The story behind the distilling operations at Fiore is one that was born out of necessity only to evolve into an adventurous journey of exploration and experimentation. Initially established as a means for adding value to what would otherwise be considered waste material (i.e. the pomace), Fiore experimented with distilling operations using a small 25 gallon pot still. The thought was to process the grape skins, pulp, and seeds that remained after fermentation into a popular Italian spirt call Grappa. After producing a small batch and inviting a few “Italian” friends and relatives over to sample the results, the consensus was that the Fiore Grappa was actually much better than a lot of the Grappa’s that our “paisani” consumed back in the Old Country. That small, informal, affirmation was the genesis of a new line of business that continues to this day.
While there are many romantic notions of opening and operating a craft distillery, the barriers to entry for the uninitiated can be quite intimidating. Fortunately for the Fiore family, a strong footing in the wine business was already established along with experience and knowledge of Federal and State manufacturing requirements. However, as was quickly learned, having the bragging rights of being first is often overrated. In order to begin manufacturing and selling Grappa a law had to be passed that enabled the colocation of a distillery at a winery. Maryland has a very complex structure for laws regarding the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcoholic products. Basically, if there isn’t a specific law allowing a related practice – it is illegal. Accordingly, legislation spearheaded by Barry Glassman and with the support of our local legislators, became law and thus the craft spirt industry in Maryland was born.
With legislation in place, Fiore broke ground on a new building to perform distilling operations. Again, the Federal and State requirements can be intimidating to the uninitiated – one basically needs a super secure explosion proof building. While not the most attractive building with its lack of windows, 12-inch thick steel reinforced concrete block walls, double deadbolt pick-proof steel doors, and video surveillance, it meets the necessary requirements. With the new building in place, the first order of business was upgrading equipment so production could be scaled up. The law only allowed for a limited amount of spirit to be produced, so equipment was chosen to meet these production limits.
A 60-gallon pot still was purchased to perform first run bulk distilling and a computer controlled Vendome still was purchased to perform the more complex refined distilling required for craft spirits. The pot still is operated with propane that boils off the alcohol to an average of about 35% alcohol on an initial distilling run. Not only is the pot still used to manufacture Grappa, it is also used to manufacture other spirits such as premium Maryland Apple Brandy. While relatively unsophisticated in operation, it actually produces very nice first run distilled spirits. The alcohol produced by the pot still is then further distilled in the Vendome still which takes the lowers alcohol spirt and inductively heats it with electricity while simultaneously condensing the higher proof gaseous spirit all under computer control. While less interactive and glamorous in operation than the old fashion stills, for better or worse, it reduces subjectivity, improves consistency and can produce spirits as high as 90% alcohol.
The Grappa (a.k.a. brandy) that is produced is used in the manufacture of a variety of products. Four port like products; Blueberry Blues, Francesca, Rosina, and Victoria are all fortified with Grappa. It is also available in its natural unaltered state as simply Grappa. Nicholas Reserve is a premium Grappa aged for over two years in 35-gallon oak barrels. The spirit is also used in the manufacture of Limoncello and several other Italian style liqueurs currently under development. Since the introduction of these products, Fiore has also expanded its production and product offerings to include spirits produced with grains.
Some of the newer production equipment includes a charcoal filter for producing Vodka, which includes Maryland Blue Crab Vodka, uniquely packaged with a Maryland theme. The Blue Crab Vodka is of exceptional quality because of the filtering process, which largely utilizes a gravity feed only requiring use of a pump at the end of the process to slowly coerce the remaining spirit through the fine sand–like gains of charcoal.
More recently, Fiore has ventured into both rye and corn whisky production available under Straight Rye and Bourbon labels. With the initial production run being extremely limited, literally a barrel of each, the products were incredibly well received by folks fortunate enough to sample them and other folks hearing about them and driving 3-hours to purchase the limit permissible under current law. In 2016 production was ramped up to 4-barrels of each and trade studies on new equipment to increase production are underway. Fiore currently uses grains sourced from New York, but local sources of grain and even organic grains, are under consideration for the future.
But perhaps the greatest success story in this adventure comes from the tale of a young man in search of a unique gift that he could provide his wedding party. On his wedding day, each member of his bridal party and supporting family members were all provided a mason jar with an incredible elixir simply labeled as “Sweet Apple Pie”. His father shared his with a group of men that he frequently has dinner with and the response was overwhelmingly positive with immediate requests for more. And so began the birth of Fiore Moonshine.
The first challenge was how to brand this new product as at the time, moonshines were being introduced to the market at an exponential rate. Unable to decide between two favorite names both were adapted; Mason-Dixon Moonshine for pure unaltered white whisky and Maryland Moonshine for the naturally flavored whiskies. The next challenge was the packaging concept. The initial concept was to package the products in mason jars but this would require special bottling and handling equipment that currently wasn’t available. So the decision was made to use the classic moonshine jug with finger grip, which worked with existing bottling equipment. The label concept was to be something simple that looked like a rubber stamped paper bag. After about a year of product development, five brands were initially produced late 2014; Apple Pie, Cranberry, Caramel, Honey and Traditional, with Eggnog and Peach Cobbler following a year later. All brands are made with 100% natural ingredients – no artificial flavoring, which is common used in lower quality products as a short cut. Needless to say the public response was overwhelming, sales are increasing every year, and as retailers remove stagnant product offering from other manufactures they are replacing them with Maryland Moonshine.
So what to expect in the future? All of the following products are currently under development; an absolutely incredible Gin, Dark and Light Rums, and a Hazelnut Liquor. And rest assured, all will be uniquely made and uniquely Maryland.