On a recent Friday afternoon, Carl Bock, aka "Uncle Carl," doles out shots of booze and entertains his patrons with historical trivia. The owner of the remote Steel Toe Distillery started his whiskey operation with his wife, Christine, three years ago, joining the growing market of artisan distillers riding the craft liquor wave. He has since added gin to the lineup and, just last month, opened a new tasting room, distillery headquarters and cask cellar. But standing in the little sun-soaked tasting space nestled in the pine-treed hills south of Potomac, near Johnsrud Park, Steel Toe feels much more akin to an old-timey moonshine still hidden in an Appalachian holler. And Bock, with his gravelly laugh, salty charm and endless stories, is just the kind of character you'd hope to find at the helm.
"This is a rickety-ass hillbilly operation," he says. "And you can quote me on that. The cities are nice but my real client base is out here. I love that I can get an 80-year-old crotchety rancher and a 20-something-year-old hipster from the city in the same room drinking together." He pauses and looks around the room.
"All right, who's dry?"
The way Bock tells it, Steel Toe Distillery began with a reckless declaration to the universe. A couple decades ago, Bock, now 50, was a graduate of the University of Montana working for his dad's finance company back in Wisconsin. It wasn't necessarily meaningful work to him, he says, but they were making a lot of money.
"I woke up one day and I realized I had $1.7 million, and I was like, 'Why am I putting on pants?'" Bock says, laughing. "So then I did something really stupid. And if you don't listen to anything else I say, listen to this: Do not under any circumstances make a declaration to the universe, because the universe has a notebook and will write that shit down."
What Bock told the universe—and his dad—was that he was going back to Montana to grow his hair out and raise wolves.
"I had no intention of doing so," he says. But, in fact, he did both. Between 1996 and 2009, Bock ran a wolf sanctuary called The Wolf Keep in the spot where Steel Toe is now. The mission of the nonprofit was to care for injured wolves and their offspring, while educating the public about wolf behavior and their ecosystem. Below the new tasting room there's a deck where you can sip your whiskey and look out onto a fenced 10-acre space where two old wolves still wander.
- photo by Alex Sakariassen
- Steel Toe Distillery’s Carl Bock, aka “Uncle Carl,” makes a gin based on recipes from the Middle Ages when distillers used botanicals such as cinnamon, star anise and cardamom.
Uncle Carl's Prohibition Whiskey is 120 proof, made with "selective moonshine techniques" and aged in charred oak casks. Bock aims for smoothness, for reasons that go back to when he first started experimenting with distilling.
"If you've got seven dirty loggers facedown, passed out on your floor at 10:30 at night and you realize they've got to work at 3 o'clock in the morning," he says, "you've gotta make sure they're not sick and surly on top of that."
While the whiskey is straightforward, the Bocks' Show Pony gin is anything but. It's in the style of gin served in Europe's middle ages, full of botanicals and spices such as cinnamon, star anise, cassia, orange peel and coriander, among others. Customers have told him it goes great with ginger ale and lemon or lime—a "gin buck"but Bock considers it a sipper.
"Frankly, if someone offered me a shot of warm gin I'd laugh politely and walk away," he says. "Now trust me on this one. Get a nice big nose on it and then hit it. Seriously. No, I mean knock it all back in one shot. It opens your whole head up."
He drinks his down and yells, "Wooo! That's nice!"
Bock admits he's "a pansy" and a "thrower upper" when it comes to liquor. He doesn't mind saying so. ("I mean, I've raised wolves," he says.) And he will sometimes mix his whiskey with iced tea or Fanta. But, in the end, he tends to take the whiskey straight, too. He hammers home the point with yet another story: Once, a newspaper called him to ask him for holiday drink recipes he would recommend.
"I said, 'Yes! Whiskey.'"
He pauses as the room erupts into laughter.
"To really drink whiskey, you have to drink whiskey until drinking whiskey sounds like a good idea," he says. "Only then can you truly start to appreciate the flavors involved."