by Kevin M. Smith

Most of Frederick’s craft beverage fans probably remember Kay Bennett as the knowledgeable beer slinger at Rockwell Brewing with the infectious smile. For those wondering where she’s been, she has moved on to become the assistant distiller at Tenth Ward Distilling Company. Distilling was not the original plan.

Bennett used to teach high school for New York City Public Schools. It was not an easy job. “”My students were coming back to the system after dropping out for various reasons, like fighting, incarceration, having a child,” she explained. “I taught biology and earth science, and any related electives that were assigned to me.”

A New York native, Bennett moved to Maryland as a kid, but then returned to New York for graduate school, and then work. Eventually, she returned to Maryland but initially remained in education. “I moved back to Maryland to join my now husband,” she said. “During that time I was running a GED program for a non-profit dedicated to at-risk Latinx youth. [Then] my daughter was born with serious health issues so I stayed home with her and left the workforce to be a caregiver.”

Once her daughter’s health situation stabilized, Bennett started to look into returning to the workforce, but needed something that provided more flexibility than her previous work in education. “So I started bartending at Rockwell Brewery.”

Like many educators, Bennett possesses an innate curiosity. “I was always asking questions about how things worked, why procedures were in place, what [happened] if you tried something else,” she said. “I wanted to be sure of what I was telling the guests. After a while I decided I wanted to start shadowing [Rockwell brewer] Scott McKernon in the brewhouse, so I asked to come in on mornings while my daughter was at school, [I brought] my little notebook and just pestered him with questions. That went on for almost a year. I also got to shadow at Idiom Brewery and watch Mike Clements and John Burroughs. Slowly I got to help out more and more. At the end of 2019, I was approached by Tenth Ward asking if I was interested in distilling.” 

Bennett has been impressed by how welcoming the people in the industry have been, and has been struck by some of the differences between working at a brewery and at the distillery. “It was pretty mysterious and intimidating from the outside,” she said. But the biggest surprise for her was”fast the process is carried out relative to brewing beer.”

Distilling was a hard left that Bennett was not expecting to make. “I had just really started to think of myself as a brewer when I started distilling.”

On a typical day, Bennett will review her task list with distiller Mark Vierthaler before going over procedural questions and training exercises. Once those tasks are out of the way, she will “run and monitor any distillations happening – usually I pick up where Mark left off or will start one so he can complete it the next day. I do a lot of bottling of things ready to be sold!”

When she’s mashing out and distilling, Bennett most enjoys working on the smoked corn whiskey. She even admits that it’s also her favorite to drink. Oddly, it brings back memories of childhood. “ I love the smell and feel of the corn before mashing,” she explained. “It reminds me of visiting my grandmother’s farm in Malawi as a kid. The spirit is very smoky and earthy, similar to a mezcal.”

Asked about her favorite label that’s not the distillery she works for, Bennett noted that Knob Creek was a preferred brand. “A few years ago I decided that I wanted to get to know and appreciate whiskey,” she said. “So, I would just try whatever I came across until I found something I liked. It was the first that really stood out to me, but definitely not the last.”

A student of the industry, Bennett is at the beginning of her journey. “I want to learn as much as possible and be known for making a great product,” she said, intimating that she intends to become a name in the industry. “I’d love to be known for creating some innovative process or mash bill that changes the industry. I’m really lucky to be able to have creative input on our seasonal offering and more flexibility with the bottle club offerings.”

In the meantime, Bennett continues her education in distilling, and when time permits, she notes that you “Can’t go wrong with a good bourbon.”