Work friends share passion in opening Lost Ark Distilling in North Laurel

A stone's throw away from Jailbreak Brewing Co. in North Laurel, Lost Ark Distilling Co. of Maryland is on the verge of crafting the first artisan spirits unique to Howard County.

Owners Brad Blackwell, of Crownsville, and Andy Debenham, of Manchester, said they named the company Lost Ark to honor the pioneering spirit of Maryland's first settlers, who traveled to the New World under orders from Lord Baltimore to establish the first proprietary colony. In 1633, two ships — the Ark and the Dove — departed from London.

"We wanted to make the distillery as important to the people of Maryland as we could, something they could recognize and resonate with," Blackwell said.

Standing in their unfinished warehouse space next to a modest stockpile of wooden barrels, Blackwell and Debenham said they plan to buy their grains locally.

The distillery's corn and wheat will come from Rural Rhythm Farm in Dayton. And the grain left over from the distilling process will be given to local farmers for animal feed.

"Bringing in fresh grain grown locally and handcrafting it into something special is what this is all about," Blackwell said. "It's the special touch, the 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."

Blackwell and Debenham said their research in Howard County records found no evidence of a distillery since the end of Prohibition; the closest modern day distillery is Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville.

The idea to open a distillery grew from casual conversation between the two men, who became fast friends about three years ago at their current day jobs at an information technology firm in Fort Meade.

Both men are married and busy raising families. They share a love for Maryland history and artisan beer and spirits, and said they have been brewing at home for years.

Debenham said that brewing and distilling are similar "up to a point" because whiskey is distilled from distiller's beer.

While he's not sure exactly when the notion to pool their knowledge and resources to launch a commercial venture started, Debenham said he and Blackwell talked first, and not very seriously, about opening a brewery.

Realizing they couldn't compete with existing breweries like the Jailbreak Brewing Co., Blackwell began researching the market viability of artisan distilleries.

"Washington State has over 100 craft distilleries right now; as opposed to Maryland, which has four ... and three wineries that also distill," Blackwell said.

One day more than a year ago, Blackwell said he came to work talking about how prolific Western distilleries were in California, Colorado and Washington — with zero recorded in Howard County since Prohibition.

He said he told Debenham, "Maybe that's going to be the next thing behind craft brewing," and Debenham replied, "I think you may be on to something,"

Talk became a vision when the two men decided to go for it in April 2014. The following month, Lost Ark Distilling Co. of Maryland formed as an LLC.

Looking to 8 Feathers Distillery in Boise, Idaho, for training, Blackwell and Debenham attended a comprehensive two-day master class there in July.

Debenham said 8 Feathers Distillery taught them everything they still needed to know, covering topics such as grain selection, water and mash chemistry, fermentation, stripping and spirit runs, equipment selection, sales, marketing, safety and the licensing process.

Next, the two men focused on developing a business plan, securing financing and researching local sources for corn and grain.

Reaching out to the Howard County Economic Development Authority for guidance, Debenham said that after "a lot of back and forth" from October through December, he and Blackwell couldn't qualify for a loan through the Economic Development Authority.

However, Agricultural Development Manager Kathy Zimmerman from the Economic Development Authority referred them to a contact at the Columbia Bank in January, and Debenham said they managed to secure financing there.

Lost Ark took out a lease with the Sanford Co. for warehouse space on Washington Boulevard prior to closing a small business loan in March.

"We'll be able to sell here, retail," Blackwell said, "and we can serve samples, but not cocktails."

A wholesale license to sell spirits to restaurants, hotels and bars will come a little later, according to Debenham.

"It's a bit of a catch-22," Debenham said. "You have to have a location and your equipment before you can apply for your licenses."

Beginning in August, Lost Ark plans to produce 1,550 750ml bottles of white rum, spiced rum and corn whiskey monthly in its first year.

Blackwell said that "top secret" product names and detailed descriptions have not been released.

"We going to start out with corn whiskey, basically legal moonshine, and we're going to age it for about six weeks to give it color and flavor. Then we'll start selling under the Lost Ark label," Debenham said.

Some of the corn whiskey will go into barrels and be aged for a minimum of two years into bourbon.

As connoisseurs of good whiskey and rum, Debenham said he and Blackwell "get to create and share what we like to drink."

Createdin the spirit of 17th-century artisans who made everything by hand, the Lost Ark Distilling Co. is a founding member of the Maryland Distillers Guild that just formed in mid-April.

The guild's executive director, Kevin Atticks, of Grow and Fortify in Baltimore (a management firm that promotes businesses focused on value-added agriculture), also heads up the Maryland Wineries Association and the Brewers Association of Maryland.

Atticks said the Maryland Distillers Guild aims to "make Maryland a great place to start distilleries, to help new entrants get licenses and to encourage the use of local agricultural products."

Blackwell said the distilling industry in Maryland is very young, with only 1,000 distilleries nationwide, compared to the 14,000 that operated before Prohibition.

"The craft segment only makes up about 2 percent of the total spirits market share nationwide. There's huge potential for growth," Blackwell said. "We all need each other to help bring awareness, educate consumers … and to unify as a single voice."

The Baltimore Whiskey Co. in the Jones Falls corridor is also set to begin distilling rye whiskey and traditional Maryland spirits this year.

Maryland is historically famous for rye whiskey, and Blackwell said Lost Ark is looking for a farm source as close to the distillery as possible.

"I think it's a passionate goal for all of us to have a 'Maryland Rye Whiskey Trail' much like the 'Bourbon Trail' in Kentucky," he said.

Lost Ark distilling Co. and the Maryland Distillers Guild maintain web sites and Facebook pages announcing their upcoming events.

A grand opening, tours and tastings of a mixed variety of Howard County rums and whiskeys at Lost Ark Distilling Co. will be coming soon.

 

Patti Restivo - Howard County Times

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/laurel/ph-ho-cf-lost-ark-0507-20150509-story.html