of yeast from the island of Martinique, which we ferment at Caribbean temperatures to bring out the tropical fruit aromas that are a signature of our rum. Click here to read more about the process we use to make Maryland’s most sippable rum.
In the future, you’ll see Blackwater Distilling products, particularly whiskies, some of which we’ll be making entirely from scratch at the distillery, and others where we’ll be adding our own touch to something born half a world away. Others will be collaborations with local breweries and wineries where we’re distilling an alcohol on-site that was mashed or fermented elsewhere. Our promise to you is that we’ll always be honest about what we’re doing, and you’ll always be able to tell from our packaging whether a product is “produced and bottled” or “distilled and bottled” by Blackwater Distilling.
Chris, Jon, Andy, and Jon