MARYSVILLE — Howard Johnston is as towering, expansive and welcoming as Hagrid the half-giant from Harry Potter, but even he is dwarfed by the size of his shiny 300-plus-gallon still.
“I call her Esmeralda, because she’s pretty,” Johnston laughed, as he escorted visitors through Dry County Distillery, his family owned business tucked behind Comeford Park on Delta Avenue.
Howard started the distillery five years ago with his wife, Jennifer, but both come from family traditions of brewing their own liquor. Not only does Jennifer come from a long line of moonshiners, but Howard’s grandfather was a bootlegger in Tennessee. Howard himself has a quarter-century worth of experience. “What I wanted to create was something without all the flowery frou-frou,” Johnston said. “This is the sort of pre-Prohibition quality alcohol that you’d make for your friends and neighbors. It’s smooth, without the burn at the back of your throat that makes you look and sound like Clint Eastwood,” he chuckled.
“Smooth” is one of Johnston’s favorite words to describe his diverse array of liquor, with flavors ranging from Key Lime and Apple Pie to Hot Spiced and Cinnamon Toast Rum. He boasts that his simple gin comes without the taste of pine trees, and his “Dry Country Joe” rum tastes just like a cup of black coffee, with a touch of sugar.
“We use green coffee beans from Costa Rica,” Johnston said. “We don’t overflow it by making it too sweet. During the fall, our Hot Spiced Rum is very popular. We add cayenne, cocoa and ginger to make it smooth and fill out the flavor. Our rum doesn’t even need to be mixed with Coke.”
Johnston added that his Black Rope Anise tastes like black licorice, “so if you mix it with strawberry pop, it’s like you’re drinking Twizzlers.” As for his Copper Still Vodka, he warned that it can catch up with you if you don’t count your shots, since all it takes is a single ice cube to make it taste like water. And when asked to describe his signature exclusive whiskey, he again cited his favorite trait, calling its caramel-toffee level “really smooth.”
What began with a 7.5-gallon still has since expanded to include an old farmer’s miller for grinding, a refurbished and repurposed 600-gallon creamery tank, and a host of secondhand barrels.
As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who gave each of his three daughters 10 percent shares in the company, thus making it a majority female-owned business, Johnston didn’t realize he was setting himself up so well for small business loans. It came as welcome news, though, since he and his wife dumped all of their retirement money into the business.
“I still work full-time at Boeing, and then I come here to work for a few hours each day,” said Johnston, whose Dry County Distillery is open at 521 Delta Ave. from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. For details, visit www.drycountydistillery.com.