Quick, what do the Scottish Highlands and Highlandtown have in common? No, an artisanal haggis eatery hasn’t opened on East Pratt. But a single malt distillery has: Old Line Spirits, the latest addition to the state’s bourgeoning craft-distilling scene. It was launched in February within a 25,000-square-foot industrial building at 4201 E. Pratt St. by former U.S. Navy aviators, now Butchers Hill neighbors, Mark McLaughlin and Arch Watkins.
The two don’t make Scotch—only hooch made in Scotland can go by that name. Instead, they make single malt. It’s a popular variety of Scotch—your Glenlivets, Macallans and Laphroaigs—and designates a whiskey made from malted barley at a single distillery (distinguishing it from, say, corn-based bourbon).
“American single malts are relatively new,” McLaughlin says. “There is no Jim Beam or Jack Daniels in the American single malt market, which is good for us.”
Old Line’s choice of spirit sets them apart from other local distillers, such as Sagamore and the Baltimore Whiskey Company, who are busy making Maryland’s traditional tipple, rye whiskey. But their road to the ribbon-cutting is also unique in that they bought an existing distillery in Washington State and moved it—lock, stock and barrels—to Baltimore.
The journey began years back when the pair met in the service and discovered a mutual love of whiskey and a strong interest in going into business. Opening a craft distillery seemed a natural move. “The market just seemed right,” McLaughlin says.
Then, McLaughlin happened to visit Seattle for a wedding the same week that the American Distilling Institute expo was in town. There, he bumped into the owner of the Golden Distillery, north of Seattle, who was looking to retire.
“We were thinking about making bourbon or rye and hadn’t really heard of American single malt,” Watkins says. “Then we tasted the product, loved it, and realized it could be replicated here in Baltimore.”
The pair learned to distill at Golden before packing it all up and heading east. As it turned out, moving the equipment across the country wasn’t nearly as challenging as the two years it took getting their Highlandtown space in order. In the interim, they periodically traveled to a distillery in Columbus, Ohio, to make whiskey.
Golden used a 60-gallon copper pot still, which the pair acknowledges looks positively puny in its capacious new surroundings. They hope to install a 300-gallon still as early as this summer. The barrels scattered around the place look small, too—and they are. Currently, the partners age the whiskey two to three years in 10-gallon oak barrels, but they are transitioning to the industry-standard 53-gallon barrels (which, oddly enough, are actually cheaper to buy than the small ones).
Seeing how the American Distilling Institute awarded Golden’s whiskey a gold medal in the single malt category in 2012, Old Line hasn’t touched the recipe. “It uses a small amount of roasted malt that brings nice, low-level chocolate notes in the background,” McLaughlin says—quickly adding that this does not mean it tastes smoky or “peaty” like certain scotches.
The best place to sample a wee nip is in their tasting room, open Friday through Sunday, lined with local artwork and outfitted with a leather sofa. Behind the bar you’ll see Old Line’s other spirited product, rum. Like many craft whiskey makers, they needed a cash generator while waiting for their product to age. Cranking out a quick vodka or gin was one option, but as Navy men they went another route: importing aged Caribbean-style rum from the Dominican Republic.
“We worked with a master rum blender in Texas to get just the flavor profile we wanted—something to easily sip neat or on the rocks,” McLaughlin says of the seven-year-old rum. That’s perhaps the best way to enjoy their 86-proof whiskey, too. With a retail price of $50 a bottle, it’s dear for cocktails. The 84-proof Old Line rum sells for $30 and a spirited 114-proof “Navy strength” version goes for $45.
While the tasting room is comfy, the bulk of their space is, well, just space now—echoey and empty. “What you’re going see here in the coming years is this whole area given over to barrel storage,” McLaughlin says, sweeping an arm towards a vacant corner.
In other words, barrels of whiskey from floor to ceiling aging away—just like you might see in Kentucky. Or the Scottish Highlands.