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Old Line: Two Veterans Making Navy Strength Spirits

Old Line: Two Veterans Making Navy Strength Spirits

Sam Kulik
Mark McLaughlin (left) and Arch Watkins (right)

Mark McLaughlin and Arch Watkins were US Navy Aviators, tasked at flying EA-6B Prowlers while stationed together at their Whidbey Island base in Washington State. During their time in the Navy, they ran in similar circles, and when their military tours ended, they continued to serve in the same unit in the Reserves, based out of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. After a lifetime of flying complex machines that most of us could only dream of maneuvering, Mark found his new finance career to be unsatisfying which drove him to start his own business. 

While Arch enjoyed his new engineering job, he was similarly enticed by the idea of venturing into uncharted territory as an entrepreneur building upon a strong sense of discipline they learned in the Navy. The pair decided that with their training as aviators, they would tackle any challenge that required attention to detail needed to excel. Both had a serious passion for distilled spirits, so they set out to build a distillery inspired by their Navy DNA. Assessing the situation, Mark decided to look for someone who had more experience in this field than they did. 

Mark found himself at the American Distilling Institute conference in Seattle in 2014. He sat next to Bob Stilnovich, a retired Army Vietnam veteran, who ran Golden Distillery with another veteran and his business partner, Jim Caudill. Jim was terminally ill at the time, and what had started as an exciting two-person venture became a one-person chore for Bob, who was looking to sell the distillery. 

“Serendipity is an understatement,” said Mark, who felt a meaningful connection to his fellow veteran and knew that this was more than just a feeling of fate—this was the beginning of Old Line Spirits. Arch and Mark decided to purchase Golden Distillery from Bob and followed him to Samish Bay in Washington state to learn the processes and nuances of making quality craft spirits. “It was like learning from your grandma how to bake a cake,” said Mark, who described Bob’s teaching style as thorough and approachable—precisely as they would have expected from a fellow veteran. Once they felt that they had mastered the necessary skills to distill the American Single Malt Whiskey that Bob was making at Golden, Mark and Arch packed up the still and equipment and returned to Baltimore—where they still live three doors down from one another today. Mark and Arch then partnered with Ryan Lang at nearby Middle West Spirits, who helped them distill the American Single Malt. The trust of local friends and experts gave these former aviators the confidence to allow Middle West Spirits to take on a new challenge—aged Navy Strength rum. 

Navy Strength rum spoke to them just as the American Single Malt. A drinker just needed to add the right amount of water or ice to it to achieve a taste to their liking. Molasses-based rum is a challenging product to make as the necessary ingredients are not available within the United States and need to be sourced from warmer climates areas where the plant is native. It also has its challenges in perception—many consider it to be a tropical or syrupy-sweet drink. Old Line’s rums age in new oak with medium char and instead focus on what’s in the glass—a deep and nuanced spirit. 

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Old Line Spirits Distillery

In 2016, Old Line Spirits was officially born. Mark would tell you that “if you boil it down, no pun intended, bold stories and a sense of adventure is the essence of our brand.” Even the name has a story: It was important to pick something that strongly resonated with a sense of local pride as well as their military backgrounds. The ‘old line’ that George Washington’s militia held in the revolutionary war seemed like a perfect fit.

They moved into a repurposed commercial laundry facility in Baltimore, established procedures that mirror structures of in-flight aircraft checklists, and incorporated urban design and local pride. Mark and Arch didn’t want the tasting room to feel “like a museum.” Instead, they wanted a full bar where locals from Baltimore could gather and taste their spirits. They received licensing for a full-service bar attached to the distillery known as ‘The Ready Room,’ named after the 8 “ready rooms” found on aircraft carriers that serve as operational nerve centers, briefing and debriefing rooms, and social centers for navy aviators. On the menu are cocktails such as a rum Manhattan, barrel-aged using five and ten-gallon barrels that previously held their American Single Malt. You can also sip on their 8-year “Golden Edition” American Single Malt whiskey. Old Line Spirits’ tours are currently suspended, but curbside pickup for their spirits and cocktails is available Wednesday through Saturday. The Bar is now open on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. at 200 S. Janney Street, Baltimore, MD.