Launch of New Maryland Distillery Highlights Regulatory Hurdles

The Baltimore Sun had a great feature this weekend on the launch by two native Marylanders of the state’s first distillery in decades.   Blackwater Distilling, and its initial offering Sloop Betty hand-crafted vodka, aims to revive the Old Line State’s long dormant, but once proud, liquor industry.

I stumbled upon Blackwater’s website one evening back in the fall while researching whether anyone was still making Maryland Rye.  I was spurred by rye whiskey’s increasing popularity (dare I say trendiness?) and my memory of this scene from that great American novel, All the King’s Men:

The first afternoon I walked down the beach, past the Stanton place, which was cold and hollow-looking beyond the dripping leaves, and on out to the Irwin place, where Judge Irwin put me in a chair with my heels to the fire and opened a bottle of his choice old Maryland rye to give me a drink, and invited me to dinner the next night.

So it was with great pleasure that I learned someone was actually trying to bring distilling back to Maryland.  I managed to connect with Chris Cook and we had a great conversation about their vision, which involved starting with clear spirits like vodka and gin (which do not require aging) and ultimately offering a rye whiskey made right here in Maryland.

It is great to see that their vision is now becoming a reality, especially considering the regulatory hurdles described in the Sun article.  The story describes the “seemingly endless negotiations with federal and state regulators” the Blackwater guys had to endure and the fact that no one in recent memory had even applied for a Maryland distiller’s license, let alone get approved for one.  But Blackwater navigated these uncharted waters with apparent aplomb, and their license is now hanging on the wall of their Kent Island distillery, and at least one of the regulators responsible for issuing such licenses (and who has a memory of actually doing so) appears to be rooting for them (again, from the Sun article):

“No one can compete with the big boys,” [Lou] Berman [who started with the state’s alcohol and tobacco regulatory division in 1976] 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.”

Count me in as well.  I’ll buy Sloop Betty when it is ready, but I really can’t wait to offer my guests some Maryland Rye.



Friday Eye Opener

Here’s a taste of the news we’ve been following this week:

Recognizing the wave of local breweries breaking in Washington D.C., giving life to a long barren craft brew landscape, Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. has introduced a bill that would allow production breweries to operate tasting rooms at their facilities.  DC Brau Brewing Company is given credit for providing much of the impetus for the bill.

The Virginia legislature passed legislation changing the state’s labeling laws to permit apple-based alcoholic beverages with greater than 7% alcohol content to be sold as “hard cider.”  Apparently, many varietals of Virginia apple naturally ferment to 10% abv.  The current law, which will change upon the Governor’s signature, requires would-be cider with greater than 7% alcohol content to be labeled as wine.

Virginia also lifted regulations this week that banned alcohol ads on billboards throughout the state.  The move was in response to a free speech lawsuit.

In other labeling law news, here’s a good story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on how the liquor industry is resisting efforts to require calories counts and other nutritional information to be included on their products.

Corkage (or as I like to call them, BYOW) laws have been big stories in Maryland and Virginia this legislative session, with Virginia moving with much greater haste than Maryland.  Here, the Wine Spectator turns its attention to the subject.

Finally, a story out of Cumberland, Maryland, illustrating the hoops one must jump through to get a temporary liquor license.