Libation innovation in St. Mary’s

Fran Severn-Levy

Barrels of Tobacco Barn Distillery’s rum are loaded aboard the USS Constellation to take advantage of the ship’s rolling motion during the aging process. (Tobacco Barn Distillery)

Unless a winery has its own vineyard, a winemaker must worry about a consistent supply of quality grapes.

The Port of Leonardtown Winery in Hollywood, Md., solved that problem in an innovative way. Using funds from the Tobacco Buyout Program and other initiatives to help tobacco growers convert to new crops, it established a co-op with the area’s grape growers.

The Southern Maryland Wine Growers Cooperative started in 2007, and it’s been a good deal for everyone, according to winery owner Rich Fuller. Seventeen growers in St. Mary’s, Calvert, and Charles counties contract with the winery, which guarantees that their crops will have a buyer. The winery, meanwhile, knows it will get enough grapes of the quality and variety it needs. Profits from the co-op winery are distributed to the growers.

Fuller concentrates on making wines from grapes that like Maryland’s climate and soil, primarily vidal blanc and chambourcin. But, more varietals may soon be bottled.

“The French European grapes have a bad time here. But some growers are figuring it out. They are planting cabernet blanc, merlot, and petit verdot. There is also a Spanish grape that’s new to the scene, albarino, which makes a light white wine. It grows along the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal, and it is very happy here. It’s excellent with seafood, especially oysters,” Fuller said.

Insider tip: That claim will be tested during the annual U.S. Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County, Oct. 21–22. One of the participants in the cooking contest is planning to make oyster bisque using the wine.

A farm distillery

Meanwhile, the time-honored tradition of distilling spirits presides at the Tobacco Barn Distillery, also located in Hollywood. Whiskey Advocate magazine named it “Maryland’s Bourbon.”

It’s the first licensed distillery in Southern Maryland, according to co-owner Scott Sanders. Traditionally, farmers had stills and made their own whiskey, and distilling was a cottage industry in the region during Prohibition. But, Tobacco Barn is above-board and legal. 

Tobacco Barn is unusual because it is a “farm distillery.” That means the product is prepared completely on the premises, “from seed to the top of the bottle,” said Sanders. 

“We grow the corn and are very passionate about making a high quality. We concentrate on distilling a historical Colonial grain bill with corn and rye, not unlike what was made at Mount Vernon and other farms during the Colonial period.”

While the primary focus is on bourbon, the distillery also produces rum. Sanders has a Navy background, so distilling a sailor’s ration was almost inevitable. The molasses is made in Maryland, so the product is still entirely from the Free State. To continue honoring the state’s nautical history, the rum is aged in used bourbon casks whish are stored on the USS Constellation in Baltimore harbor. 

“The gentle rocking of the ship from the tides and movement from storms smooths out the taste,” according to Sanders.

Proceeds from the sale of the rum are donated to the Constellation’s preservation. Only Southern Maryland outlets sell the rum. But before you make the drive, Sanders said they are sold out for this year.

Like the Port of Leonardtown Winery, the distillery has a strong commitment to sustainability and good environmental practices. The leftover mash from the bourbon-making is given to pig farmers. There’s no alcohol left in the grain, but it’s a high-protein feed. As for the rum, the leftover solid matter, a mixture of molasses and yeast, is sprayed on the dirt roads near Sotterley to help limit soil erosion. Residents say it makes the roads smell like someone is baking gingerbread.

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