Howard County is set to join Maryland’s growing craft distillery movement with the establishment of the Lost Ark Distilling Co., in North Laurel.
In March, Lost Ark Co-Founders Brad Blackwell and Andy Debenham announced the signing of a lease securing their 4,500-square-foot location in a business park at 9385 Washington Boulevard.
After working with the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) and receiving written approval from the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, Lost Ark will be the first distillery in Howard County and among the first that have begun to appear in Maryland since the end of Prohibition.
“The market and demand for local quality spirits is being driven by the same type of interest that launched the craft beer movement,” Blackwell said.
Both owners are home brewers who got the bug to become entrepreneurs. Blackwell and Debenham said they briefly considered establishing a microbrewery, but the equipment cost, time commitment and expanding marketplace proved discouraging.
“The market isn’t exactly saturated, but it’s getting harder for new breweries to compete,” Blackwell said. “We realized that, unlike breweries, there aren’t that many Maryland distilleries in existence yet. We saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor.”
Blackwell and Debenham said they intend to keep their jobs as government information technology contractors and operate the distillery in their spare time, self-distributing to bars, restaurants and liquor stores.
Still Life With History
The distillery’s name is steeped in Maryland history, inspired by the first settlers who arrived in the Maryland colony aboard ships christened the Ark and the Dove.
“The first settlers were carefully chosen because of their skills and abilities to survive,” Debenham said, a scheme which meant they used their own hands to make, grow or repair everything they had. “It’s our goal at Lost Ark to get back to those roots and embrace the mindset and emotion of those first settlers.”
“It’s also our intention to produce a premium, upscale product,” Blackwell said.
While any adult can legally brew beer, federal law prohibits even those on track to open a distillery from making practice batches to perfect a recipe, until they have received a license to operate a distilled spirits plant. However, that didn’t prevent Blackwell and Debenham from enrolling in a distilling school to learn how to make whiskey and get some practical experience.
“We attended a two-day Master Class last July at the 8 Feathers Distillery in Boise, Idaho,” Blackwell said.
In that class, he and Debenham learned about water and mash chemistry, fermentation, stripping and spirit runs, equipment selection, sales, marketing, safety and other aspects of the operation.
Minding the Revenuers
Lost Ark will feature a 1,500-square foot tasting room, but libations will not be poured or served as in a bar.
“Our license allows us to conduct tours and provide only three half-ounce samples,” Blackwell said, the combined equivalent volume contained in a single shot. “We are not permitted to sell shots or mixed drinks in the tasting room.”
The license does permit the sale of up to three 750-milliliter bottles of product to each patron, but does not permit on-premises consumption.
A $200,000 Small Business Administration loan arranged through The Columbia Bank is in place to finance the distillery, which will be capable of producing four mashes per week.
“Conceivably, we could produce 1,550 bottles each month, or roughly 20,000 bottles in a year,” Debenham said.
Depending on demand, the distillery could provide private bottling for special occasions, Blackwell said, and could also produce seasonal specialties such as fruit-based brandies more commonly known as eaux de vie.
At present, only seven active distilleries exist in the state. Lost Ark and another distillery proposed in Baltimore are expected to bring that number to nine by the end of the year.
“Maryland is a bit behind the curve, as far as numbers go,” said Jaime Windon, co-owner of the Lyon Distillery in St. Michaels and president of the Maryland Distillers Guild. “But we’re ahead of the curve in terms of getting organized and promoting the industry.”
By now, every state has at least one small craft distillery. Many have at least a dozen, but Washington State leads the charge with nearly 90 at last count.
In contrast, only 14 states have organized distillers guilds.
“We’re set up to bring a sense of community to the industry and to provide a united voice on legal issues in Annapolis and Washington, D.C.,” Windon said. “Our members can also turn to us for support and assistance.”
Following a 60– to 90–day buildout and the subsequent installation of a 200-gallon mash tun, a 200-gallon steam-heated still and four 600-gallon fermenters, the Lost Ark owners intend to begin production immediately and are eyeing a mid-September grand opening.
With that in mind, the initial focus will be on spirits that don’t require a lot of time to mature. “We can have a turnaround of about two weeks on dark and light rum, and we can make corn whiskey in about six to eight weeks,” Debenham said.
The distillery will eventually move on to barrel-aged bourbons and whiskeys that will age at least two years before release. The first shipment of barrels has already arrived.
According to HCEDA’s Agricultural Development Manager Kathy Zimmerman, Lost Ark will embrace the Farm-to-Table and Buy Local movements.
“We helped introduce them to local county farmers who can supply the wheat, corn and rye that they will be using,” she said. “They are also eager to market their spent grain to other farmers as feed for dairy cows and other farm animals, closing the loop and helping move us closer to the county’s zero waste goals.”
All of the corn the distillery uses will be sourced from the Rural Rhythm Farm, in Dayton. And while molasses for the rum isn’t produced locally, the owners acknowledged it would be procured as locally as possible, from the Domino Sugar plant in Baltimore.
“Bringing in fresh, local ingredients and hand crafting it into something unique is what this is all about,” Blackwell said. “It’s the special touch, attention to detail and the passion of our craft that we feel will make a unique and flavorful spirit that can only be found right here in Central Maryland.”