Twin Valley Distillers: A Crazy Costa Rican Making Whiskey in Maryland
I don't know what kind of conversation I've walked in on when I stop by Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, MD on a Sunday afternoon, but it sure is lively. The culprit, I will later learn, is owner/distiller Edgardo Zuniga. Edgardo fashions himself an expert on a number of topics: distilling, Maryland history, snazzy tropical shirts. But if you really want to see him get riled up, ask him the difference between two random Caribbean cultures. That's what he and a group of black folks are heatedly discussing at the bar, when I walk in.
I don't even think anyone notices me at first. I grab a chair on the far end and listen. One of the ladies -apparently of Haitian heritage- is arguing how Haitians are the most mistreated group among the Caribbean. In fairness, she admits partial blame. They are also the most proud. Edgardo goes on about how most Costa Ricans don't even think of themselves as Latino, until they get to the US, of course, and are lumped in with all these other Spanish-speakers who have nothing else in common. Melting pot indeed.
Alcohol has a way of both fueling and defusing the stakes. After a little while, everyone is laughing. I'm sweating. I finally get noticed and feel like I'm expected to say something. "Don't look at me. All we have in Los Angeles is Mexicans." This gets a lot of laughter too. Good thing I've had some time to study my audience.
Edgardo is leading the group through an extensive tasting. I can tell by the empty plastic thimbles scattered all over. I wait until they are finished, everyone pouring off their stool and towards the door, before I introduce myself to Edgardo. He is a smiley man, quick to laughter. Best of all, for my purposes, he easily offers up information - on himself, his process and, of course, his culture.
As I listen, Edgardo sounds like a very unlikely distiller. He says he 'accidentally' made limoncello one day. He was trying to approximate the fruit-flavored drinks of his wife's native Jamaica. He was trained as a chef and owned a restaurant at the time. He tried his own concoction, loved it, and realized he may have a future in distilled spirits. That was five years ago. In the time since, Edgardo has added many more spirits to his roster, with a particular focus on whiskeys.
One of the many things I find endearing about Edgardo is his nose for a good deal. For instance, he bought his stills used. He's got quite the collection going: a 100-gallon, 250-gallon and 600-gallon pot stills and a 600-gallon mash tun. There's no reason Edgardo shouldn't be pumping out twenty times his current volume. As things stand now, he produces plenty to sell spirits out of the tasting room and a handful of local stores.
All of Twin Valley's whiskeys are aged for around a year, in a combination of fifteen, twenty and thirty gallon new oak barrels. I try their bourbon first. It is 90 proof and fermented from a mash bill of 60% corn, 25% rye, 7.5% barley and 7.5% oats. The nose hits me with sawdust - very dry and woody. The palate is similarly oaky, with a hint of black pepper.
Edgarado bottles a cask strength version of the bourbon, which means 114 proof. This time, the nose is a sweet wood, not as dry and chalky as the lower proof bourbon. The palate reminds me mostly of clove, black pepper and earth.
Sticking with the bourbons, I try Twin Valley's wheated version. It has the same mash bill as the original bourbon, but wheat is swapped out for rye. It is also 90 proof. The nose is grassy and malt-like, slightly sweet. The palate is mostly sour apple and dried, sweet fruit.
Edgardo puts out a bourbon he calls "1812." It's a 50/50 blend of the wheat and rye bourbons. It strikes me as spicy, with some fruit on the finish.
Moving away from whiskey for a bit, I try Twin Valley's 60-proof coffee liqueur. It gets Edgardo back to his experimental roots, where he adds flavors to neural grain spirits. In this case, it is cold brew coffee from a local roaster, simple syrup and Madagascar vanilla. The nose is surprisingly brash, like tobacco and leather. The palate is that sweeter candy flavor you'd expect, veering towards toffee. There's an even sweeter, 40 proof version Edgardo makes out of milk and sugar. It tastes exactly like those two ingredients, and nothing else.
In honor of his wife, Edgardo makes a 90-proof Jamaica-style rum, which means it is distilled from fermented dark molasses. While the unflavored version is not remarkable, he makes an interesting version out of hibiscus. He steeps the flower, cooked and blended, into the rum for a couple of days. It comes out a sunset pink. It is also 90 proof. The nose is fruit, plum and cinnamon. The palate is simply syrupy and sweet, not much sign of flower.
Twin Valley makes a rye that I cannot recommend. The mash bill is 60% rye, 20% corn, 10% barley and 10% oats. It is then aged between nine months to a year in char #1 barrels and bottled at 94 proof. I can't say I've had much, or any, whiskey aged entirely in such a lightly charred cask. Judging from Twin Valley's example, there are some unappetizing flavors that come through. First, the nose has a twinge of paint thinner, mixed with apples. Then the palate has a plasticy, chemically taste. It would be an interesting experiment to age this same rye in #4 char or darker barrels, but I don't think Edgardo plans on doing that any time soon.
Lastly, I try two flavored whiskeys that are both 60 proof. They start as bourbon, but are flavored by either apple juice and cinnamon or cold brew tea. The apple had an equally sweet and sour character - neither strong enough to cover up the more appetizing notes of the bourbon. The tea-flavored whiskey has the signature leafy, planty notes. I would almost call it refreshing, if it didn't retain the characteristic bite of bourbon.
What's the final verdict? Don't get Edgardo started on his Caribbean heritage. Just kidding. Definitely go to Twin Valley Distillers should you ever be in or around our nation's capital, and sample as many spirits as Edgardo will allow. Like the sites of DC itself, some will be hit or miss. You're guaranteed to learn something new (though I can't guarantee it will be interesting or useful) and, most likely, try a flavor of rum or whiskey you never have before. So even if you weren't planning on an excursion to the strip-mall row that is Rockville Pike, Twin Valley Distillers and Edgardo's tropical-shirted personality makes the trip well worth it.