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After nearly 40 years, distilling returns to Maryland

Christopher and Jonathan Cook are too young to remember the glory days of local liquor, when the unmistakable perfume of Maryland rye wafted over parts of Baltimore, when the sturdy spirit enjoyed status as the real man's drink of the Chesapeake.

Even so, the brothers, who grew up on the Eastern Shore, are the best hope of reviving Maryland's lost tradition.

The Cooks are poised to become the state's first distillers in nearly 40 years, as they blend and bottle a recipe for a premium wheat vodka they're calling Sloop Betty. The brothers know they are rewriting a chapter in Maryland history, even as they quench regional cocktail enthusiasts' thirst for artisanal spirits and fulfill a dream shared by countless deskbound professionals — to use their hands to create something real.

"There's something about bringing that industry back that means something," Christopher Cook says. "There's a level of pride."

The Cooks, who both have federal government day jobs, have been working nights, weekends and holidays on their plan for seven years. In spring 2004, the two had been kicking around the idea of opening a restaurant. After one location fell through, Jonathan Cook, who's 33, was fooling around online, calling up pictures of random relics on the Maryland state archives website. He came across photos of dusty, beaten-up whiskey bottles, remains from the state's long-shuttered distilleries. He all but got chills.

A worn, pre-Prohibition shot glass from Ram's Horn whiskey somehow spoke to him. He immediately copied it into an e-mail to his older brother with the message, "an idea." Christopher, who's 41, quickly wrote back: "I'm intrigued."

And so it began.

They scribbled back and forth for most of the next week and, soon, they'd hatched a rough concept for bringing homegrown liquor back to Maryland. By fall they'd zeroed in on what they'd call their company: Blackwater Distilling, a nod to the serene nature preserve where the two former Eagle Scouts had camped as boys.

Still, neither brother had a lick of distilling experience. Neither of them had ever owned a business. And they weren't exactly sitting on piles of money.

The Cooks both enjoyed a nice drink — there was that. But the brothers would soon learn that enthusiasm would take them only so far in the complex, heavily regulated liquor industry.

"We thought, how hard could it be to get into this business?" Christopher says, laughing. "The answer is: very hard.

"We've had so many people tell us: 'You can't do this. You don't want to do this,'" he says. "If we knew then what we know now, I doubt we'd be here talking about this."

Maryland's distilling industry was once the nation's fifth-largest, with the state producing millions of gallons of whiskey, gin and vodka. Best known was Maryland rye, a heavy, dark and serious liquor bottled all around Baltimore under elegantly named brands such as Monticello, Hunter, Mount Vernon and Sherwood.

The uninitiated might wince as they quaffed it straight, but local rye loyalists boasted of their drink's acquired taste. In 1963, reporter Carl Schoettler described rye's lore in The Evening Sun. "Men who have spent their lives in the whiskey business talk about Maryland rye with the same fondness some men speak of hand-made guns, meerschaum pipes, fast horses and beautiful women."

Even so, most of the plants that made the celebrated rye — and all of the other local liquors — had stopped distilling by the 1970s. A few of the factories lived on, but with new lives as bottling and distribution plants. Pikesville rye, a brand particularly tied to Baltimore, is still for sale but is made entirely in Kentucky.

Lou Berman, who started with the state's alcohol and tobacco field enforcement office in 1976, just as Maryland's only surviving distilleries breathed their last gasp, says changes both in people's tastes and in the marketplace killed them. Whiskey was out of vogue, replaced by clear spirits such as vodka and gin. And independent, mom-and-pop factories couldn't compete with the new mega-spirit companies that owned the majority of popular brands.

As the only officer in his department that's had a chance of approving a distilling license in memory, Berman says he admires the Cooks' initiative — and he hopes he'll appreciate their vodka as well.

"No one can compete with the big boys," Berman says. "They have to make a product with a local hook — they have to make something that's excellent. And if it's good, it will become part of my bar. Here in Maryland we don't eat Virginia crab. We don't eat Philippine crab. We try to drink local beer. Those of us that want to support the home team will be no small part of their market."

Michael Fiore, owner of Harford County's Fiore Winery, knows a little about what the Cook brothers are trying to do. In 2007, he became the first vintner in the state to exploit a then-new law that allowed vineyards to produce wine-based spirits. He began turning residue from pinot grigio grapes into the Italian favorite grappa — and has since expanded to making limoncello and fruit infusions like blueberry port.

Fiore was able to introduce distilling as a sideline to his already-thriving wine business. He didn't have much at stake. And he'll be the first to admit that was a good thing.

For Fiore, distilling has been more labor of love, less profit generator. With customers "few and far between," he says he mainly enjoys experimenting with new flavors — he's now playing with apricot.

Yet the winemaker, who's familiar with the Cooks' enterprise, believes that the brothers' artisanal point of view — where each bottle is treated like the only one — will serve them well.

"[They're] probably going to make one of the best vodkas you'll find in the state of Maryland," Fiore says. "There's no doubt in my mind."

When Blackwater begins making Sloop Betty — expected to be in March — it will join a still-exclusive club of boutique distillers across the country. Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, says only 254 companies, all of them small, are making craft spirits. Seven years ago, when the Cooks first thought of trying it, there were fewer than 100.

It's nine massive companies that produce 99 percent of the country's spirits, Owens says. His 254 small fries work together to distill that final percent.

"There's not going to be a distillery on every other corner in America in two years. It won't happen," Owens says. "People are doing this out of their passion. We're talking deep passion. They want to follow their bliss."

On a recent weekend, the Cook brothers were holed up at the spot where their bliss has led them — a nondescript Stevensville business park. Specifically, it's a small warren of rooms with flat, industrial carpeting, generic office furniture and nothing on the walls save their framed distiller's license. Even in back, where the vodka will be mixed and bottled, it's nothing but concrete walls and a lonely conveyer belt backed into a corner — just waiting for bottles to convey.

If there's any touch of post-Prohibition flavor, it's in the image of Sloop Betty herself, a saucy woman whose name comes from a storied 18th-century Maryland ship. On the vodka's label, Betty is shameless and teasing — in a red dress that would probably stop Bay Bridge traffic.

The Cooks and their partner, Mark Troxler, who was responsible for the package design, worried Betty's hemline was so short that the inspecting rabbi would deny them kosher certification. He didn't — which makes that one of the few aspects of launching a distillery that was easier than the brothers expected.

The three have flown around the country to meet other distillers and learn the trade, attending workshops, networking at conferences and touring dozens of distilleries. They engaged in seemingly endless negotiations with federal and state regulators. They swallowed their pride, seeking loans from what Christopher Cook guesses was "every bank in the state of Maryland." They courted investors and obsessed over a recipe that would erase the dreaded "vodka burn." They sweated every detail of the packaging — from the shipping boxes to the corks to the lettering of the word "Blackwater," inspired by the handwriting of Maryland's signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Each brother has put at least $100,000 of his own money into the project. Their father chipped in thousands more. When they start to bottle in a few weeks, it will be the two of them, their wives and their friends running the equipment and packing boxes — and only after they get home from their day jobs.

The vodka, which will sell for a little over $30 a bottle, will be available in Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

If Sloop Betty succeeds, in the next couple of months the Cooks hope to start making a gin. Flavored vodkas might be next, possibly seasonal ones — Jonathan has been thinking about a mulling spice vodka for winter, maybe an Old Bay variety to spice up summertime Bloody Marys.

"There's a lot riding on this," Christopher Cook says. "I don't know if the payoff will come spiritually or economically. But God knows we've sunk a lot of our own money into this. You have to hope it's worth it. You have to believe it's worth it."

It would be, at least for Brendan Door, an award-winning mixologist with Baltimore's B&O American Brasserie. He's eager to get a Maryland-made spirit behind his bar.

"It's been a long time coming," Door says. "When a guest comes in and asks for a Grey Goose, I'd like to say, 'Oh, Grey Goose is excellent, but why don't you try something local."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

jill.rosen.@baltsun.com

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