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Exploring Montgomery County’s Only Distillery – Twin Valley Distillers

Owner Edgardo Zuniga opened three months ago and is now producing rum and vodka

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Edgardo Zuniga stands in front of his still inside an industrial space in Rockville. Zuniga opened Twin Valley Distillers three months ago.

Andrew Metcalf

Good luck finding Twin Valley Distillers.

The first distillery to open in Montgomery County is located behind a body shop and through a barbed wire fence in an industrial portion of Rockville.

That’s where you’ll find Edgardo Zuniga and his still. Zuniga, a former restaurant owner and Silver Spring resident, is used to people being surprised by the fact that he runs a distillery in Montgomery County.

He’s been making vodka and rum for three months. He’s permitted by the federal government, the state and the county to do so, but some people still wonder: How did he get permission from Montgomery’s Department of Liquor Control?

Zuniga says the answer is simple: He applied for a permit and received a license, although it took him two years to finally get it. He’s the only holder of a distillery license in the county.

“There were people in the county who said it will never happen,” Zuniga, 44, said Monday at his Twin Valley Distillers warehouse.

Nearby, freshly distilled white rum trickled out of a small spout into a white bucket.

Zuniga’s setup in a warehouse off East Gude Drive is more likely to remind people of a moonshine operation than a commercial distillery. He said he made some of the copper condensing pipe himself. To cool the water that condenses the alcohol, he uses a refrigerating system he bought on Amazon.com that is hooked up to a car radiator, which is kept cool by a window air-conditioning unit. He hand-labels every bottle he produces and uses a heat gun to affix shrink wrap around each cork.

For Zuniga—who once studied history at the University of Minnesota, but dropped out and later went to culinary school—the distillery represents his idea of the American dream and a lost piece of history that he’s recovering one bottle at a time. He loves the distilling process, and the smell and taste of alcohol, but, ironically, he doesn’t drink the stuff.

“I don’t have the stomach for spirits,” Zuniga said. “I see here a part of the American history that almost got forgotten.” Zuniga says small distillers were basically eliminated after Prohibition and have struggled to reclaim a share of the alcohol market. He hopes his business can ride a resurgence modeled after the craft beer industry.

A 2012 Economist article noted that at the dawn of the 19th century there were about 14,000 distillers. After Prohibition there were less than a dozen and the industry has been dominated for decades by the big distillers including Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Smirnoff, which started off in Russia but is distilled all over the world, including in the United States. However, as the article notes, the craft distillery business is growing, from an estimated 24 small businesses in 2001 to more than 250 by 2012.

Twin Valley Distillers got its start about eight years ago, Zuniga says. That’s when he closed his Rockville restaurant, Blue Mountain Café, due to the recession. To make money he took a job as a chef at an assisted-living facility, but for six years he mulled what to do next. He knew he didn’t want to continue working in a restaurant and about three years ago he started infusing alcohol. He made lemon-infused liquor and infused vodka with fruits and herbs.

“Eventually, I found I was able to control everything except alcohol,” Zuniga said, meaning he could control the flavors, but not the base liquor.

So he became interested in distilling alcohol. His first stop took him to local libraries; none of which had any books on distilling. The only library where he could find with books on the subject was the U.S. Library of Congress. Instead, he turned to Amazon and bought several historical books, such as the The Practical Distiller, first published in 1809. His interest piqued, he started watching how-to videos on YouTube, then went to New Columbia Distillers in Washington, D.C., and learned from Michael Lowe about how to make Green Hat Gin. He traveled to Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Loudoun County, Va., and learned about its craft whiskey. Then he took a four-day workshop at Koval Distillery in Chicago where he learned the basis of making whiskey. He said the guys at Maryland Homebrew in Columbia also helped him with the technical aspects of distilling.

At this point fully hooked into the idea of operating his own distillery, Zuniga began the permitting process. It took him two years, but with persistence he obtained a federal license to distill alcohol. Soon after he received licenses and permits from the county and state and set up shop in a 1,700-square-foot warehouse off East Gude Drive in a heavily industrial zone of Rockville. He's one of seven distilling license holders in the state.

It was no cakewalk. “If I have to sneeze, I need a permit,” Zuniga said. He keeps the distillery separated by a painted yellow line. Any alcohol that crosses the line must be documented and taxed. He files taxes with the federal government every 15 days.

However, he said he’s gotten used to the restrictions and the county has been a major help. The Department of Liquor Control has bought hundreds of cases and is now selling his vodka and rum in its county-run liquor stores. And this month he made his first sale—50 cases—to an outside distributor. In his first three months he’s netted nearly $15,000 in sales. He can produce about 30 cases (12 one-liter bottles per case) of rum per week and about 10 to 15 cases of vodka per week.

He makes 90-proof Jamaican-style rum with pure molasses; his vodka also is 90 proof.

When asked why customers should choose his spirits over others, he said they should because of the care he puts into distilling spirits. “People want things that are different,” Zuniga said. “I’ve brought to the county what is a true hand-crafted distillery.”

In a storeroom in the warehouse, Zuniga already has his first batch of whiskey aging in a small oak barrel, a process that will take years.  Eventually, he said, distilling whiskey will be the focus of his distillery, something he hopes can rekindle a rich Maryland distillation history.

Twin Valley Distillers will host an open house Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. at 711 East Gude Dr., Bay D, Rockville. Twinvalleydistillers.com

The sign for Twin Valley Distillers directs people to its location behind a body shop on East Gude Drive in Rockville.

Edgardo Zuniga takes a look at his first barrel of whiskey inside a storage room in his distillery.

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