When Navy veterans Mark McLaughlin and Arch Watkins opened Old Line Spirits in 2017, they didn’t intend to have financial backing from fellow service members. But that’s exactly what happened.
“Our style isn’t to ask our friends for money,” said McLaughlin, who joined the Navy in 2001 and served 10 years active duty and two years in the reserves.
But friends from their flying days approached the duo, at one point making the distillery 95% veteran owned.
“That only changed when we got a public company invested in us in 2018,” McLaughlin said.
Throughout their journey, McLaughlin and Watkins’ military background has been a “defining characteristic” of Old Line Spirits, according to McLaughlin.
“Our brand is built around the idea of bold stories,” said McLaughlin, who ended his Navy career as a lieutenant commander. “Our bold story is the Navy.”
Their background, according to McLaughlin, shows up in how they interact with customers and employees. For Watkins, it has been a “huge” benefit.
“Not just the fact that we’re veterans, but veterans of the same community so we speak the same language,” Watkins said. “We can tell allegorical stories that help drive home a point.”
While anchored in Navy culture, it was a Vietnam War-era Army veteran who helped catapult Watkins and McLaughlin into the whiskey industry.
McLaughlin met Bob Stilnovich, who owned Golden Distillery north of Seattle, at an American Distilling Institute conference in Seattle in 2015. Stilnovich was looking to sell the distillery because his business partner had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
So, McLaughlin and Watkins raised the funds and later lived in Stilnovich’s guest house on Samish Island to learn how to make single-malt whiskey.
“The single malt thing fell in our lap,” McLaughlin said. “I didn’t realize at the time what a big opportunity that was … There was really a very, very small number of American single malts.”
Watkins, who was commissioned in 1998 and ended his Navy career as a commander, said partnering with McLaughlin felt like a “natural fit.” The two got to know each other in the Navy Reserve while stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island with the Electronic Attack Squadron 209.
Their friendship grew over time, from flying EA-6B Prowlers in the reserves to living in the same Baltimore neighborhood after active duty. McLaughlin said both he and Watkins received a “ton of satisfaction” serving in the military. But when McLaughlin shifted into the banking industry, it couldn’t fill the gap the Navy left.
“The Navy chapter of life was over, and this was a way to get back into something I thought I could love and hopefully make a living doing it,” McLaughlin said.
If he was going to make a change, McLaughlin said, he wanted it to be for something he was really interested in.
“There’s just this whole fascinating, wonderful, kind of romantic culture around [whiskey],” McLaughlin said.
Watkins, however, said he has become more interested in whiskey as he got older, and his interest lies more in the technical side of the business where he can apply his engineering skills.
In trying to secure a location for Old Line Spirits, McLaughlin said what should have taken three months turned into a two-year process that led to a partnership with Middle West Spirits in Ohio.
“In hindsight, it was a good thing,” McLaughlin said. “By being forced to go out there and work with them, we just learned so much.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, McLaughlin said, Old Line was able to grow, even as sales beyond their home market “almost came to a complete halt.”
“Old Line is enough of a household name out here that we actually hit all of our target numbers for the year, actually exceeded them,” he said.
Old Line Spirits sells its products in its home market of Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., as well as New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Colorado.
Some Navy exchanges in Maryland and Virginia also carry Old Line products.
Moving forward, McLaughlin said, they would like to expand to Illinois, Florida, and Texas, as well as expand their presence in Navy exchanges.