September 27, 2023 1:34 pm

Monica Pearce is NOT Ordinary: Tenth Ward Distilling

As a scientist in the field of conservation biology, Monica Pearce often traveled to tropical areas with endangered species. On one of these trips, she made the bold decision to quit her job, empty her bank account, and launch Tenth Ward Distilling in Frederick, Maryland.

Why Frederick? Though born in Philly, Monica lived in Frederick for most of her life, and calls it home. She loves its history of grassroots support for local businesses and added “it’s in this perfect location, between Baltimore and DC; we have the small town vibe and an awesome repertoire of shopping, restaurants, Civil War history, and other tourism that attracts people.” 

While familiar with the people side of hospitality (a Waffle House waitressing job at age fourteen that led to other roles such as bartending at both high end cocktail bars and sports bars), Monica found the business side to be more challenging due to lack of resources specific to a distillery business model. When she began her journey, there was no Distillery 101 playbook. The Maryland Distillers Guild was in its infancy, and the few fellow distilleries were also in startup mode, so no one had time to sit down and compare notes.

Monica pointed out that brewing and winemaking had established systems, but for distillers making a variety of spirits, there are different distillation methods, aging, and infusion methods that can take your business model in multiple directions. So, she just had to figure it out. She joked that in her first year, she dropped the F-bomb more than she ever had in her entire life. Friends of hers with expertise (lawyers, real estate agents, etc.) connected over drinks to help with general business items, but then came the red tape. 

At the time, the TTB license and permit process to license a new distillery was approximately 370 days from start to finish. It took a little over a year to navigate their backlog; later she would use this experience to advocate for the craft distillery industry…and this would turn out to be something she actually enjoyed. This was a surprise to Monica, a self-proclaimed cynic about politicians in general. But she knew that combining her personal story, with numbers and data, would prove to be powerful testimony for them to address challenging restrictions and regulations for small distilleries. In her advocacy for easing restrictions, she highlighted job creation, support for local agriculture, renovation of warehouses, empty spaces, and the rise in tourism to the area. 

Today the Guild has a robust program and she sits on its board as a Vice President. Since the Tenth Ward Distillery was established, it has grown along with the craft beverage hub in the area. To date, Frederick County has the most breweries, distilleries, and wineries in the state of Maryland, and per capita in the nation.

They began in a modest 1,600 square foot warehouse, with a small system that housed both the tasting room and production facility, located in what had been the actual Tenth Ward of Frederick City. This sector was intentionally built for industry on the east side of town in the late 19th century, as the wind tends to blow east and city founders were concerned about industrial odors. (Source: The Historical Society of Frederick County). Little did they know that in the 21st century, people would end up flocking to the area, specifically for an experience of tastes and scents. Tenth Ward’s logo and branding pays homage to their history, by using the original font of district maps that featured Roman numerals.

Their opening was like a community block party where she reconnected with high school friends and family. Initially, it was just herself, her mom and a business partner, whom she later bought out. Her team grew organically to fifteen people today.

In another bold move, instead of releasing a vodka or gin first, Monica stuck with her commitment to make whiskey, and released an unaged smoked corn whiskey as their first product. 

Their heavy promotion focused on consumer education on white whiskey vs. moonshine. The base of smoked corn and barley proved to be so popular that they used it to develop a second product – smoked bourbon. The farmer grows the corn, then smokes it in-house, in addition to growing and malting the barley in nearby Charles Town, West Virginia. The grain is sold exclusively to Tenth Ward as they collaborate on the whole process. 

When they opened, Maryland distilleries were limited to four half ounce samples per person, whereas breweries and wineries could offer a full glass or pint. As Monica continued to lobby, they planned a bar facility, gambling on whether the law would eventually change for them to serve cocktails. 

Her favorite part of her job is talking to people about spirits and listening to stories about how much they enjoy their product. Previously, the average person could distinguish an IPA versus a Hefeweizen, but still thought bourbon could only be made in Kentucky. But today, consumers understand more about spirit categories and know that Tenth Ward makes a Dutch style gin instead of a London dry. Regulars come back every year from Georgia and New Jersey. Illinois and Farmers Market locals return weekly. The support from customers is exciting and she can’t imagine being in a nine to five type of job.

For others thinking of taking the small business leap, Monica’s advice is to first, be scared sh*tless. For a good business idea to work, she stated that financial and emotional stability are key. In the beginning, the business will take time away from full-time jobs, family, kids, etc. as you work fourteen to sixteen hour days, seven days a week.

Did people think she was crazy for doing it? Yes. Did she question herself for doing it? “Almost every day. But if you’re passionate about running a small business, your priorities are in certain places. If I have a little extra cash, I’m thinking – I could pay myself or we could buy a new tank that we need. And it goes into the business every time. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be good. But there are weeks where the ice machine breaks at the same time that our forklift dies, someone is out sick, and you gotta make payroll and rent.”

Six years later, they boast a 6,000 square foot event space featuring a cocktail bar and a 9,000 square foot production facility. Fun fact: every piece of equipment has a name, like Ashton, their mash tun and the four fermenters are named after the Golden Girls. 

They are currently at their ideal max capacity and she’s excited about “letting the business become itself” as they expand distribution. In addition to the whiskey, Tenth Ward also makes distilled barrel aged meade, genever inspired gin, and Maryland’s first absinthe. Their rye whiskey is a Maryland style rye, which traditionally tends to be sweeter.  Monica’s lobbying is focused on helping to establish it as a legal category, similar to New York’s “Empire Rye”.

They have two clubs that are free to join – a Bottle Club and a Canned Cocktail club. The Bottle Club features quarterly releases, with three membership tiers, that allow you to receive one, two (Aficionado level), or three (VIP) bottles quarterly. The Canned Cocktail Club delivers a new four pack product monthly. Monica stated that her staff is excited about being able to develop and design new products. Products are available only to members who appreciate that they are slightly unconventional, but still accessible to palates that align with their slogan, “ward off ordinary”. 

This quarter, their October bottle will be a wheat whiskey, finished in maple syrup barrels. As of the writing of this article, their autumn menu and seasonal liqueurs are about to drop. 

Meanwhile, Monica invites you to taste their whiskey, and check out their cocktail bar, which features elevated fun, crazy and “Instagrammable” cocktails.

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."

George Bernard Shaw

“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.”

James Joyce

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