The new Tenth Ward Cocktail Lab is a sleek black and white space with a polished wooden bar stretched deep into a historic building on East Patrick Street.
The menu is packed with mixologist-inspired cocktails (mostly conceived by head distiller Mark Vierthaler) like Hemp Cat, a genever-based drink mixed with matcha syrup and hemp oil, and Lady Fritchie, a blend of housemade absinthe and blanc aperitif with rosewater and fresh grapefruit juice.
Two weeks ago, it wasn’t possible to walk into Tenth Ward and buy a drink. Two weeks ago, visitors at the tasting room were limited to thimble-sized samples of straight spirits, no more than two ounces per person per visit. But on July 1, new legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly went into effect, allowing distilleries across the state to offer mixed drinks to customers.
The decision was years in the making for some companies, and local distillers are in the process of building new tasting rooms to accommodate expanded cocktail programs. McClintock Distilling Company in Frederick recently announced plans to convert a 1,300-square-foot space next to its distillery into a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge. Miscellaneous Distillery in Mt. Airy is looking for a new facility that can accommodate both manufacturing and a bigger tasting room.
But in Frederick County, at least, no one was more prepared for the new law than Tenth Ward owner Monica Pearce, who mapped out the distillery’s new cocktail lab well before the legislation was formally passed.
“When we relocated last November, we built out the cocktail bar, kind of taking the chance with the assumption that we’d be mixing drinks,” said Pearce, an outspoken proponent for the new legislation. “We kept pushing for it, because we realized it was such an important factor in our industry.”
Both she and the Maryland Distillers Guild have been working to change the legislation for the past three years. It’s been a path filled with obstacles, and never more so than this past legislative session, when the long-awaited bill very nearly failed.
First, Pearce said, it was derailed by Harford County Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, whose sponsored bills — including the mixed-drinks legislation — became political kryptonite after the state legislator was accused of using a racial slur at a bar in Annapolis. Lobbyists rallied to find a new sponsor for the bill, but the original legislation was killed in committee by Frederick Sen. Ron Young, who took umbrage with language that would have allowed distilleries to serve outside alcohol as long as 75 percent of the cocktail contained housemade booze.
Think of a Manhattan, made with rye whiskey and a touch of sweet vermouth. The original language in the bill would have allowed distilleries to buy the aperitif from an outside source as a mixer for the drink. But Young was especially opposed to that portion of the legislation, which he said would essentially turn craft distilleries into bars without any of the county’s usual oversight, including a requirement that 40 percent of onsite sales come from food.
“We’ve worked very hard not to have bars in Frederick County, and this just looked like a way around owning a bar,” Young said. “So, I opposed it. We already allowed them to have tasting rooms. That’s what the wineries can do. That’s what the breweries can do. And it seemed like the distilleries were asking to sell their products and outside alcohol, too.”
That “miscommunication,” in the words of Jim Bauckman, the communications manager for the Distillers Guild, also failed to accurately represent the inequity between craft distilleries and their counterparts in wine and beer. Breweries in Maryland can now serve up to 5,000 barrels a year in their taprooms, a limit that equates to roughly 1.25 million pints. Wineries can sell tastings, glasses, and full bottles for customers to enjoy onsite. But the limit for distilleries, Bauckman said, was both small and non-analogous to sampling a glass of wine or beer.
“The fact is that people don’t often go to a restaurant and order straight spirits,” he said.
Under the old limits, distillers often had to deny customers who came in wanting cocktails, especially from neighboring states like Virginia and Pennsylvania where local distilleries can serve mixed drinks, said Braeden Bumpers, the co-owner of McClintock.
“Under the new rule, it gives our tourism boards a great reason to advertise, ‘Hey, you can stop by a distillery and enjoy yourself for a couple hours, not just 5 minutes for a quick tasting,’” echoed Dan McNeill, the co-owner and distiller at Miscellaneous. “It allows us to showcase our products in a way that more customers are comfortable with.”
That’s certainly the case at the Tenth Ward Cocktail Lab, already bustling less than a week after it opened for full service. The menu offers ten year-round and seasonal cocktail options along with tasting flights and full pours of signature spirits like the smoked corn whiskey and caraway rye. On any given visit, it’s clear the cocktails are the more in-demand orders. The bar is lined with far more Lady Fritchies and absinthe frappes — a cloudy mint-hued cocktail mixed with tonic, simple syrup and lemon juice — than neat pours of the ghostly green spirit.
Pearce pointed out that the legislation also offered craft distilleries new avenues for expansion. Maryland distillers, she said — including Tenth Ward, McClintock and Miscellaneous — opened with the knowledge that most of their revenue would come from distribution and on-site bottles sales. But the companies are also limited to self-distribution in Maryland and Washington, D.C., McNeill added. In other words, if a distillery wanted to sell its bottles in neighboring states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, the company would have to go through a distributor to expand into restaurants and retail spaces.
Small craft breweries, with similar limits on self-distribution and an increasingly competitive retail market, often choose to expand through taproom sales rather than wholesale availability, said Bart Watson, head economist for the national Brewers Association, in an interview last year. But before the new legislation allowing mixed drinks, distilleries didn’t have many options for attracting new visitors.
“That’s why it was kind of frustrating, the idea of having this space where, realistically, customers were only sampling our spirits for a few minutes,” McNeill said.
He and co-owner Meg McNeill are hoping to expand into a facility that can accommodate larger tour groups. Pearce is anticipating that Tenth Ward’s revenue will increase by 30 percent thanks to the new cocktail program and a more highly-trafficked location on East Patrick Street.
Still, a focus on their original business model makes serving cocktails less of a priority for Bumpers and McNeill. Offering mixed drinks comes with its own set of challenges, including Health Department oversight and some necessary sanitation infrastructure, including a three-compartment sink. Distilleries are also required to apply for an onsite consumption permit through their local liquor boards, which can approve or deny the applications at their discretion.
“It’s not like we’re all going to be set for life now we can all do cocktails,” said McNeill. “The distribution piece is still key, and that’s one reason we’re not in a rush to set up our cocktails right away.”
Distilleries are also still required to make their own liqueurs, digestifs and other alcoholic mixers to add to cocktails.
Some, like Tenth Ward, are willing to take that extra step, though Pearce said it can throw a wrench in the distillery’s production schedule. For her, it’s worth it, given that the company had always planned to make the cocktail lab an important part of its business model. Bumpers, on the other hand, said McClintock is planning to stick to simpler recipes, at least initially. The new lounge expansion was also planned well before the new legislation was passed, largely to address space constraints at the distillery.
“We’ve been talking about a second facility for a while,” he said, “mostly because all the weddings and private events have been much more popular here than we originally anticipated. This new space will stay open even if the distillery itself is closed, which is the part we’re really excited about.”
Like McNeill and some other distillers, Bumpers is also more hesitant about the prospect of launching a cocktail program like Tenth Ward’s. More alcohol also means better vigilance when it comes to overserving, he pointed out — something that’s never a concern with the current thimble-sized samples.
“At the end of the day, if we had wanted to open a bar, we would have opened a bar,” he said. “What Monica is doing is awesome, but personally, I think most distilleries are looking at this as a way to showcase their spirits with a little more freedom.”