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Columbia's Lost Ark Distilling focused on winning over their backyard

Since opening the Lost Ark Distilling Company in December, its founders have encountered their share of skeptics walking through the Columbia doors.

"Rum can have a bad stigma, so we're trying to reintroduce this to people who can only think of Bacardi or Captain [Morgan] from college," co-owner Brad Blackwell said last week inside the 1,600-square-foot tasting room.

Andy Debenham, the other half of the two-man team, added, "Probably 80 percent of the people who've come in and said that, they leave with a bottle."

That direct owner-to-consumer sales pitch speaks to Lost Ark's patience when it comes to growth. Their eyes are not yet set on the East Coast or even neighboring states. Instead, the goal now is "to win our backyard," they said, by focusing on Columbia first, and becoming a known asset to the community. With a couple of rums out now and more spirits on the way, Blackwell and Debenham believe they're on the right track.

"There's just something satisfying about bringing people in, showing them what you made and letting them taste your spirits," Debenham, 48, said.

They hope Lost Ark can deliver a more ambitious goal, too: To one day quit their day-jobs as system engineers in information technology.

It was in the corner of their office basement in Howard County nearly three years ago where the colleagues-turned-friends came up with a plan to start a distillery. They brewed beer as a hobby, but noticed the Maryland market was less crowded for startup distilleries.

"We wanted to find a new way to challenge ourselves," Blackwell said.

After initial plans to launch in Laurel fell through, Blackwell, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Debenham, a Minnesota native, eventually chose Columbia — a location they believe is on the rise and embracing the local alcohol industry in the process.

The town has a reputation as "a planned neighborhood type of thing, but there's so much growth happening right now," Blackwell said, pointing to beer companies like soon-to-be-neighbor Hysteria Brewing and Black Flag Brewing as examples. "It's a great opportunity to be a part of something."

Lost Ark is attempting to carve out of its own slice of the market with two 80-proof products: Lady Anne White Rum and Terra Mariae Spiced Rum ($28.50 and $30 respectively, per bottle, at the distillery).

Like other nascent distilleries, Lost Ark plans to release whiskey but has to wait for the years-long aging process. Rum became the solution to the question, "How do we keep the lights on in the meantime?" Blackwell, 33, said.

Having sampled both rums, I would say Lost Ark is off to an intriguing start. Believing most people would drink the white rum in a cocktail, they produced a clear spirit with bright, tropical fruit notes and an almost cotton candy nose. I imagined it would blend nicely in a mojito.

The spiced rum was bolder with its burst of flavors — think vanilla, orange peel and nutmeg — that immediately make an impression. In both cases, my curiosity piqued — these were quality products that seem well suited for mixed drinks.

I also tried the currently unavailable 1634 Corn Whiskey, first released last month. (They sold out of their 45 bottles in less than two days, owners said.) For a 90-proof moonshine, its sweet corn flavor was surprisingly pronounced. They plan to make bourbon and rye whiskey in the future, too, but are still tinkering with recipes.

"We don't want to put something in the barrel and wait a year, and it's not what we wanted," Blackwell said.

The current line of products reflect the owners' emphasis on small-batch production and local sourcing. The corn and wheat used were grown on Howard County farms. Lost Ark also chooses to mill its own grain. Blackwell compared it to grinding coffee beans yourself rather than buying prepackaged grounds.

"If you can take a minimal extra step like that to make something better then why wouldn't you do it?" he said.

While Lost Ark is focused on winning over Columbia residents first, future expansion is an eventual goal. Currently, only select liquor stores and bars in Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Baltimore counties carry their products, but Debenham said he wants "all of Maryland" to carry Lost Ark in a few years.

But as they've demonstrated, the owners prefer to make their pitch to potential customers face-to-face. That intimate interaction is the best way for them to establish a connection that lasts after they leave.

"They have no idea what to expect," Blackwell said of first-time visitors. "It's cool to see we're the ones making it. We get to have that personal conversation and taste together. … It's something that we made, and it's not generic. It's our idea, and it's created the way we want to do it."

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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If you go

Lost Ark Distilling Company is located at 9570 Berger Road, Suite L, Columbia. It's open 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Fridays, noon-6 p.m. Saturdays and noon-4 p.m. Sundays, with free tours and tastings given every half hour. Call 443-279-6178 or go to lostarkdistilling.com.

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