When launching a whiskey brand, one ingredient matters most: patience.
Just ask the owners of the new Baltimore Whiskey Co. On a recent Friday morning, after a few last sips of coffee, Max Lents and Eli Breitburg-Smith jumped into a major production day at their Remington distillery. In the way of their goal — to become "the premier rye whiskey on the East Coast," Breitburg-Smith later says — is the required time it takes to age the spirit in oak barrels.
"It's looking like early 2018," Breitburg-Smith said of when they expect their whiskey on store shelves.
So, like others before them, Lents and Breitburg-Smith (along with the third owner, Ian Newton, 31, who was not at the distillery) launched a whiskey brand without any whiskey. In the meantime, the company — which began production in early November — recently released its first product, Baltimore Shot Tower Gin. Later this year, they expect to debut two others, 1904 Ginger Apple Liqueur and Charles Street Apple Brandy.
Each product is made with a handcrafted mindset, but they admit the spirits were also solutions to a problem all new whiskey companies face: How to build a business years before its flagship product enters the market?
"Right now, the difficulty is how do we make as much [whiskey] as possible and pay the bills?" Lents, 31, said as Breitburg-Smith kept an eye on a fermenter. "We've got a great lineup of products coming that we will stand behind the whole time. The more we can sell of those things, the more money we'll be able to put into whiskey production."
The Baltimore Whiskey Co. began nearly three years ago. After working at Joe Squared, Lents — who grew up in Houston with Newton and came to the area to attend Goucher College — wanted to open a bar. As the craft beer scene grew more popular and local craft distilling soon followed, the business plan shifted to a distillery. (Newton, who travels frequently for his IT job, decided to make Baltimore his home to work on launching the business.) Lents and Newton, both Hampden residents, brought on 29-year-old Breitburg-Smith, a Prince Frederick native with professional brewing experience.
The company shares its space in Remington's Broom Factory with the Mill Valley General Store.
Equipment came from craftsmen around the country, including Alabama for the fermenters and the copper still from Olympia, Wash. Lents said it took "well under" a half-million dollars to launch.
We walk a few feet to a makeshift lobby — really, an old wooden bar next to a faded couch by the entrance. I point to the windowsill, which looks like nearly all of the windowsills in the distillery — lined with empty bottles of liquor such as High West Whiskey Campfire, Wild Turkey 101 and Redbreast 12-Year-Old Irish Whiskey. Lents calls it research and development.
I first try the 1904 Ginger Apple Liqueur, which uses the company's apple brandy as a base. Other ingredients include macerated ginger, molasses, sugar and apple juice. It's a smooth liqueur, one that can be sipped or thrown back as a shot with similar ease. If you're over the cinnamon-flavored Fireball whiskey, this local substitute boasts a brighter, more natural flavor, and should go down easier. The hope is to have it in stores by February, Lents said, and the apple brandy should arrive this summer.
Next comes the Baltimore Shot Tower Gin. I expect a heavy dose of pine flavor like a typical London dry gin, but instead taste a mellower spirit with a heavy citrus finish. Breitburg-Smith notes "some jasmine flower on the nose, as well as a nice green tea on the finish." It works well with cocktails, he says, and I feel strange for wanting a dirty martini before noon.
Their plan is to produce, per month, a thousand bottles of liqueur, a thousand bottles of gin and three barrels of whiskey, Lents said. A barrel-rested gin is also in the works, and other ideas — like their own absinthe and a coffee liqueur — continue to percolate.
The gin is available now, but the whiskey is never far from their minds. Producing rye whiskey — a regional spirit that fell out of favor decades ago but whose popularity has risen as whiskey's has, too — has sentimental value to the company.
"We absolutely wanted to take part in the history of Maryland, and that was part of the inspiration for the project as a whole," Lents said. "It's a very sophisticated spirit. … Rye tends to be more of a culinary experience [than bourbon] with a lot of depth."
They expect it to have the bold, kick-in-the-chest spiciness all ryes should have, but they won't know the true profile until the aging process is complete. Knowing this, I ask how it will taste anyway.
Breitburg-Smith pauses, then smiles.
"We'll find out," he said, before getting back to work.