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There’s nothing like spending a hot, summer day at the beach with an ice cold drink — something that might help take the edge off, if you would.
Last year, we told you all about the different breweries along the mid-Atlantic coast, stretching from Lewes all the way down to the Ocean City boardwalk, as well as along the Route 50 bridge into town. And we’ll never disparage a good beer (bad beer is a different story), but sometimes you don’t want a beer.
Sometimes, you want something lighter, or more tropical. Or sometimes you just want a glass of wine. So we went to the beach and talked with the people who make rums and gins and vodkas, as well as wine, right along the coast.
There are two distilleries (three if you count Dogfish Head, which, while known for brewing, has also started to slowly expand its offerings of liquors made in its Milton, Delaware, facility) and one vineyard on the Delmarva coast. Each of them have a unique story to tell, and provide you with plenty of reasons to visit this summer.
Seacrets Distillery in Ocean City, Maryland
The Seacrets beach bar is among the busiest bars on the entire East Coast. Odds are you spent some time there in your 20s, and you associate it with hard partying and a younger clientele that might be more interested in the quantify of alcohol consumed as opposed to the quality.
Throw all of that away when you visit the distillery next door. Seacrets has put a ton of effort into the distillery, from the liquors themselves to the show they put on during tours that are open to the public.
Each tour lasts about an hour, and the distillery itself is a modern building with lots of modern distilling equipment, all wrapped in items dating back to 1933 or before.
“It’s just taking you back in time,” Mike Early, the brand manager for Seacrets Distilling, told WTOP. “If it looks old, it’s old.”
Inside one office is a desk that was once owned and used by Thomas Edison. Giant, metal warehouse doors have been brought in from factories across the Midwest, and the speak-easy where you finish your tour includes an old Tommy gun used by mobsters during prohibition time.
“It’s a modern building and it’s set up to do the task that it does, but we certainly have a tremendous volume of antiques that are around the prohibition timeline. That’s the fun of it,” he added, as the steam whistle sounded, signifying another tour was beginning.
But for all the time and energy, and certainly money (millions was spent on just the aesthetics of the place) invested by Seacrets, they strive to put even more effort into making liquor that tastes good.
“We really revamped our brand” ahead of the construction of the distillery in 2016, Early said.
Before that, Seacrets-branded liquors were made up the road in Rehoboth at a restaurant/distillery that’s since been taken over by a Hooters restaurant.
“We knew that we had to have a product that was of the utmost quality, because people will try [it] the first time, but to get people to come back, you have to have a product that people [like] — there’s a lot of competition out in the market,” Early explained.
Early said Seacrets has won dozens of awards in the last three years for its various rums and vodkas. He said the key reason is because they won’t cut corners on the ingredients and flavorings they use.
For instance, they use fully macerated fruits to make their flavored vodkas.
“It’s very unique in the marketplace that we actually are using the freshest and highest quality fruit, we also use the peel,” Early said. “This takes a lot of time, a lot of labor, there’s a lot of associated labor with the cleaning of the actual maceration tanks that we use.”
Early compares the orange vodka made by Seacrets and vodkas made by other companies to the difference between freshly squeezed orange juice and juice made from concentrate, or even artificial flavors which some vodka makers use. He said most of the time, if a vodka label says it’s made from real fruit, it’s a concentrate, as opposed to whole oranges they use.
“You can’t deny the flavor profile,” Early said.
Sipping straight rum or vodka can go down a little rough — or, in a lot of cases, with a burn behind it. Tastes are clearly subjective and people like or dislike different things, but the orange and lemon vodkas at Seacrets go down smooth with no burn at all. The coconut rum went down without feeling like you were drinking cheap Easter candy. And the spiced rum was bold, smooth, and, again, lacking any burn.
Early admits that the distilling business benefits from the fact that their top buyer happens to own the distillery. But it also means they get instant feedback on what’s working and what isn’t.
“We’ll be the first to know if they aren’t selling well in terms of people’s acceptance and how much they like our product,” Early said. “We’re very proud of the fact that we’ve been here since 1988 in terms of a bar, but we take distilling very seriously. There’s a lot of investment in this and it’s something we know we have to do really well or we won’t be around very long. We have a desire to be around for a long time.”
Beach Time Distilling in Lewes, Delaware
Greg Christmas left his job as a factory engineer in Indiana to take a comparable job with Dogfish Head in Milton. It was similar work in the grand scheme of things, but there was definitely strategic thinking behind it.
“I was on the web somewhere, I saw an ad for a plant engineer at Dogfish,” something Christmas said he’d done for most of his life.
He didn’t even really know where Delaware was, certainly hadn’t been to this region, but figured anything south of Cincinnati would have good weather.
“We came here with a plan to stay three to five years and ended up really liking it and staying,” Christmas said.
But making the assembly line work the way it’s supposed to wasn’t his only motivation.
“Originally, we set out to open a brewery,” admits Christmas.
His job at Dogfish Head was going to allow him to learn the beer business so he could go all in and leave engineering for brewing.
“It was a really great experience,” Christmas said.
And he certainly learned lots about beer. So much so, he figured it made better sense to stay out of it, at least for the time being.
“Long story short, I decided distilling was a better, less-crowded opportunity,” he said. “There were a lot of startup breweries at the time … I knew from being in the beer business there was this long list — everybody was getting in and I saw the wave and knew it was going to crash.”
So instead, he got into distilling, which is something he was planning to do down the line anyway, once his beer business was going.
“I think that move was the right move,” Christmas said.
Beach Time can be found on Nassau Road, just off Coastal Highway, on the outskirts of Lewes. It’s a small shop that sits right next door to a bakery, which has some really inviting smells outside.
Beach Time Distilling offers a wide range of alcohol, from rum to gin to vodka, and depending on when you go, there might be a few bottles of malt whiskey too, left over from some barrels he made a few years ago. And while he expected the vodka to be his best seller, it turns out gin and rum do better.
“The gin turned out be our best seller,” said Christmas. He “didn’t really see that coming,” but, determined to embrace what worked, he started expanding his gin offerings to include some seasonal flavors.
Beach Time also offers gold and silver rums, some of which have the alcohol content kicked up a notch, as well as a spiced rum. They also offer ready-made cocktails that come in a can, perfect for sitting in a cooler on some hot sand.
“We have four right now,” explained Christmas.
One is basically a gin and tonic, one is a cocktail that combines the spiced rum with ginger beer (trademark issues mean he can’t call it a Dark and Stormy, but that’s basically what it is), there’s also a fruit punch-type drink and a sangria-like drink that uses beach plum-infused rum.
“We call them beach-ready,” said Christmas, “because a lot of beaches don’t necessarily outlaw the consumption of alcohol as much as the possession of glass. These are in aluminum cans, easy to pack in and pack out, light weight, and you can always stomp on a can and make it the size of a matchbox.”
Nassau Valley Vineyards
Before there were any breweries, and certainly before any distilleries came of age on the Eastern Shore, there was Nassau Valley Vineyards.
“The first and oldest winery on the entire [Delmarva] peninsula,” said Peggy Raley-Ward, the president and owner of Nassau Valley Vineyards. “Before there were any wineries or breweries, we were the first.”
As you drive on to the property, you’ll pass row after row of vines laid out across a grassy, green landscape that seems like a far cry from the hustle and bustle, and certainly traffic, that’s associated with the beach.
“I like to say we’re six miles from the mayhem but a world away,” Raley-Ward told WTOP.
The vineyard is on land that’s just west of the intersection of Route 9 and Route 1/Coastal highway, the Five Points area of Lewes.
“Unless you’re coming from points south you can’t get to the beach without coming by us,” she said.
The atmosphere there is a lot more laid back than most other vineyards you might be familiar with, and if you visit, it’s sort of expected that you won’t spend as much time there.
“Being a winery at the beach it’s a little bit different,” Raley-Ward said.
Some of the vineyards along the exurbs of D.C. might be the destination in and of themselves — the reason you made the trip is because that’s all there is.
“For any of us here, the ultimate destination is the beach and the water. So you have to be fluid, no pun intended, with not being able to hold people to stricture of time. If people want to come in and get a quick tasting and get on the road, they can do it,” Raley-Ward explained.
There is a tasting room with someone pouring glasses, but with self-guided tours and picnic tables outside, you’re also free to take your time, enjoy a glass, or even share a bottle of wine in the sun and have it with your lunch while you enjoy the quiet atmosphere. You’re basically free to call the shots.
But that’s not the only advantage to being a vineyard at the beach.
“Because we are a coastal vineyard, we get climatic influences from the water,” Raley-Ward said. “What that means is, I have a nice, long growing season.”
“We don’t go to frost early, we don’t have terribly severe winters here, water is a very moderating force,” she added.
It also means they can grow grapes that other mid-Atlantic wineries can’t.
“For example, we can grow cabernet sauvignon,” said Raley-Ward. “That’s a grape that needs a much longer growing season, needs a longer ripening period. You’ll find a lot of mid-Atlantic wineries that can’t do cab-sav because they don’t have the time to ripen it.”
“We have the capacity to do it all because we have this nice influence from the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay.”
In all, Nassau Valley makes 14 different wines that run the gamut from red to white, sweet to dry, and even some fruit wines. It’s racked up a lot of awards over the years too.
“There’s basically a wine here for every pallet depending on what you want to do.”
For more beach news, traffic and weather, visit WTOP’s Summer Beach Guide section.