Whiskey maker brings bourbon back to So. Md.
Tobacco Barn Distillery uses farm’s corn output to make ‘old-school’ spirits
Tobacco Barn Distillery is bringing bourbon making back to St. Mary’s County, its birthplace.
The Hollywood distillery started up a little under a year ago on a small farm owned by Dan Dawson, along with partners Scott Sanders and Sean Coogan. The first batches of bourbon are aging in their charred oak barrels and will be ready for imbibing in March 2018 — unless it’s ready before then. “We’re not going to sell it unless it tastes good,” Dawson said, adding that a sample after four months was already developing good flavor.
While the bulk is put up in 30-gallon barrels, along with a rye whiskey that is expected to mature in October 2018, the trio has put up a few five-gallon barrels to test out faster aging. Dawson said the smaller barrels should develop flavor quicker to give them an idea of what to expect from the larger barrels.
The first batches were cooked up in a 100-gallon still, but a 300-gallon unit was in the throws of installation earlier this month. The larger still, working in series with the smaller one, will allow a peak production of 600 to 800 bottles a week in the future, if demand calls for that. Both stills use electric heating, and a solar array on the farm helps offset some of the power used. The entire system — including the use of excess heat for preheating and keeping the distillery building warm — is designed to be as environmentally-friendly as possible, Dawson said.
“We started this to be a bourbon distillery,” he said. “It’s about bringing the old-school bourbon back to Maryland. The birthplace of bourbon whiskey is St. Mary’s County, not Kentucky. The old granddad himself, Basil Hayden, was born in St. Mary’s down in Ridge. He actually emigrated to Kentucky from St. Mary’s.”
Sanders said the ryeand corn-based spirit wasn’t aged back in the early St. Mary’s days, but became the norm in Kentucky decades after Hayden moved there, when it acquired the bourbon label.
“Our mash bill has a significant amount of rye because that’s the traditional way of making whiskey,” Dawson said. “In fact, if you follow Basil Hayden, and the products and distilleries that grew from that, they tend to be ‘rye-forward,’ as opposed to ‘wheat-forward.’ A Maker’s Mark is more wheat in the mash bill. Old Grand-Dad, for example, is a rye-based bourbon. It gives it a little spiciness.”
He said they are currently using a bit over a three-to-one corn over rye mixture for the sour mash for the bourbon and the exact opposite for the rye whiskey. The corn is coming off Dawson’s farm and the rye is being brought in. Both are being milled at Stauffer Feed Mill in Leonardtown.
“Maryland at one time was maybe the second largest producer of rye whiskey, after Pennsylvania,” Dawson said. “Rye was a super popular whiskey. Now it’s coming back and it’s hard to keep rye in stock.”
In the interest of getting some product on the market to begin getting the distillery’s name out in the public, Tobacco Barn has produced several rums — aged in former bourbon barrels bought from other distilleries — and an unaged, flavored whiskey called “Moll Dyer,” named after the purported St. Mary’s witch.
Moll Dyer is their bourbon spirit in unaged form with the addition of cinnamon and blue agave nectar. It’s not something they originally intended to make but did under advice of their wives.
“We sell more of this than anything,” Sanders said. “And our wives laugh at us and say, ‘See, we told you so.’”
“If you mix this with strawberry, it makes the most incredible strawberry daiquiri,” Dawson added.
They’re making a honey rum with a local honey and have a couple of other varieties with different amounts of aging. Their first batch of rum, in what they call the “Navy style,” was made special for the commissioning of the new destroyer USS Zumwalt this month in Baltimore and is called Big ‘Z’ Rum. Some of the proceeds from the sales will go toward sponsoring the new ship’s crew.
While the Big ‘Z’ Rum is sold at liquor stores around the state, the other currently available spirits are sold locally, mostly in St. Mary’s and Calvert counties, including at two farmer’s markets — Home Grown Farm Market in Lexington Park and California Farmer’s Market (BAE) on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
A big part of the distillery’s effort, aside from bringing bourbon back to St. Mary’s, is promoting value-added agriculture and diversification to keep farms in production and partner with businesses to create markets for each other’s products and services.
“Ever ybody’s attracted to the distilling side of this,” Sanders said. “We usually put that toward the tail end of the conversation, because to us it’s more about value-added agriculture, diversifying our economy down here, working with other businesses and creating opportunities for everybody — then, yeah, we’re making a really good product.”
Dawson, whose family has farmed the land in Hollywood since the 1930s, said starting the distillery was one way to keep the farm in production and preserve some of the productive agricultural land that has been disappearing since the tobacco buyout, and keep it out of the hands of developers as long as possible.
“When tobacco left the county, to a great extent, we started growing housing,” Dawson said. “That’s the last crop that you ever grow.”
“Like everybody down here, we’re helping diversify the economy and create better value-added agriculture products,” Sanders said, “because you cannot keep a farm in the family growing soybeans and corn, not in 20 acres.”
Scott Sanders, left, Dan Dawson and Sean Coogan with a barrel of Southern Maryland’s first legal distilled spirits in 2015.
Tobacco Barn Distillery produced several rums to sell locally, including the Big ‘Z’ Rum for the commissioning of the new destroyer the USS Zumwalt.
The label for Tobacco Barn Distillery’s Moll Dyer cinnamon-flavored whiskey.