Waldorf distillery embraces family bootlegging history
Blue Dyer is bottling a smooth sipping rum, hosting tours, tastings
Ryan Vierheller and Walker Dunbar aren’t planning to deliver their rum in the dark of night across the Potomac River, but that bit of history is an interesting part of how the new Waldorf micro-distillery got its name, BlueDyer Distilling Co.
“I grew up with these stories that my granddad and great-granddad [David Wirman and David Wirman Sr.] used to be bootleggers,” Vierheller said, sitting in the yet-to-be-opened BlueDyer tasting room at 52 Industrial Park Drive, the smell of fermentation hanging in the warm air. “Grandaddy died about four years ago. He had about 180 acres but the first 52 he bought with liquor money.”
“We got the idea to [start the distillery] and the family story was in place,” Vierheller said. “Then I started doing the research. I thought it was just a nickname that granddad and great-granddad used, sort of a nom de guerre, not to tell people your real last name. They used Blue Dier as their last name while bootlegging. They didn’t want to tell people their real names. They made the alcohol in Stafford [County, Va.] and ran it in two routes: one was north into D.C. and one they got into a little skiff in the Aquia Creek to bring it over to the Port Tobacco area and sell into Southern Maryland. That was their two routes.”
“I looked at some of the people around the country that were doing it [opening distilleries] and I looked at some of the stories and I said, ‘Hey, we can do that,’” business partner and friend Walker Dunbar added. “What really got me interested to definitely work with him on it was the story, that there was an actual story behind it — the family history that’s involved in it.”
The two currently work in law enforcement elsewhere. Vierheller grew up in St. Mary’s County, graduated from Leonardtown High School in 1999 and has 14 years in as a cop. Dunbar, a New Yorker now living in Montgomery County, spent time working as a firefighter before attending the police academy and eventually meeting Vierheller on the job.
They started developing the distillery idea in January of last year and settled on making a rum from a traditional Caribbean-style recipe. They just got their label approved late last week — the last step to make it all legal — and are now bottling their first batch of the 80-proof spirit for public consumption. They’re licensed to give tours and free samples at their Waldorf distillery as well as sell bottles directly to the public and to retailers in the state. They’re planning to have it available at local restaurants, bars and liquor stores as fast as they can.
Having sampled the barrel-aged rum directly from the charred wooden barrel at 100-proof, it’s a fair bet the smooth sipping rum will be popular and the first 160 cases they’re bottling will go quickly — reflecting six weeks’ work.
“We’ve got a lot of local interest — an enormous amount of local interest,” Vierheller said. Updates on rum availability will be at http://www.bluedyerdistilling.com/ and at their Facebook page .
Blue Dyer is one of two distilleries getting started at the same time in Charles County; the other is Tobacco Barn Distillery in Hughesville. Vierheller said another unnamed distillery is in very early stages of development in Newburg as well. So far, distillery licenses in Southern Maryland seem to be confined to Charles County.
“What we’ve seen in the last two years working on the project, it’s about fifty-fifty, a lot of guys get a business plan and they get on the internet, they start making a lot of noise that they’re going to get open, but we see maybe half of the people make it,” Vierheller said.
He and Dunbar kept their operation low-key and low budget, designing their own stills and re-purposing other equipment that would meet industry and government approval. The 10, 300-gallon fermentation tanks cost them a fraction of what purpose-built units sell for and they even saved the $2,500 in shipping fees by making a 36-hour round trip to Chicago to pick them up.
“We’re not one of the higher budgeted startups,” Vierheller said. “We go up to Lancaster [Pa.] for our molasses. We haul in our own sugar. We’re a blue collar outfit. We designed our own equipment — our stills are modular.”
The two 145-gallon stills use electric heating elements and excess heat is used to heat the filtered water used in fermentation. The two said very little water is put down the drain and they are working on making use of the heat even more efficiently by retaining some of the hot water in holding tanks to act as a pre-heater for the stills.
“We’ve started with rum,” Vierheller said as he was drawing a sample out of one of the barrels. “In the future we’d like to make a corn whiskey. Both of those products were indigenous to this area. They were made from local agriculture.”
And sometimes they were made out in the woods in the dark of night, hauled to market in a skiff bobbing across the Potomac. As a reminder of that history, one of the copper still pots used by those family bootleggers during Prohibition that was found in a barn on the Wirman property is now on display at the new distillery.
“We’d love for people to come down and check it out because we love talking about it. We love showing people,” Dunbar said.
Walker Dunbar, left, and Ryan Vierheller pose in their BlueDyer Distilling Co. tasting room in Waldorf. Behind them is the Prohibition-era still pot found at Vierheller’s family’s farm.