When Ben Lyon and Jaime Windon launched Lyon Distilling in St. Michaels at the end of 2013, they planned on running a small, two-person business that focused solely on rum. They were making batches of 30 bottles at a time in two small stills and hoping to make a go of it in a town that was already supporting a brewery and a winery. And then, as Windon describes it, “things, very quickly, got out of control. In a good way.”
We caught up with Windon for this month’s High Spirits to look back on Lyon’s first five years in business and ahead to the next five.
How have things changed over the past five years?
We’ve grown from a team of two, to a full-time team of 10 — with some seasonal and family help, it grows to about 13 to 14 on our team. We no longer just make rum — we make nine varieties of rum and rum liqueurs. We do three seasonal whiskeys and we have a number of other experimental spirits in the works. We also, notably, launched Gray Wolf Craft Distilling a year and a half ago, which does their own line of grain-to-glass vodka, gins, and whiskeys here under our roof, in collaboration with us.
But, the things that haven’t changed, is we still do everything from raw ingredient to finished product. Everything comes in this building as a sugar source, whether that’s the grain that gets mashed to make the whiskey or the actual sugar cane and molasses from Louisiana. And then, we do all of the fermentation, distillation, proofing, bottling, infusing, labeling, signing of every bottle, stamping of every batch, by hand.
It’s all still hand crafted, but there’s a lot more hands on the team, which is nice.
What are three words you’d use to describe Lyon?
Three words? I think in 10-word chunks!
For me, our distillery, as far as what happens here and what happens when we’re selling — it’s all about people. It’s about the people who’ve inspired us to make the spirits. It’s the people who are making our spirits. And it’s the people that we get to share our spirits with. For me, that’s it at the end of the day — yes, we are a rum distillery and a booze factory, but we’re a people company, so it’s all about people. The rum is worthless unless people can enjoy it.
The only three words that do sum up our company are: drink more rum. That’s our mantra.
What’s the best part of running a distillery?
It probably comes back to the people. I meet so many people. I never imagined that I would run a business where I would have business partners, where I would have employees, and where I would meet, sometimes, hundreds of people a day. That’s the most fun.
Also, being part of this new industry in Maryland is really exciting. I get the opportunity to work with fellow distillers who are just coming on the scene, people across the country that have been doing this far longer than I have. I’m the president of our Maryland Distillers Guild, so I get to meet with legislators and lobbyists, and work to reform laws to make Maryland a friendlier place to do business and to distill. That’s really exciting.
I never imagined how many facets there would be. It’s not like I just walk in here and turn the stills on. There’s so much that happens, and that’s really cool.
On the flip side, what’s the most challenging part?
Our biggest problem for four years has been keeping up with demand and now, going into year five, we have a whole new challenge that is ... we have the most fantastic team in place, we have killer products that people want, now we have to grow. This is our growth year.
What kind of impact do you think you’ve had on St. Michaels?
I think that we’ve had a big impact on St. Michaels, but St. Michaels has obviously had a huge impact on us. I think there’s synergy between making something people want in a town that people want to be at.
The town attracts fantastic visitors every weekend, and most of them are our demographic. That is, they’re young-ish — 30s to 60s — they come to town, want to eat, they want to drink, they want to learn, discover. And they can do all of that in this one-mile long town.
Being positioned behind the winery and brewery is absolutely the best place we could ever want to be. We have a little natural booze trifecta. I think we’re still the only town in Maryland with a winery, a brewery, and a distillery, especially in this proximity.
This is a town that makes things. We make beer and wine, and build boats, and you have watermen working the water every day, and now we have distilled spirits being manufactured here. So, I think we completed — St. Michaels kind of does everything now — but also being here was great for us, because we’re in one of the most beautiful towns in Maryland.
You guys are celebrating five years. What about the next five?
People have asked me that question since we opened, and I never imagined we’d be doing half the things we’re doing right now. I have no idea what this will look like at the end of 2018, let alone in five years.
But I can tell you it will be fun, it will be exciting, and it will be delicious. And it will definitely be bigger than we ever hoped for.
RECIPES BY JAIME
2 ounces Lyon Dark Rum
2 ounces Lyon Sailors Reserve Rum
2 ounces orange juice
2 ounces pineapple juice
juice of 1/2 lemon
dash orange and/or aromatic bitters
2 ounces Lyon White Rum
1 ounce mint simple syrup
3 ounces Picketts hot and spicy ginger beer
squeeze of fresh lime juice
garnish with mint
3 ounces Lyon White (or Overproof!) Rum
1.5 ounces fresh squeezed lime juice
1 ounce TRUE SYRUPS demerara simple syrup