Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Visit to Twin Valley Distillers

I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has some screwy laws about the sale of alcoholic beverages. How screwy? I once met someone from Tennessee who marveled at how screwy Montgomery County, Maryland, is.

So Montgomery would have been the last county in Maryland I'd expect to have a distillery. And yet, we have one, as of a few months ago. Here's proof:

711 East Gude Drive. Makes you thirsty just looking at it, doesn't it?
Wait, no, that's what you see from the street. But if you trust the little signs with arrows and make your way to the back of the building, you see this, the home of Twin Valley Distillers:

You were expecting a shuttle to the visitor's centre?
The name is a bit fanciful. There's only one distiller, Edgardo Zuniga, who is also the founder, warehouse manager, truck driver, bottle washer, salesman, tour guide, and tasting room operator. "Twin Valley" is the name of the street he lives on, a few miles from the distillery. That's keeping it local.

Edgardo greeted me at the door (he knew from Twitter I'd be stopping by that afternoon), and launched straight into a tour, starting with the 100 gallon still that was pouring out the heads of a run of bourbon.

Next time I'll come when the temp is 195 F.
He apologized that he didn't have both stills going, and showed me the pipes and connectors he'd had made to join the twin stills and collect the distillates at the same time. I nosed some of the heads (coming off at around 185 F at the moment), and it smelled like some whiskeys I've bought.

Across the room, rum was fermenting next to sacks of corn, barley, rye, and wheat. Edgardo is having trouble sourcing local rye, so he may try a wheated bourbon next. (He is trying to source as much as he can, from grain to bottles, within 50 miles. Not a lot of sugar cane is grown in these parts, so the molasses comes from Florida.)

Bubbling away.

The bottling line consists of a machine for filling a single bottle, which in a one-man operation seems to be enough, though if he ever has a bottling party as some small distilleries do it would get pretty crowded on the line. Edgardo said he can produce 360 bottles of vodka, from milled wheat to boxed product, in a week.

Next we toured the bonded storeroom, with about a dozen five gallon barrels being warmed by a space heater. It's about half rum, half bourbon now. He also has some stainless steel tanks with rum and bourbon waiting for empty barrels; they've got oak coils in them to get the aging process started. Gotta start somewhere.
Room to grow.
Then we made our way to the tasting room, where Edgardo not only poured me one of everything, but let me try two batches each of the unaged corn whiskey and the bourbon. The corn whiskey showed a marked improvement with Batch 2, which is no surprise since he knew twice as much when he distilled it. The first bourbon he bottled was aged less than 30 days (that's what small barrels and oak coils can do for you); it was too young, but people were begging him for some bourbon in time for Christmas. He now has some 4 month old bourbon which is more to his liking; it's more to my liking, too, though I see it even more as a promise of things to come.

The proud pappa.
A few quick notes on the Twin Valley line:

  • white rum: sweet on the nose, dry on the palate
  • aged rum: less sweet on the nose, sweeter on the palate
  • wheat whiskey: nice, warming grain flavor (so sue me, Mr. Without-Distinctive-Character)
  • corn whiskey: both white and aged are fairly neutral until a strong corn finish; both a bit sulphury. White Batch 2 noticeably improved over Batch 1. (Didn't taste the aged Batch 2.)
  • bourbon: Batch 1 < 30 days (rushed for Christmas), tastes like too-young whiskey. Batch 2 is about 4 months, tastes like young whiskey. Neither is overly bourbony (i.e., sweet or loaded with vanillins).
Overall, it's a respectable line for a seven month old, one-man distillery. Particularly when that one man was a chef running a restaurant several years back, who got into distilling by way of playing with rum infusions in his kitchen at home.

That makes a good backstory. The sidestory is pretty good too. This is an intentionally local operation, named after a local street (while also evoking something more rural than an industrial park). The vodka is called Norbeck, after a major Rockville road Edgardo takes every day to and from work, and the rum, Seneca Bay, is named after a part of a lake in a local park. The bottles come from Baltimore, the grains are grown by local farmers.

The county government has responded to this very favorably, much to the surprise of a lot of us who buy beer, wine, and spirits here (beer & wine sales licenses are very limited, and all spirits are sold through county-owned stores). Edgardo says they've supported him all along, and they're proud to have a distillery here. The next big question is whether he can get a distributor's license, which would allow him to sell at wholesale directly to restaurants (rather than them having to special order by the case through the county's liquor stores).

Still, backstories and sidestories will only get you so far in business. To have a good futurestory you have to have good sales. People will buy local, but a bottle of liquor can last a long time if you don't reach for it often.

I'm hopeful that Twin Valley will have a good futurestory, for several reasons. I think Edgardo is already making the vodka that he should be making. His not-too-sweet rum may also be a recipe for success, and it will only improve as time and capital allow him to age it better (i.e., longer and in larger barrels). For me, his bourbon is still a work in progress, particularly in how it's aged. But I think the chef in him will keep him going until he gets the recipe, including the barreling, just the way he wants it.

In addition to a steady and improving baseline, he's got plans to grow. Physically, the unprepossessing building housing Twin Valley Distillers has room on either side for, say, a larger bonded warehouse and a larger tasting room. In terms of products, in 2015 he's planning on working on a rye whiskey (if he can line up the local grains) and an infused gin (infused because apparently juniper really gets into your still). A gin should sell well, if the women in my family are any guide.

Edgardo also mentioned that he has some fruit brandy labels -- apple and pear, I think -- ready to go, in case he can get some fruit in. And that excites me, even more than the prospect of a Maryland rye whiskey distilled ten miles from my house, because at one point while we were chatting in the tasting room, he produced a small bottle of brandy made from figs he'd grown in his back yard. Wow, that was good stuff.

Drinking local in 2015.
In the event, I came home with a bottle of the Norbeck vodka and the Seneca Bay aged rum. I'll probably write up some tasting notes on them in the next couple of weeks, on the off chance that would be of any use to anybody. And I will certainly be returning to Twin Valley, to keep an eye on things and to restock as needed.

No comments:

Post a Comment