Field Trips: Lyon Distilling in Maryland
On Maryland’s eastern shore, Lyon Distilling focuses on rum, while reconnecting with America’s distilling history
All photos by Phil Galewitz.
When Jamie Windon opened Lyon Distilling in December 2013, the first full production craft distillery on Maryland in 50 years, she knew the state’s long history with whiskey. Until Prohibition in the 1930s, Maryland was the center of rye whiskey production in the United States with its spirit well liked for its delicate and sweeter taste than the rye from Kentucky and other states. At the time, Maryland rivaled Kentucky and Pennsylvania for top rye production output in the country. However, with a lack of demand, Maryland’s last rye whiskey distiller ceased operations in 1972. Lyon and another producer, Sagamore Spirit (whose Cask Strength Rye won gold in the 2018 NY International Spirits Competition), became part of a new wave of Maryland rye producers in the country.
Windon, chief executive officer and co-founder of Lyon Distilling in St. Michael’s Md., wanted not only to hand-craft craft spirits but to honor the history of spirits manufacturing in the United States. But in 2017 Lyon stopped distilling whiskey to focus exclusively on rum production. Windon said rum was the first spirit made in America (in what was then the colonies) and as such “it’s a true American spirit.” With so much of the Eastern Shore having a nautical connection, she said it makes more sense to make rum, which has become part of sailing life since the 17th century when sailors would bring back a cask of rum as proof of their passage across the Atlantic to Europe from the Caribbean.
“We are so small that we have to focus our efforts to get maximum production of rum which we make every day,” she said. “I believe in rum and I think it’s a fun spirit,” she said inside the distillery she co-founded in just 100 yards from the Chesapeake Bay in this historic sailing town.
Experimenting with new styles and flavors is a hallmark of Lyon Distilling, Maryland’s the first full production distillery to open in nearly a half century.
Lyon Distilling began selling with three varieties of rum: white and barrel aged as well as seasonal releases. Since then its released several distinctive rum liqueurs (the federal government requires this classification because of the added ingredients such as chocolate not because of a lower proof) including a Rock N Rum that’s slightly sweeter, smokier and richer than traditional rums. To make it, Lyon infuses its white rum with orange botanicals, blends the distillate with a candied-orange caramel, and finishes it with dark cherries. “It’s our ideal rum old fashioned—a smashing cocktail in a bottle,” she said.
Lyon has also produced a coffee rum liqueur that’s a home run for anyone who likes coffee. Lyon infuses their base rum with fresh ground coffee from a local roaster. Then, instead of adding more sugar, they add a pinch of chocolate. The result is a deep, smooth, pleasantly bitter, and not overly sweet, liqueur with the distinct flavor of fresh made coffee. It makes for a terrific White Russian.
A 30-minute tasting tour through Lyon’s rum spirits showed me their rums were flavorful enough to be sipped on their own with nothing more than ice and maybe a lime or orange twist. But their rums also make for tasty concoctions such as mixing their dark rum with ginger beer to make a Nor’easter or a Distiller’s Rum Punch mixing their dark rum with white grapefruit juice, key lime juice and grated nutmeg.
Background and a bit about the location
Co-founder Ben Lyon gained experience as a home brewer and working at a small brewery and distillery after college. Windon, a professional photographer who grew up in Laurel, Md. and has lived in South America and Kenya, and also has extensive experience in the bar and restaurant business. Lyon left the company last year. The two business partners originally helped manage a bed and breakfast in St. Michael’s before going into the distillery business.
St. Michaels, about halfway between Washington D.C. and Ocean City, Md., doesn’t need any help attracting tourists to its picturesque downtown brimming with waterfront views, fresh seafood and back to nature feel. In 2013, a winery and a craft brewery had taken hold just off busy Talbot Street. The distillery seemed to fit right in on the booze making road.
Modern Maryland rum production
Today, the Lyon Distilling team has 12 employees who focus on blending innovative techniques with traditional methods to create spirits. Everything is made by hand—mashed, fermented and double distilled in small pot stills. “Our rum is 'cane to glass' meaning that we ferment, distill, barrel, infuse and bottle every one of our spirits on site, by hand, from scratch, every time,” Windon said. “The goal is to create distinctly American spirits— working to define the category of American Rum, while experimenting with obscure and varied finishes,” Windon said. Craft distillers typically choose pot stills and hybrid batch stills to give them more control over the process of making artisanal rum. While not certified organic, Lyon uses high quality, all natural raw sugarcane (first press) and blackstrap molasses from a Louisiana sugar mill called Lula-Westfield LLC. Lyon said the first press sugar means they get the dried sugar while it still has organic matter in it.
Visiting the distillery
The distillery, housed in a former flour mill, has quickly become a destination stop for locals and those escaping from city life across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The spacious tasting room has plenty of room for visitors to taste various rums before making a purchase. Windon shares her tap room and distillery with Gray Wolf, a husband-wife distillery team which makes whiskey using Maryland-grown rye grain and Delaware-grown and malted Barley.
Windon who heads the Maryland Distillers Guild, said is pleased to see a growing number of distilleries opening across the state with many learning and helping each other. “I believe in collaboration,” she said.
Windon said when they started distilling in 2013 they had no idea if people would even like their rum. After five years, she selling it across Maryland, Louisiana, Washington D.C., Delaware and Connecticut. She plans to add Florida to her distribution this year along with New York. Also, coming this summer will be their seasonal coconut rum made with toasted coconuts and pineapple rum.
Lyon recently collaborated with Jailbreak Brewing in Laurel, Maryland to make 500 gallons of Odb'rsky (affectionately referred to as “beersky”—whiskey made from beer). Its basically an IPA beer distilled into whiskey. “It smells like beer but tastes like whiskey,” Windon said.
That’s Lyon Distilling showing its fun side. Oh, and its distillery is dog and family friendly, too.