That’s the Spirit
Modern-day distillers look to old traditions and lessons from early bootleggers to revive the craft spirits industry in Southern Maryland.
Writer: ANDREW J. SCOTT
There’s moonshine flowing again in St. Mary’s County. In Mechanicsville, Richie Copsey is distilling liquor. It’s a skill he learned from his grandfather – a bootlegger during the Depression – but with a modern twist.
“He taught my dad all about seafood; he taught me how to make moonshine,” says Copsey, standing behind the bar in his tasting room, where a framed black-and-white photo of his grandfather hangs.
Copsey distills and sells a golden-brown Salted Caramel Shine, which when served chilled and neat tastes like candy. Peach Shine stands on its own or makes a great summer mixer with iced tea.
“You get some ingredients and mess with it until you find something people like,” he says. “Trying to find something that makes people say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s great.’ That’s the biggest kick I get out of it.”
Unlike their harsher predecessor, these “shines” as he calls them are more like liqueurs – ranging in potency from 60 to 90 proof. He has distilled blueberry, grapefruit, apple and coffee shines, to name a few.
And there’s no still hidden in the woods.
Just off Route 235 in Mechanicsville, not far from his family-run Captain Leonard’s Seafood Restaurant, you can pull up to Southern Trails Distillery on the Copsey family farm, with a tasting room and shiny 500-gallon stainless steel stills visible in the back. The distillery’s products are sold there and in area liquor stores. They are poured in a few restaurants in St. Mary’s County, too.
The operation is part of the craft distilling industry growing in Southern Maryland. Just like microbreweries, craft distilleries are smaller, locally owned, and often have tasting rooms or bars and the products are distributed regionally.
Just 15 years ago, there were five active licensed distillers in Maryland, according to Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Distillers Guild. Now there are 27 active distillers, with yet another 15 in planning stages, he says. In Southern Maryland, there are three active distillers with two more in the planning stages.
“We’re benefiting from the interest in buying local,” Atticks says. Most are small producers – typically farms or restaurants – and use local ingredients.
It is an industry driven by entrepreneurs with local roots and an interest in creating craft liquors. While Copsey comes from a family known for seafood, a distillery in Hollywood has connections to another part of Southern Maryland’s heritage – the U.S. Navy. Scott Sanders is a retired admiral who once ran counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Now he is in business with two partners – running Tobacco Barn Distillery in Hollywood.
Tobacco Barn’s focus is bourbon and – in a nod to the Navy – rum.
The distillery’s Constellation Rum is made with all Maryland ingredients – including molasses from the Domino Sugar plant at Baltimore’s harbor. It is then aged in oak barrels in the hull of the USS Constellation – the last sail-only warship built by the U.S. Navy, now a tourist attraction in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Some of the sales proceeds are donated to preserving historic ships, Sanders says.
While Kentucky is known for bourbon, Sanders and his partners see its historic roots here. One of Kentucky’s most famous bourbon distillers – Basil Hayden – lived in St. Mary’s County in the late 1700s, some 12 miles from the farm where Tobacco Barn Distillery is located today on Hollywood Road.
“We’re bringing bourbon back home,” says Dan Dawson, one of the partners, in a video on their website. They make what they call a “rye forward” bourbon, with rye grown by the Mennonite community in Loveville. They use corn grown on their Hollywood farm, distill it on site and age it in their rack room stacked high with wooden barrels.
SPIRIT OF THE TIMES
In Waldorf, there’s yet another take on craft distilling – BlueDyer Distilling Co. Founded by two retired police officers, the distillery has been developing rums, whiskey and gin.
Ryan Vierheller, a former Bladensburg police officer, also learned to distill liquor from his grandfather. BlueDyer is a name used for generations of distillers and bootleggers in his family.
Located in the industrial park off Post Office Road in Waldorf, BlueDyer has a different vibe than the farm-based distillers. And it is licensed to serve mixed drinks. Its “scratch bar,” serves drinks featuring the liquors they distill there, and with ingredients made from scratch.
COVID hit the industry hard since craft distillers have limited distribution and depend on sales from their tasting rooms and events. All three produced hand sanitizer – which is alcohol based – during the pandemic. But they remain optimistic about the future, given the strong interest in craft spirits.
“We don’t have customers, we have disciples,” Vierheller says. •
As COVID restrictions eased, all three distilleries were continuing sales and planning outdoor tastings and events. Call ahead or check websites and Facebook pages for the latest information and to see the retail establishments that carry their products.
Southern Trail Distillery
27227 Morganza Turner Road, Mechanicsville
Has a tasting room on the Copsey family farm, with off-premise sales and current outside tastings (call for hours) on their porch. Located along the Three Notch Trail, it’s a convenient stop for cyclists on a weekend ride. southerntraildistillery.com; 240-249-6009
Tobacco Barn Distillery
24460 Hollywood Road, Hollywood
A tasting room was nearing completion, with a porch overlooking the farm. Available for tours and tastings by appointment only. tobaccobarndistillery.com; 240-243 9151
BlueDyer Distiling Co.
52 Industrial Park Drive, Waldorf
Includes a bar (currently open at 50% capacity) with mixed drinks, but bottle sales continue. A food truck located at the distillery is open, serving tacos, burritos, wings and fries. bluedyerdistilling.com; 301-674-8832