Two Brothers Making Spirits on the Eastern Shore

When you think premium vodka, you don’t usually think made in Maryland. But that’s about to change.

Jon (age 34) and Chris (age 42) Cook have spent the last seven years learning how to make the best tasting vodka possible right here on the Eastern Shore. But Vodka wasn’t their first choice.

Chris Cook, Mark Troxler, and Jon Cook of Blackwater Distilling“Our first product choice was a whiskey but we quickly deduced that a vodka, which doesn’t require any aging, would be quicker to market,” said Chris Cook.

“We had experimented with home brews but had no distilling experience prior to 2007 or so. We attended many classes, seminars, conferences and these served as great networking opportunities as well as to glean some bit of experience along the way. We met Jon Blair (our distiller) in 2007 and the experience he brought to the table from previous stints at distilleries in New Orleans and Hawaii added a lot of credibility to our plan.”

Blackwater Distilling was born on Kent Island in February of 2008 and became Maryland’s first fully licensed distillery in 35 years. Their first product – Sloop Betty, a hand-crafted wheat based vodka, is already winning awards and getting noticed.

Developing that recipe took time, he said, and they experimented with a wide spectrum of ingredients.

“We did consider potatoes (most vodkas are actually grain based) but in the final analysis everything was selected according to what constituted the best taste profile,” he said. ” What Jon Blair added to the equation, from his experience with rum distilleries, was use of sugar cane in the recipe. Sugar cane had the unusual (and beneficial) effect of mellowing and neutralizing much of the burn folks experience with grain vodkas,” Cook explained.

“Betty is about 80% wheat and 20% sugar cane distillate. When people think of vodkas most are predisposed to think that a vodka is odorless, neutral, and offers no real taste. In a crowded market, we sought to develop a product that was flavorful on its own and one whose ingredients could be tasted and appreciated for what they are.”

Using organic products was also important to the company.” Another decision point for us, when considering how each ingredient impacted taste, was the use of organics. We were surprised by the difference when comparing the same ingredients that were organic vs. non-organic. Lastly, our proprietary carbon blend plays a huge role in stripping out less desirable taste elements while leaving in desirable ones.”

Despite all the success so far, the brothers haven’t quit their day jobs. Chris works for the federal government, while his brother Jon is a contractor in Centreville, MD. “Our initial idea was to find a business that would pull us out of our respective ‘rat races’ and into something we genuinely had a passion for and could make a living at. We had no idea of the epic effort involved in successfully launching a distillery and we’re still not making a living at making spirits.” But they are confident their hard work will pay off and they can be full-time distillers soon.

“We are bullish about this industry and anticipate products like a rum, a gin, and a whiskey made from Maryland-based grains doing well in the Maryland and DC markets. Also, there is lots of room for other craft distillers in Maryland as there are plenty of raw materials and creativity in products to go around. This is an industry that has the potential to positively impact Maryland agribusiness.

Sloop Betty

Where did they come up with the name Sloop Betty? It’s actually the name of an old ship that once sailed the Chesapeake Bay. They love the link to Maryland’s history and the subtle salute to their flagship product. But the label is all pin-up girl.

“Betty has a fun and playful image. There’s the allure of the pin-up and nostalgia for the 1940s. She’s also largely inspired by fuselage or ‘bomber’ art from WWII and our grandfather’s service as a pilot during the war,” Chris explains.

But how does it taste? With three national gold medals, a Best in Show, and a 94 point rating from Anthony Dias Blue from the Tasting Panel, the response has been gratifying.

You can try it yourself at many locations around Delmarva. They are working to provide tastings at the distillery, thanks to legislation that passed the state legislature this year.

Until then, go here for a listing of locations where you can find it:

And check out the recipe below and many others on their

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