The aroma of aging whiskey knocks back a first-time visitor to the Highlandtown distillery: a heady mingling of vanilla and wood from thousands of white oak barrels stacked on shelves. But Arch Watkins, a Navy veteran turned engineer turned distiller, can’t even smell it anymore. He breathes it day in and day out.
His rescue dog, Maya, at his feet, he adeptly explains the differences between single malt, the kind distilled here at Old Line Spirits, and other varieties of whiskey, among them bourbon and rye.
An adjacent bar, the Ready Room, sells cocktails with names that probably seem hilarious to Navy vets. (The bar’s name itself is a Navy reference). One, the liberty risk, comes from a term for when a ship’s commanding officer deems that a trouble-making sailor should be kept on board rather than allowed to roam at port. It can also be used as slang for a hard partier. At the Ready Room, the drink comes set on fire.
Old Line Spirits is a tribute to the supportive bonds that can develop between veterans even years after leaving the military. Before Watkins, 43, and fellow former Naval pilot Mark McLaughlin, 40, opened Old Line Spirits, they studied whiskey making under a Washington state Vietnam veteran who’d built his business with a Navy vet. Many of Old Line Spirits’ investors are vets; today, active-duty military personnel from Fort Meade and elsewhere are quick to stop by for a drink.
For every 10 veterans, there’s about one veteran-owned business, and veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans, according to the Small Business Association, which offers support to “vetrepreneurs.” Veteran entrepreneurship is an expanding trend among the nearly 200,000 service members who come off active duty each year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
There’s a sort of instant trust between veterans when they meet for the first time, McLaughlin says. This is not to suggest that all veterans are great people. But it is to explain how, within a few minutes of meeting him at a conference in 2014, Vietnam veteran Bob Stilnovich offered to sell him his company. And why, within a year of that meeting, McLaughlin and Watkins were living in Stilnovich’s guest house on remote Samish Island, Washington — about 80 miles north of Seattle — waking up to orcas breaching and learning the craft of single malt whiskey distilling.
Watkins and McLaughlin met when both were Naval pilots stationed at Whidbey Island in Washington. Both flew EA-6B Prowlers, powerful radar-equipped planes then used in airstrikes.
McLaughlin would spend 11 years in the service before leaving for civilian life; Watkins served for 20, including tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. The job could be fun and exhilarating at times, tedious at others. But it taught both the discipline and the organizational skills they would need to run their business. “Flying a plane’s a complicated thing," McLaughlin said. “If you don’t have any discipline, you’ll be a mess.”
Years later, they wound up living four doors down from each other in Butchers Hill — McLaughlin working for a local investment bank and Watkins an engineer for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Meanwhile, a dream lingered: Both wanted to open a distillery.
In 2014, McLaughlin headed out to the American Distilling Institute’s annual conference in Seattle, where he hoped to make some good industry contacts and to learn more about the trade. The anxiety began to mount as he realized how little he actually knew about distilling. He had a wife and two children. He’d just quit his job. What was he doing?
The way McLaughlin tells it, he was sitting on a couch having an existential freakout when in walked Bob Stilnovich, kind of like an angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The then 70-year-old Army veteran and single malt whiskey maker was searching for someone to take over the business that he and another Navy veteran, Jim Caudill, had started as a retirement hobby.
“We were two dumb s— — and we didn’t really know a hell of a lot about making whiskey," Stilnovich said of his early days running Golden Northwest Distillery. But they’d learned through trial and error, and by 2012, their Samish Bay single malt whiskey had been named best in class by the American Distilling Institute.
By 2014, Caudill was ill with lung disease, and Stilnovich was struggling to carry the load on his own. He was looking for someone to take over the business. He instantly took a liking to McLaughlin and Watkins. Knowing that they were veterans helped form a trust that grounded what would become their partnership.
“I knew they would come through, and they did,” Stilnovich said.
In 2015, Watkins tended bar at Caudill’s funeral. McLaughlin came out later, and “the boys," as Stilnovich still calls them, spent around five months living in his guest house while they learned the trade.
Stir up the mash when the grain is in the hot water. Agitate it so it doesn’t clump up. Put the de-foaming solution in the still. Over and over again, until they could make whiskey in their sleep.
As they worked, they’d sip whiskey and swap war stories — or sea stories as they’re called in the Navy — not necessarily the kinds of grand or traumatic stories you see in movies about military life, but instead stories of colossal screw-ups that might make no sense, or just be plain boring, if you hadn’t gone through something similar yourself.
“When you’re making whiskey, there’s a lots of dead time in between,” said Stilnovich. “You have lots of time to talk. ... My initials are B.S., you see.”
Returning to Baltimore, it took Watkins and McLaughlin more than two years to get their distillery up and running. Their space, a former towel-washing warehouse built around the end of World War II, has become a repository for the furniture and knickknacks their wives wanted them to get out of the house: a brown leather couch, old airplane parts and even a chair from an original ready room. It’s made in Baltimore and on loan from another Maryland distillery, founded by a retired Navy pilot. Watkins has a GI Joe-type action figure, a gag gift from his sister before a deployment to Iraq, and on the wall, framed pictures of airplanes they flew for the Navy.
Still, they try to be subtle when discussing their Navy backgrounds, Watkins said. “We’re proud of what we did, but we don’t want that to be the defining characteristic of why people come here,” Watkins said. The whiskey, he thinks, should speak for itself.
On Saturday, at their annual fall fling, he and McLaughlin began selling a limited-release batch of whiskey from the last three barrels they purchased from their forebears.
"These are the last barrels and the best barrels that we saved from Bob and Jim,” McLaughlin said.
And Stilnovich is proud of his proteges. “I give them the utmost credit because they persevered," he said. “And they went around and they made it work.”
At the event Saturday, McLaughlin and Watkins handed out samples to the long line of guests waiting for their turn at the bar, a bigger turnout than they had expected.
Nearby, McLaughlin’s father-in- law, Bob Hylton, held a tumbler of the reserve whiskey, which he said had been aged to perfection.
A former pilot who spent 25 years in the Air Force, Hylton recalls firsthand the camaraderie that develops from serving in the military. “It’s a huge family, a huge community,” he said. “There’s a sense of common purpose.”