Howard County’s second craft distillery opened without a lot of fanfare on April 13, just one month after the COVID-19 quarantine took effect.
Even so, the Ellicott Distilling Co. owners are happy with the response they’ve had.
“Right now, it’s all we can do to keep up with demand,” said Arkady Lapidus, a Citi Bank analytics specialist. “Our timing was perfect because we opened up for online ordering and curbside pickup has been very popular.”
Presumably, it’s the first distillery to operate in Ellicott City since the early 1800s, when the founding Ellicott brothers operated three stills on the eastern bank of the Patapsco River.
“Our capacity is about 500 bottles a week but we haven’t sold or produced that many yet,” Lapidus said.
Currently, the distillery is producing 80-proof rum, London Dry Gin, vodka and a line of 54-proof fruit liqueurs that include blueberry, strawberry, Orangecello, and Limoncello.
It also produces a lemongrass-flavored vodka and raspberry-flavored vodka.
It’s been more of a soft opening than the owners were planning.
“We have a full tavern upstairs and we are planning to get into food service but the pandemic has slowed us down,” said John Aguilera, an IT professional who also has a sales background. “Having 50 percent occupancy makes it really difficult, so being able to staff all of that just doesn’t work out at the moment.”
The distillery employs approximately seven and is open for mini-tours and tastings with proper protective equipment and social distancing precautions.
According to Lapidus, the partners have already produced a few barrels of young bourbon and young rye, though they’re not for sale yet.
“We’ll be releasing about a barrel a month of the young [whiskeys] and laying down bigger barrels for at least two years to sell as straight bourbon and straight rye,” he said.
All of the grain used in production is locally sourced in Cecil County.
“We’re not sourcing locally for the flavorings yet but we’ll get to that later and source them as locally as possible,” Lapidus said.
Aside from on-site sales, which include cocktails to go, the owners have also made appearances at farmers markets throughout the region.
They hope to sign a contract with a distributor in the fall and begin selling to local liquor stores, bars and restaurants.
“We have a loyalty program and hope to get a lot of repeat customers and we have seen some of that already,” Lapidus said.
Emphasis on Craft
Rather than focus on a flagship product, the owners are placing the emphasis on the craft of distilling and want to introduce customers to the extensive variety of distilled spirits that are enjoyed throughout the world.
“Each partner brings in some knowledge from different cultural backgrounds that we can use to look at different recipes to produce on a small scale,” Aguilera said, with an eye to bringing different and unfamiliar products to the local market.
“I come from Eastern Europe and have always been fascinated by all the varieties of homemade spirits you can get there,” Lapidus said. “Every village has their own version of a liqueur they are very proud of. I helped my wife’s family distill on occasion and learned a lot from them and the rest I picked up from books and experimentation. It’s a fun hobby that we managed to turn into a business.”
Aguilera’s cultural influence comes from his Argentinian parents and their western European friends.
“Part of my experience at home included tasting homemade wines and appreciating different flavors of homemade cooking from different cultures,” he said. “This extended into my appreciation of different alcohols. The distillery business appeals to me because it allows us to express our creativity and art form to more people than just our families, and share different flavors from a variety of cultures with everyone.”
Aguilera and Lapidus ultimately envision a dispensing setup similar to large breweries or taverns with an array of taps on the wall.
“We really want to become known as a place where you can order a cocktail and every ingredient in that drink will be made here,” Lapidus said, with the exception of vermouth, tequila and a few other spirits that are problematic from either a technical or legal standpoint.
For the foreseeable future, Ellicott Distilling Co. will continue to bottle and label by hand, test the market and slowly build out its line.
“We depend a lot on word of mouth and we’re building a good reputation on the street,” Aguilera said. “We’ll be expanding operations more as COVID regulations relax a little bit and getting the employees to support that.”
By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | September 2020 Issue