Meet the men behind Lost Ark, Howard County's first distillery

For Andrew Debenham and Brad Blackwell, the owners of Lost Ark Distillery in Laurel, the most important ingredient in the rum and whiskey they make is not molasses nor grain nor water. It’s passion.

The pair met as work buddies, bonding over a shared interest in home brewing, a love for history and a willingness to try new things. Those passions, combined with a lot of support from their families, gave Debenham and Blackwell the fuel they needed to jump into the local craft distilling movement with Lost Ark, which opens late this year.

Love of the Craft

The business started organically as a casual conversation. “We both brew beer at home, and we were sharing that at work — it’s more fun to talk about than work,” says Blackwell. “We should share beers back and forth and try to push each other to be creative and try new ideas.”

After taking a tour of Jailbreak Brewing in Laurel, Blackwell, 32, and Debenham, 46, were inspired. “When we walked out, we looked at each other and realized that was something we’d love to do. It’s so awesome,” says Blackwell. “So that’s when we kicked off.”

Though neither lives in Howard County – Blackwell is in Anne Arundel and Debenham lives in Carroll – they chose Laurel for its central location and the county’s prosperity. Plus, they were familiar with the area; their day jobs are with a Howard County information technology company.

Before diving into licensing and equipment, Blackwell and Debenham researched the industry. Despite their shared love of beer, they decided against starting a craft brewery, saying it is just too crowded an industry. Instead, they decided to get boozy.

“Out west, there’s huge growth in craft distilleries. We looked into it, and there aren’t many out here,” says Blackwell. According to the American Craft Spirits Association, there are 769 craft distilleries in the United States; the Maryland Distillers Guild has 18 members, though not all are fully licensed yet. By comparison, according to the Brewers Association, in 2014, there were 3,418 craft breweries in the country and 40 in Maryland.

“It’s just been in the last three or four years that we’ve seen an interest take off regarding distilling in Maryland,” says Kevin Atticks, the executive director of the Maryland Distillers Guild. “The trend seems to be that folks are getting interested in spirits and cocktails after many years of the industry declining.”

Though they hadn’t made liquor at home before, they weren’t entering completely uncharted territory. “Up to a point, it’s the same as making beer,” Blackwell explains. “Mill the grains, mash them, heat them up, add yeast and ferment. At that point, if you’re a brewery, carbonate and bottle. We take the next step and distill it.”

The process has been a lengthy one; it took well over a year for the pair to find space, get loans and equipment and secure all the necessary permits. What started out as a “modest” concept quickly grew. After attending a two-day class at 8 Feathers Distillery in Boise, Idaho, the pair realized they should kick off strong, rather than start slow and try to grow. “We were going to buy a 50-gallon still and ended up buying a 330-gallon one. It grew fast,” laughs Debenham.

They want the distillery to be a comfortable, warm place for visitors with a small tasting area, Blackwell says. “Everything will be that wood and industrial look. The back wall that separates the tasting room from distillery will be a big plate-glass window where you can see the process. We’ll do tours and tastings — it’ll be an experience.”

History Buffs and Experimenters

When they start talking history, both Blackwell and Debenham’s faces light up. They love telling stories about the history of distilling, from chatting about George Washington’s impact on distilling and Maryland’s role in rye production to explaining how Whiskey Bottom Road in Laurel got its name. (“When the settlers moved in and as the area grew, they built saloons, and it became the road where they transported grains and whiskey,” says Blackwell.)

At Lost Ark, Blackwell and Debenham have indulged that interest via their products. To start, the distillery will focus on three liquors: Lady Anne White Rum, Terra Mariae Spiced Rum and 1634 Corn Whiskey.

All three are created using locally sourced ingredients — including sugar from Domino Sugar in Baltimore and grains from Rural Rhythm Farm in Dayton — and the names are derived directly from local history books. Lady Anne refers to Anne Arundel, Terra Mariae means “Mary’s Land” in Latin and 1634 refers to the year the first colonial settlers arrived in the state.

Blackwell and Debenham’s love of experimentation doesn’t stop at tinkering with their own products’ formulas, or even starting their own company. When they aren’t sampling Lost Ark’s wares, they drink just about everything else. “I’ve been drinking a lot of rum lately,” says Blackwell. “People always ask what’s my favorite brand, but there’s so much out there. It’s hard to buy the same thing twice. I like trying new things — and I think that’s part of what drew us to this.”

For Debenham, it’s all about his mood. “Sometimes I’ll have a beer and sometimes pour a whiskey. I’ve gotten into ryes, too. I’ve got about 15 different bottles of whiskey going. Every time I go to pour, I choose something else.”

Family Men

More than experimentation, more than history, even more than trying new types of liquor, Blackwell and Debenham are passionate about spending time with their families.

Debenham has three children, ages 8 to 11, and Blackwell has a family of six children and step-children, ages 7 to 17. Home, for both, can be crazy, but it’s fun, and they both have a blast hanging out with their kids and wives, grilling and smoking meats and enjoying family time together.

Running a business on top of a full-time job naturally cuts into the amount of family time they can spend at home, so they have figured out ways to turn distillery time into family time.

“I think it’s amazing Brad can juggle everything,” says Brad’s wife, Grace Blackwell. “It’s really Brad and Andy’s baby. But they’re just two guys with full-time jobs, and they need help sometimes.”

Grace, a nurse, jumps in to offer advice and assistance with behind-the-scenes research. Gayle Debenham, Andy’s wife, is a stay-at-home mom, which allows her the flexibility to take a more active role in the business.

“Since I’m not working full time, I can get the kids on the bus, go to the distillery and get the mash started,” she says. “I’m excited to help. And it keeps the extra work down for Andy, so it’ll increase opportunities for family time.”

As the business gets busier, the families imagine that the distillery will be the setting for a lot of that time together. “Instead of going to a park, we’ll go to the distillery and have a picnic,” says Gayle Debenham. “Or take a grill down and grill outside the building while the distillation process is going on. We’ll fit it into what we like to do. It’s just about spending time together — and we can still do that. Instead of in our own backyard, it’ll be in front of the distillery.”

That day could arrive soon. In their first year of business, the Lost Ark team hopes to produce about 24,000 bottles of liquor — which will involve a lot of hours and an extra large dose of passion. 

Kit Waskom Pollard - For Howard Magazine