Crab-Spice Spirit:

Old Bay Vodka Takes Local to a New Level

By Cheryl Costello

As turmoil overseas prompts people to turn to locally made products (especially vodka, a chief Russian export), a Maryland distillery has launched what just might be the most local vodka ever.

George’s Beverage Company (of Bloody Mary mix fame) is producing a new Old Bay Vodka at a Frederick distillery. In the next couple of weeks, Chesapeake Bay enthusiasts will be able to mix up an Old Bay Vodka seltzer or serve crab rigatoni à la Old Bay Vodka sauce. Bay Bulletin went inside the distillery to find out how the quintessential crab spice becomes a 70-proof spirit.

“It’s not salty, it’s not overwhelming. It’s balanced. It’s subtle,” proclaims Braeden Bumpers, co-founder of McClintock Distilling in Frederick, where Old Bay Vodka is being produced. We walked through the facility to see the distiller at work. It looks like a laundry machine.

“We’re applying heat to evaporate alcohol vapors coming up through this helmet, entering into the bottom of the column. And then it works its way up the column and then as it moves up here it’s going to basically refract into a finer and finer spirit,” Bumpers shows us.

It’s distilled six times to make it smooth.

“After the distillation process, we then proof it down. Just like any spirit, you’re never going to drink it at the percentage it is when it comes off the still,” says distiller Seth Joy.

Both the distillers at McClintock and the leaders of George’s Beverage Company, which developed the Old Bay Vodka concept, take a perfectionist approach to the spirit. “We probably went through at least 20 or 30 different iterations until we got to the finished one,” says Bumpers.

Greg David, co-owner of George’s, is a former Annapolis bartender. He put George’s on the map with its award-winning Bloody Mary mix. He worked for three years with Old Bay (a McCormick brand) and McClintock Distilling—all three Maryland companies—to develop the vision for the vodka.

“I did not want any particulates,” says David. “I did not want a Goldschlager where there’s floating things in there. And we did not want a red-colored vodka.”

So how does the Old Bay actually get into the vodka? Bumpers explains the science. “Flavor scientists at McCormick utilize the all-natural ingredients that go into Old Bay, and then they treat them. They distill concentrates, they extract oil. They do it to make a clear flavoring solution comprised with all natural ingredients that we just blend with the vodka.”

If crab-spice vodka sounds a little aggressive, David assures us that the flavor is subtle. “It will enhance the flavor of your Bloody Mary and will make it better, without making it more spicy … it’s not a smack-you-in-the-mouth heat.”

The team has come up with several food and drink recipes to take our imagination well beyond a Blood Mary.

“My favorite recipe is the Bay Crush,” David says. “You’ve heard of the orange crush, hugely popular at Maryland, Delaware, East Coast beaches. This is the Bay Crush. It’s a take on the orange crush, only with lemon [and Old Bay].”

There’s also a Reel Bay Breeze made with Old Bay Vodka, pineapple and cranberry juices. On the food side, there’s Eastern Shore drunken shrimp and pasta dishes to choose from. David says they waited to launch the vodka until they had the recipes just right.

The team is trying to keep each bottle under $20. McClintock actually built a new facility just for producing Old Bay Vodka, which is expected to open soon in Frederick. The distiller was chosen in part for its sustainable practices, like the wastewater cooling system they run in-house. “It recycles all of our cooling water, so that has reduced our wastewater by about half a million gallons every single year,” Bumpers says.

You can look for Old Bay Vodka on Maryland store shelves and in restaurants sometime in the next week. And David is thinking even bigger.

“We look to be in all 50 states probably within 10 years.”