Seacrets Distilling brings visitors back to a very specific moment in time.

Among acres of palm trees, tropical drinks, and reggae music at Seacrets in Ocean City, owner and founder Leighton Moore wants patrons to feel like they’ve been transported to Jamaica.

Now, Moore has built another such immersive illusion for Baltimoreans and others heading to the ocean: the Seacrets Distilling Company.

The distillery sends visitors back to a very specific moment in time: December 5, 1933, with Prohibition set to end at midnight. The premise holds throughout the facility as visitors learn how Seacrets crafts liquor from grain to bottle, ending with a secret speakeasy and a complimentary tipple.

But the business — located on the same property as the Seacrets bar — is more than a tourist attraction. Seacrets Distilling is a vendor in several mid-Atlantic states and to some military bases. And Moore also supplies thousands of bottles to his own bars at Seacrets – which, really, was kind of the point all along.

Moore took on the onerous task of distilling his own liquor because he wanted to cut costs for his bar and bypass hand-tying government rules.

It used to be that the Liquor Control Board was a mandatory middleman in Worcester County. The agency would buy spirits from distributors, re-sell at a premium back to the public, and send the difference for county coffers. It was a de facto tax on alcohol and a pebble in the shoe of the Ocean City hospitality community for 75 years.

When he started distilling, Moore says, “I had to sell to Reliable Liquors in Baltimore. Put it in my truck. Deliver to them. Put it in their truck. They took their truck, brought it down here, and charged me full price. A lot of different entities fought my ability to not have to do that. It doesn’t make logical sense.”

New distillery laws in Maryland allow Moore to sell himself 30,000 gallons – that’s about 6,000 bottles or 500 cases – without any middleman.

Back when the control board was in charge, wholesale costs were still $20 per bottle. Even now, other booze brands cost Seacrets about $17 per bottle. But when Seacrets makes their own, according to Moore, liquor costs plummet to $8 per bottle.

Other craft distilleries do offer tours and tastings, just on a smaller scale, like Lyon Distilling in St. Michaels or Bad Alfred’s in Chestertown, according to Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Distillers Guild.

However, the only one that comes close to matching the scale of the Seacrets experience, he added, is Baltimore-based Sagamore Spirit, located just southwest of downtown. The Sagamore walking tour, like Seacrets, takes you through all the steps of the distilling process.

“It’s worth the trip. It is the biggest in Maryland and one of the biggest new distilleries in the last 10 years. It will be the largest producer of Maryland-grown rye whiskey – and that’s their primary focus. It’s all rye, all the time. It goes to the history of local rye, which is what Maryland is known for. We’re a rye producing state,” Atticks said.

For the uninitiated, Seacrets has ascended to icon status in the annals of Ocean City tourism, right up there with Thrasher’s fries, Fisher’s Popcorn, and Trimper’s Rides.

After a trip to Jamaica as a young man, Leighton Moore sought to recreate the island’s irie atmosphere back in his hometown of Ocean City. Seacrets opened in 1988 as a tiny tiki bar. Today, the sprawling bayside campus, lush with tropical plants, boasts its own nightclub and restaurant, 20 bars, a gift shop, and even its own radio station.

The entry queue on Memorial Day stretches for city blocks down Coastal Highway. Hospitality experts estimate the venue annually to be among the highest-grossing in the country.

In 2016, Moore completed his $5.2 million distillery, making it look authentic to the Prohibition Era.

Authentic antiques

Outside, an antique flatbed Mack truck stacked with a pyramid of wooden barrels idles loudly. Inside, every brick is reclaimed, every door is antique, pipe fittings are color-coded to look retro, signage is dressed in period typeface.

Seacrets owner Leighton Moore plays the role of “pharmacist” dispensing samples of liquor to visitors at the Seacrets Distillery.
Seacrets owner Leighton Moore plays the role of “pharmacist” dispensing samples of liquor to visitors at the Seacrets Distillery.

Even the modern freight elevator has been convincingly disguised to look like a Depression-era lift. “It’s a time machine,” Moore said. “It’s taking you back to 1933.”

But what really sells the time-travel effect are the dozens of antiques Moore has displayed throughout the 12,000 square foot building, nearly all of them he sourced himself by scouring eBay, at a cost of $1.5 million.

They include an ornate lamp from the first dining car on the transcontinental railroad, hanging over the lobby desk. Tour-goers punch in using a 1914 time clock with a satisfying ding! In the distillery office, another tour stop, sits a shopworn wood-and-steel desk once belonging to Thomas Edison – at least, that’s according to its provenance, Moore says.

The tour begins in the fermentation room. Soon-to-be vodka percolating in bright aluminum still will go through 11 distillations. Moore swears that this high level of distilling removes the funkiest parts of the distillate –  acetone, methyl alcohol, even formaldehyde – that can lead to hangovers.

“If you skimp in distillation, you will give people headaches,” Moore said. “I drink and I don’t want headaches. I can drink any of our liquors and not get a headache.”

A technique called maceration is what gives Seacrets’ spirits their natural fruit coloring and flavor, unlike mass-producers whose flavor comes from chemicals and additives. Anyone can mix extract and sweetener to make cheap booze, but Moore pays for fresh fruit, high-quality fruit extract, and even expensive Jamaican coffee beans for his infused spiced rum. Crews can spend days distilling a single batch.

A costly bottle

“Leighton gave us free reign to bring in the best raw materials, and use the best tools to make the best product possible. There’s been no limitations,” said distillery manager Cody Miller, now in his 23rd year as a Seacrets employee. Miller was a barback here for 17 years until he heard his boss wanted to construct a distillery on the premises, so Moore gave him a promotion and training in the art of distillation.

Navel and blood red oranges from Florida sit in maceration tanks for two weeks. Fruit goes in first, then peels are added two days later, for tannins. Moore grows his own organic corn down the road in Snow Hill to make moonshine mash. It’s too humid to keep the grain here – the building’s three signature silos are ornamental – so the grist is kept at a climate-controlled facility in nearby Bishopville.

Every drop is bottled by hand on the premises. At first, Seacrets spirits came in a bottle that customers complained was nondescript, even ugly. So he changed it. Now the heavy glass bottles are adorned with a copper seal, ornate lettering, and a sturdy cork. They cost him $3 each and are, Moore admits, somewhat impractical.

Seacrets Distilling upgraded their bottles, and the bar reuses them.

However, the overall design aesthetic won Seacrets the “Best in Show” at the 2017 Packaging Awards for the National Association of Container Distributors. And, after pouring at Seacrets, bartenders give bottles right back to the distillery staff to be sanitized and re-filled up to 30 times for use at the nightclub, saving thousands of bottles from the landfill each year.

The next tour stop after the bottling area leads to the “pharmacy,” another space dripping with Jazz Age antiques. The time-travel premise is still in play: with alcohol still outlawed here in 1933, tour guests are prompted to contact the “doctor” by telephone to get a “prescription” for medicinal liquor – something that really happened during Prohibition.

Today, the doctor is Moore himself, wearing a white lab coat over his Seacrets-monogrammed button-down shirt.

“It’s all something I came up with,” he says of the pharmacy shtick. “I make everybody play the game.”

Scaling back crowds

The distillery tour ends at the speakeasy, a spacious art deco lounge where patrons can cash in their prescription stub to sample a trio of flavors including gin, rum, whiskey, and several varieties of fruit-infused vodkas.

Customers line up for blocks to get into Seacrets in Ocean City on Memorial Day and during other times.

While the distillery tours have become a staple of the Seacrets experience, the overall facility is scaling back. While the town’s fire marshal rates the campus for 5,350 patrons, Moore personally opted to lower that cap to 4,200 people. Soon, he’ll bring it even further down, to 3,600.

“It’s too crowded,” he said matter-of-factly. “People, I can see that they have a hard time getting a drink, so what’s the point? I raised the prices – I’m making the same amount of money – and people are having a better time. You don’t have to worry about stumbling into people and instead, you can walk around more. It’s about giving a good experience. We like to have people have a good time.”

Seacrets Distilling Co. is located at 111 49th Street, Ocean City, and tour tickets cost $15 include liquor samples at the conclusion.