Maryland's first new distiller in 40 years ships first products
By Joshua McKerrow — The Capital
The vodka with the provocative label, blended meticulously at Blackwater Distilling's Kent Island headquarters, is made from a mix of organic wheat and sugar cane spirits.
It officially hit the market April 1 when the vodka's distributor, Bacchus Importers of
Baltimore, pulled away from the Stevensville warehouse with every drop.
"They called and said they wanted every bottle we have," said former Annapolis resident Jon Cook, a partner in the venture along with his brother Christopher and friend Mark Troxler.
Sloop Betty's apparently got buzz.
In all, 605 cases were out the door. There is more Sloop Betty on hand but as of Friday the start-up venture was awaiting a shipment of its custom-made bottles to gear up the production line to make more.
A slight production hiccup, and hopefully a lesson learned, they said.
Bacchus sold about 170 of those cases in four days to 79 restaurants, bars and liquor stores throughout the state and Washington, D.C., said David Schroeder, vice president of operations at Bacchus.
Several outlets in Annapolis carry the 80-proof premium vodka. Sloop Betty can be found behind the bar at Galway Bay, Tsunami, Luna Blu, Harry Browne's, 49 West and the Severn Inn, among others.
Bottles of Sloop Betty can be had, in the low-$30 price range, at Edgewater Liquors, Festival Wine and Spirits, Goska's Liquors and other outlets locally.
Getting the first batch of Maryland's first new, and first ever, vodka sold did not happen overnight. Far from it.
The Cook brothers, who grew up on the Eastern Shore, began talking about starting a distillery several years ago after a discussion about the demise of the once-mighty Maryland distillery industry. Maryland rye whiskey was once in high demand and was one of the first commercial liquors sold in the country, along with rum. But it died out in the 1970s when the last real Maryland rye whiskey distillery made its last batch.
It took the Cooks years of research, studying distilling arts in Michigan and elsewhere, and then putting a business plan together.
The company was formed in 2005. Then they had to get the federal license to distill liquor. And state approvals, too.
Next was a location and financing. They got to that stage just about the time the economy faltered in early 2008.
Once in their location in the Chesapeake Bay Business Park just north of the Bay Bridge, it took another six months to do the build-out and begin making the first batch of spirits.
But it was just not any liquor they were after.
"Premium ingredients make a premium product," Jon Cook said. "We tested recipes for months until we found Sloop Betty."
It has been described as an extremely smooth vodka. The recipe tames the potential burn of the wheat spirits while keeping the sweet edge of the sugar cane in check.
They use organic products but still are in the process of becoming certified organic. Sloop Betty already is officially kosher.
'Down to delicious'
Now it's all about learning efficiencies in the process.
The operation is basically blending and filtering the two base products, a wheat and a sugar cane spirit into the premium product.
Sloop Betty is not distilled on site - the spirits arrive from a Baltimore commercial distiller that uses their recipe. It comes in two 275-gallon "totes," large plastic containers at 190 proof. Then each is blended down to 120 proof, then the two are blended together then filtered and reduced again to the final 80 proof.
The spirits are filtered through four six-foot long carbon filters, then a final filter that removes all possible impurities, including the carbon, down to 1 micron.
That final filter gets it "down to delicious," Jon Cook said.
Then it is run into a holding tank via stainless steel pipes before being added to the 30-gallon tank in the bottling machine.
The machine fills six bottles at a time, which roll on down the line to be capped and put into cases."When we are rolling we can do 100 cases an hour," Jon Cook said.
If Sloop Betty takes hold and sales keep growing, the company will use that income to build the business, acquiring large distilling tanks to begin making other products on site.
"Our goal is getting to the point where we can look at other products, grow the business. That is why we got into it," Christopher Cook said.
"We want to be a Maryland product, using grains grown in Maryland," he added.
He thinks they could keep 12 Maryland farms in business once the business grows and Blackwater Distilling branches out into other products.
It is about growing slowly and surely. They eventually want to make whiskey, gin, and Maryland rye whiskey once again.
"Maryland rye whiskey is going to be back - we are committed to that," Christopher Cook said.