Saturday, January 17, 2015

Blackwater Distilling

I take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Annapolis to Maryland's Eastern Shore a few times a year. Most times, I have a moment of wistfulness as I pass the first exit on the eastern side of the bridge, Exit 37 in Stevensville, because Blackwater Distilling -- maker of Sloop Betty vodka and the first of the new microdistilleries in the state -- is just a mile up the road.

On one trip last year, though, I was wistfree, since I'd finally managed to budget enough time for a visit to Blackwater. It wasn't during regular tour hours -- Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 4:30 pm -- but Blackwater's Director of Marketing, Andy Keller (@andyhkeller), was willing to show me around. He was at the distillery that morning to have the place open for the workmen who were installing a new tasting bar.

And did I take a picture of this elegant, copper-topped bar? I did not. Did I take a picture of the 500 gallon production still, or the 100 gallon development still, or the vodka filtering set-up, or the bottling line, or my gracious host? I did not.

Did I take a picture of anything at all? Of course! Blogging is a visual medium, after all.
Take a look
And you'll see
Into your imagination.
Blackwater is in an unprepossessing business park; the new bar makes a visit more of a social and less of an industrial activity. Andy showed me the whole works, from the sacks of wheat to the corking station.

They've been selling Sloop Betty Vodka since 2011, and just about a year ago added Sloop Betty Honey Vodka. The vodka is made from wheat and sugar cane; the honey vodka is a slightly cloudy infusion with raw honey. They're 80 and 70 proof, respectively.

The name comes from the sloop Betty, captured in the southern Chesapeake Bay by Blackbeard in 1717. I'm not myself a fan of the pinup on the labels -- inspired, the press kit says, by "tales of our grandfather’s time in the pilot seat of a C-47" -- but then I've never had to catch the attention of the vodka buying public.
The sweeter one's on the left -- no, I mean... there's really no way to avoid innuendo here.

When I visited, they were experimenting with rum and rye. They've now settled on their rum recipe -- made with raw cane syrup and a yeast strain isolated from natural sugar cane fermentation -- and within a couple of weeks should be releasing Picaroon white rum. A gold rum (made gold by adding caramelized sugar) will follow soon after.
Before there was Maryland rye, there was Maryland rum. And the occasional pirate.

Once they get those production lines fully operating, they'll turn their attention back to rye. Maryland was, of course, once famous for its rye whiskey, though I've only ever seen vague descriptions of how "Maryland style" rye differed from the Monongahela style, which has either evolved into the ryes we know today or disappeared as well, depending on whom you ask.

In any case, Blackwater hasn't worked out a rye recipe to their liking yet. Past experiments didn't age properly, and I suppose it's to their credit that they didn't go ahead and bottle it anyway. They are, though, ready with the name -- Mr. Haddaway's Maryland White Rye -- and the label once the product is good to go. (The back label, if you can read it, tells the story of Mr. Haddaway.)

Labels via TTB.
As for tasting notes: Sloop Betty vodka tends toward the "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color" standard of vodka identity -- as opposed to some microdistilled vodkas, that let a lot of the grain taste through. But there is a bit of wheat nuttiness on the nose, and a bit of sugar sweetness on the palate, with one or the other or both cutting down on the sour spirity aftertaste a lot of vodkas have.

Sloop Betty honey vodka is pretty tame on the nose, but a taste fills the mouth with honey flavor without any of the honey stickiness. The mouthfeel is slightly thicker than the plain vodka, but only a little, and the honey doesn't linger in the finish. There's a definite honey punch, but it doesn't feel like you're drinking a liqueur.

Both are well suited for mixing, with the honey vodka adding its own sweetness and making a decent honeybuck (honey vodka, lime juice, mint bitters, ginger ale or ginger beer).

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