Tobacco Barn Distillery reviving ‘spirited’ tradition

AFP Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (June 6, 2017) — Few people know that Kentucky’s bourbon legacy actually got its start in Maryland.
“If you look at the phone book in Marion County, Kentucky, it looks a lot like the phone book here in St. Mary’s County,” said Scott Sanders, one of the founders of Tobacco Barn Distillery in Hollywood, Md. “A lot of the names are the same.,”
During the Revolutionary War, Sanders said, many Catholic families in Southern Maryland migrated to Kentucky, taking many traditions, including distilling, with them.
Hoping to revive the craft, Sanders and his partners, Dan Dawson and Sean Coogan opened Tobacco Barn Distillery, located on Dawson’s farm, which has been in his family for generations.
The three friends bonded over a passion for good whiskey.
During a conversation one evening, Sanders said that they realized they had the combination of skills to distill their own craft spirits and make a business out of it.
And that’s how Dawson’s family farm, which grew tobacco for nearly 300 years, now grows corn for whiskey.
The corn for Tobacco Barn’s craft liquor is estate grown.
Sanders said they are one of only two farm distilleries in the state growing for their own distilling purposes.
Dawson said about 20 acres of the farm are in production.
He rotates between corn and soybeans, growing about five and a half acres of corn a year for the distillery.
Tobacco Barn’s bourbon is 75-percent corn, Sanders said.
The other 25-percent is rye, which they sourced from Wicomico Grain in Charlotte Hall, Md.
The grains are processed at a local, Mennonite-owned mill in Loveville.
“In colonial Maryland, they didn’t grow barley or wheat,” Sanders said. “We’re trying to closely approximate what was traditionally being made here.”
It’s not just the grain that they source locally.
The molasses used to sweeten their rums is sourced from Domino Sugar in Baltimore.
Sanders said they use locally produced honey from Southern Maryland for their honey rum, one of their most popular products.
Soon, Sanders said they hope to also get their barrels locally. A new cooperage is opening in Garrett County, he said, and will produce custom-crafted white oak barrels for the distillery, brewery and winery industry.
“It’s truly a Maryland product,” Sanders said. “We have between 16 to 17 local suppliers throughout our supply chain who provide either a product or service. We do as much as we can in Maryland.”
Opening the distillery wasn’t an easy process, Sanders said.
They had to go through federal, state and local agencies to obtain the proper licenses and permits to distill spirits, operate the distillery and sell their product.
In 2011, St. Mary’s County passed regulations allowing distilleries in the county. Tobacco Barn Distillery was issued their final permits in December 2015.
Coogan said when they started the business their top priority was giving back. To them, that means two things: giving back to the community and giving back to the environment.
“There are a couple of things we knew we wanted to do when we opened this business. Paying it forward was number one and supporting the local economy. Then, we knew we wanted to also be environmentally responsible,” Coogan said.
Last year, Tobacco Barn Distillery released a special “Navy-style” rum called the Big Z to commemorate the commissioning of the U.S.S. Zumwalt, the U.S. Navy’s newest warship. Sanders, a retired admiral in the Navy, said a substantial portion of the proceeds went back to support the commissioning of the ship.
Their latest project is another limited edition rum called U.S.S. Constellation.
Tobacco Barn Distillery is the only distillery in the United States with a permit to age rum on a Navy ship. Sanders said the constant motion of the ship and temperature fluctuations give the rum a unique rich flavor.
“Everyone was on board and excited about this project,” said Sanders. “It helps drive tourism to the ship and we donate a portion of the proceeds back to the Historic Ships in Baltimore.”
Environmental stewardship is a core component of the business operation.
“We are the only Maryland distillery on the Maryland Green Registry,” Sanders said. “We’re pretty intensive about reusing everything, which is typical of a Maryland farmer. It’s my belief that Maryland farmers were the first conservationists.”
The farm uses a combination of solar and geothermal technology to power the distillery.
Tobacco Barn’s electrical consumption is offset by a solar array on the farm.
The partners, who happen to also be engineers, designed, built and installed a geothermal cooling system to reduce heat requirements by about 20 percent and recapture 100 percent of their cooling water.
Spent grain from the distilling process is also reused by local farmers as livestock feed.
Even the used oak barrels find new life after they’re done aging bourbon. Some are used to age the distillery’s rum products. Others have found homes at local breweries experimenting with new flavors and aging processes.
But it’s not enough to simply source local product, Sanders said. They have high standards for the quality of products that go into their spirits, Coogan said.
Often times that means it’s more expensive or only available in limited quantities, he added.
“We’d love to source our rye here,” Sanders said. “Most of what is grown, though, is for cover crop and it’s full of vetch.
“We’ve had to reject local suppliers, and they understand, but we just can’t have that in our product.”
Farmer’s markets are one of the outlets for Tobacco Barn Distillery to sell their products. Sanders said that makes for thought-provoking conversations with customers.
Recently, Sanders said he was asked if Tobacco Barn’s spirits are non-GMO.
He said he explained that the distillery does take advantage of biotechnology in an effort to produce a high quality crop.
“I’m an all-of-the-above type of person on these issues,” Sanders said. “I like to have a healthy discussion. There are certain attributes of GMO crops that are better for the environment. And if you’re a Maryland farmer, you know how hard it is to grow corn without biotechnology.”
Sanders said the distillery is looking for new ways to get their product to the public as production increases.
“We sell everything we make,” Sanders said. “Of course, that’s easy to say when you don’t have much to sell.”
Dawson said production varies based on the season and type of spirit they’re distilling.
He said currently production is about 3,000 gallons per year with a goal to increase to about 4,500 gallons per year.
Future plans also include converting an 1830s’ tobacco barn on the farm into a tasting room.
Sanders said he expects there will be some hurdles in getting the necessary permits, but the opportunity outweighs the headache, he said.
“We are part of the economic diversity for Maryland agriculture,” said Sanders. “Five miles that way is Sotterly Plantation and five miles in the other direction is Leonardtown. This would be a nice agritourism stop.”
In addition to the farmers’ markets, Tobacco Barn Distillery sells their spirits at events like those held by the Maryland Distillery Guild.
They also wholesale their product to local restaurants and liquor stores and sell select product through a distributor.
Sanders said the craft spirits movement is about ten years behind the craft brewers and that there’s plenty of room for growth.
There were 60 craft distilleries in the United States in 2003, according to the American Distillery Institute. Now there are 760.
The Maryland Distillery Guild website lists 19 distilleries or distillery/winery members with two additional distilleries listed as coming soon.
“Craft distillery is still on an upswing with about two percent of market share,” Sanders said, noting that industry experts expect that to grow to seven or eight percent in the next few years.
He said he’s found the industry to be very cooperative.
“Craft distillers all help each other out,” Sanders said. “It’s like grandmas’ chocolate chip cookies. They’re all good, they just taste a little different.”