Cops & Cocktails
From Police Officer to Rum Distiller
Maryland’s newest spirits distillery was started by two local cops.
Two cops find a moonshine still… It sounds like the setup for a bad joke but that’s the actual backstory of Maryland’s latest craft distillery, Blue Dyer.
While at first blush it might seem like an odd pairing, a background in law enforcement turns out to be extremely helpful in setting up a spirits company.
“Our job beforehand was interpreting massive amount of laws and rules and standard operating procedures, and then applying them,” says Walker Dunbar, an active cop and one of its two founders. “We’re used to reading overly complicated legal writing, and reducing it down. We joke about it regularly—we’re just trading one rule book for another.”
Dunbar’s business partner and—until recently—fellow police officer, Ryan Vierheller, doesn’t deny this. “There’s such a large amount of information out there that the new talent is being able to look at it en masse, and do sort of metadata analysis. Then you get rid of what you don’t need and keep what you do need and move forward.”
Think of it as CSI: Distillery: Assess the scene. Look for clues. Figure out the M.O. Discard the bad leads. Double down on the good ones.
In late April, Vierheller, 36, left the police force in Bladensburg, Maryland, which is just outside Washington, D.C., to devote himself full-time to producing spirits. “I’m going all in at the distillery,” he reports. “We just reached a point where the orders were greater than we could fulfill with both of us working part time.”
The transition from cop to distiller began nearly three years ago, when Vierheller and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Jasmine Graham took a tour of the Kings Country Distillery in Brooklyn. Graham said that Vierheller, who is nothing if not talkative, fell uncharacteristically silent during and immediately following their visit. On the drive back to their home he told Jasmine, “We’re going to go home and see if there’s a distillery there.”
There wasn’t—craft distilling was blossoming in and around Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, but not near Waldorf, in southern Charles County, about 45 minutes south of the capital. Vierheller started concocting a business plan. At work one day he mentioned it to Dunbar, who asked a few questions. “Then three or four days later he called and said, ‘Hey did you know there’s a national barrel shortage?’” Vierheller remembers. “That’s when I knew I had him.”
Vierheller’s research into opening a distillery also awakened a dormant curiosity from his childhood. His family’s roots date back about a dozen generations in Pennsylvania and Virginia. One early ancestor had taken up distillation as part of the process of making blue dye from indigo. (He, naturally, earned the nickname of “Blue Dyer.”) Subsequent generations kept up the distillation but stopped making the indigo. Around Stafford County, Virginia, Vierheller says, “Blue Dyer moonshine” was a locally respected thing.
His grandfather ran a construction business, but Vierheller remembers distillation equipment scattered about some of the farm buildings. This included a 55-gallon pot still, dating back to Prohibition days, and which was rumored to still get extracurricular use. My grandfather “taught us the difference between good liquor and bad,” Vierheller says. (They briefly considered resurrecting the old still, but opted against it “because we’re 99-percent certain the welds on it are lead.”)
The family’s farm operation led to other questions. Vierheller wondered why that old still had a huge, 2-inch pipe and valve at its base. He asked his grandmother, who just laughed. “That’s the difference between them and you,” she said. “They were doing it in the woods… and had it ready to empty and run off if the taxman started looking for them.”
Unlike his ancestors (and like a member of law enforcement), Vierheller has gone by the book. He and Dunbar don’t have a quick-flush valve to hide evidence. They do have a new 165-gallon hybrid reflux still with three bubble caps, on which they’re making rum and whiskey. The liquor is then aged in new 10-gallon charred barrels from Minnesota. It typically matures for a bit over a month, and then may be further tempered with cherry wood inserts they toast themselves. “That’s a sort of a Virginia farm boy method,” Vierheller says of the technique, which is also similar to a method employed by some of the big distillers.
Blue Dyer Rum won a silver medal at the 2017 American Distilling Institute competition, and is currently for sale in Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., and they’re hoping to be in Virginia by next year.
They spend as much time hawking their products as making it, both in their distillery (the tasting room is made from wood reclaimed from an old barn on Vierheller’s grandfather’s property), as well as in shops and events around southern Maryland. Vierheller describes the area as being populated by “your Carhartt-wearing, camouflage-wearing, gun-toting, four-wheel drive type guys.” He said it doesn’t hurt that the new casks give their rum a robust, whiskey-like flavor.
Vierheller and Dunbar are now looking into expanding into rye, but are, of course, carefully analyzing the scene before moving on to the next bit of business.
“Brick by brick is the way we’re building this temple,” Vierheller says. He’s optimistic, but like any well-trained cop, he has a fallback plan if the original scenario falls apart.
“My police certification will last five years,” he says. “I can always go back to a police department job.”