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Old Line Spirits is a working man’s distillery. It’s not fancy like Sagamore Spirit distillery on the other side of downtown Baltimore with sparkling new buildings and a wide green lawn flowing into the Patapsco River harbor.
To find Old Line’s distillery, you drive down a short, dead-end street past the meat importing warehouse in a down-on-its-luck, working-class neighborhood between Baltimore’s Highlandtown and Greektown. It’s what Midwest tourists call, “a sketchy area.”
Yet, serious whiskey drinkers are trekking down South Janney Street to the freshly painted white cinderblock industrial building for a taste of Old Line Spirits American Single Malt Whiskey, and maybe a preview of some of the unique variations being made from the original recipe.
Old Line began distilling single malt whiskey in 2016. Basically, it’s the American version of a Scotch whiskey.
Over the summer of 2021, Old Line Spirits was still setting up booths at Maryland sailing regattas and annual festivals coaxing folks to taste their product.
In the winter, whiskey reviewer Fred Minnick ranked Old Line Single Malt, Madera Finish #64 in his Top 100 American Whiskey Ranking of 2021. Ahead of Sagamore’s just released Bottled in Bond (#97) and other well-knowns — Elija Craig C921 (#78) and Old Elk Sour Mash Reserve (#85).
Old Line is now being sold in Washington, DC’s Costco. Just two years after they started bottling.
Old Line Spirits Backstory
Two Navy guys walk into a bar…
The Old Line Spirits courtyard proudly displays “Bold Stories Deserve a Bold Whiskey.” This story is bold, but it doesn’t start with two Navy guys walking into a bar. They flew jets from the same airbase.
Mark McLaughlin and Arch Watkins met while flying EA-6B Prowlers at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state. Ten years later, they ended up at the same Navy Reserve squadron, this time in Baltimore, and decided to partner on creating a distillery.
Getting Old Line Distillery Going
In 2015, they bought Washington-state’s award-winning Golden Distilling and eventually moved the company’s aging barrels, still, and recipe to Baltimore, settling down in a former commercial laundry with great plumbing.
A few of those Golden barrels are still aging. The oldest is ten years as of 2021.
The early bottles of Baltimore’s Old Line were brewed in Ohio. The owners took their recipe, yeast, and grain to Columbus so they could use Middle West Spirits’ equipment while business details were being worked out in Baltimore, including a new copper pot still that needed to be built.
The current facility opened in 2017 and is now brewing American Single Malt Whiskey in-house through their copper pot still.
Old Line Spirits Distillery
The giant cinderblock building is both the brewing room and rack house. The working area, past the distillery bar and spirits store, is not heated or cooled, enabling the aging whiskey to be drawn into the sweetness of the oak barrels naturally during the summer and the impurities to be pulled out by the medium-charred wood in the winter months.
If you’re taking the tasting tour, be aware that temperatures in the rack room area are going to be close to the outside temp, but at least it’ll be dry.
About Old Line Spirit’s American Single Malt
“Chemistry happens at the still. Magic happens in the barrels.”– Charlie Stein, Old Line Spirits Brand Ambassador
The first thing you notice when tasting Old Line American Single Malt Whiskey is the 86-proof alcohol content but ignore that first taste. The second taste is what creates fans. It has a bourbon-like sweetness and is peat-free.
Old Line’s Distilling Chemistry
Old Line uses 100% malted barley from Washington state in the mash bill, but that includes two barley types. Ninety percent is “2-Row” barley providing the bread smells and releasing starch into the blend. The remaining ten percent is 2-Row Barley that’s been toasted and caramelized, turning it into crystal malts. That’s part of what gives the whiskey its dark Carmel color.
The mash is cooked with straight fire, and no peat or smoke is added. So you’ll find a few earthy flavors or notes. Although, smokiness has been included in special blends.
The whiskey is double distilled to 140 proof, rather than the 160 proof that bourbon reaches before barreling. That keeps certain grain oils that Old Line wants to maintain in the mouth-feel and taste.
They use Baltimore City’s purified water that comes from four reservoirs, filtering out the fluoride and chlorine.
Old Line’s Barrel Magic
Old Line has a unique, bourbon-like sweetness that comes from the new charred American White Oak barrels. White oak has some of the same chemical compounds as vanilla and cinnamon.
How much sweetness depends on how much the barrel gives up during the aging.
“Some barrels are stingy,” says Charlie Stein, the day’s tour and tasting guide.
In a recent cask strength barrel — the labels don’t designate which barrel it came from — the whiskey came out darker and filled the mouth with Carmel tastiness underlined by vanilla and grain, with a cinnamon spiciness finish. That barrel gave up its sweetness.
The single malt goes into 53-gallon barrels, most are aged while standing on their head. The barrels are not turned regularly. They let the weather and temperature churn the whiskey around in the barrels.
Old Line blends barrels for its signature brand, American Single Malt Whiskey, to maintain a consistent flavor profile.
Because Old Line uses new barrels, it’ll be sweeter than most Scotches despite being a barley whiskey. Scotland’s distillers typically age their whiskey in used bourbon barrels. Much of the sweetness has been removed by the bourdon, requiring Scotch whiskey to sit longer in the barrel so the whiskey can go deeper into the wood.
Old Line American Single Malt is aged three to four years before being bottled.
Other Tidbits on Old Line Spirits
Because Old Line is a young distillery, they don’t have bottled whiskey aged much past four years so far. Those three Golden Distillery casks, ages 10 and nine, are being held for special releases.
They’re experimenting with double oaked whiskey aged 3-4 years in new American Oak, then another year or more in rum- or various wine- or port barrels.
Old Line’s other specialty is a rum from the Dominican Republic. They get the rum specially made and age it in their barrels.
Old Line Spirits Tours and Tastings
Tours cost $15 in 2022 and last about 75 minutes. The guide goes into entertaining lessons on the distilling process. There’s not much walking around since everything shares the same building. The master distiller’s office is a desk on the distilling floor with the equipment as the only walls.
The Tasting Table is on the other side of the rack house floor. They have up to seven regular whiskey and rum products. The tasting selection depends on what’s available at the time, and you get to take home the tasting glass.
Another Way to Taste Old Line Whiskey
Old Line has an inside Ready Room Cocktail Bar with beer, wine, and spirits, and will have an outdoor, enclosed courtyard with a food truck ready to go in warm weather months.
For more on other Maryland Distillers: Where To Find The Best Maryland Rye & Bourbon Distillers