Q&A With Monica Pierce, Maryland’s Tenth Ward Distilling

By Richard Thomas

(Credit: Emily Gude)

Often commented upon in the media is how the complexion of whiskey-making is changing, and that more women and people of color are taking leading roles in this. It’s true, but I often think that the focus on folks occupying big corporate positions or those who left big corporate careers to do start-ups misses the point. Just as I think the most interesting stories in American whiskey right now are found with small producers operating in non-traditional areas, so it follows that craft whiskey is where you’ll find many of the best examples of how making whiskey is becoming a much broader experience.

That is part of why I started paying attention to Tenth Ward Distilling, helmed by Monica Pierce. The other reason why is that I lived in Washington, DC for 13 years, so I know her Frederick, Maryland stomping grounds well, and hope that my neglected DC roots will give me reason to swing by her operation some day. That I haven’t been there in the flesh, however, was no bar into opening a correspondence.

RT: You came from an environmental sciences background. What drew you not only into getting into the distilling trade, but in starting your own business as well?

MP: Yes, my background was in science, however I also have been in the hospitality industry since I was 14. I waited tables and bartended throughout college and during a part of my nonprofit career for the extra cash. So, I’ve always been a part of and interested in mixology, spirits and the beverage industry. I also managed to gain some valuable marketing and branding experience during my time in environmental science working on social marketing campaigns.

Monica Pierce
(Credit: Tenth Ward Distilling)

Gaining inspiration from the craft breweries opening in the area and with my love for whiskey, I just had one of those moments where I was ready to quit my job, empty my bank account and jump off the cliff into business ownership. My marketing, branding and customer service experience were huge assets to launch the Tenth Ward brand.

RT: Describe that arc of time of deciding to start up, leaving your previous career, and getting Tenth Ward off the ground.

MP: Before I left my job I had sort of started the business on the side. The non-profit I worked for was going through a bout of layoffs and there happened to be a serendipitous moment where I was let go and ended up collecting severance pay during a significant portion of the time I was getting the business running. The entire process from beginning to end took a little over a year. During that time I was bartending in the evenings, getting off work at 2 am and then waking up at 8 to work on the build-out and permitting during the day. I had very little start up cash so most of the work was done with the help of friends and family.

When we launched in 2016, distilleries in the state of Maryland could only pour up to four 0.5 oz samples per person per visit, a restriction that our fellow breweries and wineries did not have. So our small 1,600 sq. foot space was dedicated to both a tasting room and production. We eventually expanded into a larger front of house facility (6,000 sq feet) on Patrick Street in downtown Frederick, and actively lobbied to improve regulations on distilleries to allow for full service pours and cocktails and to be on par with the breweries and wineries. That facility became what we call our Cocktail Lab and a private event space. Guests can visit, sample products, purchase our spirits and canned cocktails and even host their wedding with us if they’d like! Our original facility became dedicated solely to production. We eventually grew out of that and moved all of our production operations two years ago to a new 9,000 sq foot warehouse by the Frederick airport.

RT: How did Tenth Ward weather the pandemic experience?

MP: We certainly lost plenty of money! Having both the cocktail bar and event space shut down and then at limited capacity was a major financial strain. We relied on wholesale and retail pickup and delivery for sales, and of course got into surface disinfectant production to meet community needs. Some grants and government funding helped pay the bills and I am incredibly thankful for our loyal customers and the reliability of our subscription clubs that provided some consistent cash flow. We were lucky that we didn’t end up having to lay anyone off, but definitely we are still recovering, and of course experiencing the same challenges that everyone is with supply shortages and price increases. Lastly, we are grateful that the pandemic inspired the launch of our canned cocktail line, which has been very successfully taking off.

(Credit: Tenth Ward Distilling)

RT: You are a Maryland craft distillery making rye! One of the best parts of the modern craft movement is the revival of traditional styles that died during the 1970s and ’80s. So, tell us all about your rye and how it fits into the revival of that tradition.

MP: Love this question! Actually, this next batch of stouted rye releasing at the end of the year will be our very last Stouted Rye batch. It is an 80% malted rye 20% malted barley mash bill aged in [new] American white oak and finished in stout beer barrels. The malt from the grain and dark chocolate notes from the barrel finish blend fantastically together.

However, for the purpose mentioned in your question, we have transitioned to developing a Tenth Ward version of Maryland Rye to keep up with tradition. So after this year, our two aged whiskies will be Smoked Bourbon (the aged version of our very popular Smoked Corn Whiskey) and Maryland Rye. The Maryland Rye will be made from 100% malted rye. We are big and bold in our flavors so we figured when it comes to rye and flavor profiles: go big or go home. We chose this direction in order to pay homage to Maryland’s heritage, to be a part of the growing Maryland Rye distillery scene and to help Maryland distilleries put Maryland Rye on the map to rival Kentucky bourbon.

RT: I checked out your line-up, and both your rye and your smoked bourbon are limited releases. How often do you put those out?

MP: These items are released as they become available and on no specific timeline. We have such a huge demand for them that we can’t keep up to the point where we’ve purchased a new 2,000 liter pot still manufactured by Specific Mechanical. Coincidentally I’m sitting in the distillery floor and my team is assembling it as I type this! The new still will be dedicated 100% to whiskey, specifically our smoked bourbon and rye production. It will also give us the opportunity to amp up production so we can fill more barrels.

RT: As a fan of a good Sazerac, I’m always on the look out for absinthe, even more so than a good rye for that cocktail. How is yours?

MP: Our absinthe is amazing. It is award-winning every time we submit it for competitions. Our Absinthe Nouvelle is Maryland’s first and only absinthe and is one of the only craft absinthes you will see distributed on the shelves in MD and DC. The louche on it is perfect, creamy, and opaque. The balance of sweet licorice and herbs on the taste is nice. I love carrying this product because it always makes for plenty of questions from customers, a good story and we are proud to serve it traditionally with full fountain service.

RT: Speaking of cocktails, you named your favorite as a Rye Old Fashioned. Care to share your personal riff on that?

MP: I love whiskey that tastes like whiskey! Rye has such a bold flavor profile and you can never mistake it for what it is. When someone asks me what my favorite cocktail is I always prefer an old fashioned because it’s the closest you can get to drinking straight whiskey in a mixed drink

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