Blackwater Distilling is an unassuming operation tucked in an industrial park just across the Bay Bridge in Stevensville. Five years ago they quietly became Maryland's first licensed distillery in nearly four decades. In 2011 they poured their first potent potable, Sloop Betty, an organic vodka fashioned from wheat and sugarcane whose bottle sports a leggy, pin-up lass inspired by World War II airplane-nose art. Betty made a splash in the already jostling top-shelf vodka market, winning Gold Medal and Best in Show accolades at last year's New York World Wine and Spirit Competition, and earning a 94-point rating from the beverage trade publication The Tasting Panel. Her gams are now displayed on store shelves and bar rails in more than 10 states. But like actors that really want to direct, what Blackwater CEO Chris Cook really wants to do is make a whiskey. A rye to be exact. So we asked Cook about Betty's forthcoming amber stablemate, and if the state's proud whiskey heritage is on the rebound.
City Paper: So why a whiskey and why now?
Chris Cook: We couldn't start with whiskey, even though that was the idea-to bring whiskey back as part of Maryland culture and to pull grain from Maryland producers for a sustainability and local angle. That was always the dream. But if you look at vodka, it's a $10 billion industry in the country today. From a cash-flow perspective, it made more sense to start with a light spirit that was very popular. It was also something that didn't require any aging-it goes from pot still to bottle to store shelves, and that's where we are today.
CP: Is craft distilling the craft brewing of the 21st century?
CC: I think so. I think right now we are where craft brewers were 20 or 25 years ago. Craft distilling has evolved at a faster clip on the West Coast, but it's certainly migrating east. Look at St. George, a distiller in Alameda, Calif. They got their start with Hangar One vodka and then evolved into other fantastic products, including whiskey. We really sought to emulate them. We see this gourmet-ification effect across the country-the Williams-Sonoma effect-where people are really interested in handcrafted maple syrup or olive oil or beer or spirits. I think we are going to ride a crest here.
CP: Does it surprise you how quickly and severely our rye whiskey days dried up?
CC: You can't even find rye growing in Maryland except as a cover crop today. This amazingly rich culture just disappeared after Prohibition. Essentially, the federal government says that nobody can say "Maryland rye" on their labels. You can say "Maryland-style" rye or things like that, but unless you are actually distilling it in Maryland and it is 51-percent rye, you cannot say Maryland rye on your label. We'd like to be the first that does, though there are others in the pipeline. I know there are folks in Southern Maryland and there's a group in Frederick County that I think are working on their permits.
CP: Will a whiskey mean a lot more work?
CC: It is more work. Our goal is to pull the ingredients locally from Maryland. Also, Sloop Betty is an organic product, so we have to ask ourselves, are we entirely an organic shop? It's difficult when you try to comingle organic and nonorganic products and raw materials. I've also always been interested in the idea of sourcing from historically significant land-somebody or some group out there that's still in the farming business and has historically provided these grains to distilleries. There are not a lot of folks out there like that who have both fallow fields and an organic certification.
CP: Do you have a flavor profile in mind for the whiskey?
CC: We actually have access to some recipes that are circa-1890s. One of the tricks in this business is trying to replicate or reverse-engineer old whiskeys, and certainly there are whiskeys out there that have been unopened for some seven or eight decades that you can actually look at. But you have to also look from the grain perspective. What strain of rye was used for a particular recipe? There are many different rye strains out there, and you have to be able to find the seeds and then willing partners in terms of growing it.
CP: How long will it age?
CC: The neat thing about a rye is that you could do an unaged version. You see the clear whiskeys out there that are unaged, you see the moonshines out there. Talk to anybody in the retail business and they're going to tell you that that stuff sells like hot cakes. So I think we are looking at having an unaged product. You can also have a product that's 18 months old and you can have a product that's four years old. There's a lot of experimentation that goes on with different barrels and different woods. You can have one product where the rye comes from a location that has historical significance that might be your top-shelf, the rye that's aged for four years. This would be a limited product with only so many cases a year. Then you could have an unaged product you could turn out year-round.
CP: What is your whiskey timeframe?
CC: We want something out this year. Obviously, the aged stuff isn't going to be this year, but we'd like to be in production in the next few months and like to have something unaged out there soon.
CP: Will this be Sloop Betty whiskey?
CC: No, I think we'll do something different. I don't know if it will be pin-up themed or not. For a top-shelf product, probably not. But to successfully launch a new brand takes a few years, so there's an appeal to keeping the Betty name out there instead of reinventing the wheel. It's something we are going to bat around.
CP: Anything else in the works?
CC: We've also talked about doing a rum. We've talked about using local ingredients to do some flavored vodka, because that's all the rage. But you're never going to see us do a cotton candy or lollipop flavor or some other crappy-ass vodka like that. But if it's something that we do at the local level with quality ingredients, that resonates with people. Another thing we want to do this year is open the door to the public, which we haven't done yet. I get a significant email volume asking about tours. There was legislation passed in the last session that allows us to provide tours, give workshops, and even sell product on-site. So we'd like to set up a little store to sell glassware and T-shirts and get folks in to get an education on the distillation process-kind of making it an on-the-way-to-Ocean City destination.
CP: Most of Maryland whiskey history seems to be based around Baltimore and points north and west. What are you doing on the Eastern Shore?
CC: You're right. Maryland rye history is mostly up around Baltimore and some up in Frederick County. We looked into Baltimore and we looked into Annapolis, but from a zoning standpoint, it was just a lot simpler to set up here. Queen Anne's County was all open arms to have us here, and being on Kent Island has been great for us.