The story of Tusk and its hemp seed-flavored rum began over 100 years ago, when Maurice Morton’s great-great-great-grandparents made a fortuitous, and hard-earned, purchase.
“In 1906, my great-great-great-grandparents, who were former slaves turned sharecroppers, purchased the land that they actually used to work on,” he says. Morton’s grandfather passed it to the next generation, and in 2019, his aunt decided to move to the property, in Halifax, VA, to build a home. Morton and his cousin presented her with a plan to plant hemp seed — which took some convincing. “She thought we were [going to] turn into a cartel family,” he says with a laugh. “Once she realized that we were talking about actual hemp and not marijuana, it turned into an ‘Okay, let’s do this.’”
With his aunt on board, Morton got to work. The first harvest, in late 2020, resulted in a CBD coconut oil, with plans to use the leftover seeds as the base of a textile product. However, as a fledgling operator, Morton didn’t have access to the equipment required to process the hemp. Things seemed to be at a standstill until Morton and his cousin came across an article about hemp spirits. Morton discovered that hemp-infused spirits were popular in Europe — so much so that bottles there were priced at absurd markups. “Their price ranges were ridiculous,” he says. “Like, they want $150 for a bottle.” Morton realized part of that markup was likely due to the cost of purchasing the seeds and then beginning the distillation process. From there, an idea took hold.
Tusk 1.0 centered on a hemp-infused whiskey. Morton had an in: He knew a friend who owned a whiskey brand; he’d been asked to invest in the company, but the timing hadn’t worked out. Plus, a hemp whiskey would be unique. “I’d never heard of a hemp whiskey, ever,” he says. “People wanna have a cigar with some hemp whiskey, and it’ll be unheard of.” But after realizing how long it would take to produce one — the average time to make whiskey is roughly three years — Morton pivoted. After “two or three” different formulations, Tusk 2.0 was officially born — in the form of a vodka and a white rum.
When I tested Hemp at a Tusk pop-up at Metrobar in June, the first thing I noticed was a surprising lack of bite to both spirits — I couldn’t believe how smooth they were. They didn’t have that typical “liquor” smell, either. Those successes belie the fact that Tusk almost didn’t come to fruition; there was a lot of back and forth between the ATF and Tusk to get approvals, much of it over the usage of hemp. That’s also been the sticking point (no weed pun intended) with local stores. Part of Morton’s job involves dispelling the myths around hemp. “I kind of try to educate [liquor store owners], but [there’s] still kind of that stigma there,” he says.
The Metrobar pop-up is just one of many pavement-pounding tactics Morton’s used to get the word out about Tusk. That hard work is starting to pay off, with Tusk now in over 30 locations in the DMV, including Fat Boy’s Crabhouse in Crofton, which was the first place to stock it. Tusk will appear as one of the presenting sponsors for a party at the Virginia Black Business Expo this weekend. If you snag a bottle, Morton recommends using the vodka for a Lemon Drop and the rum for a Dark and Stormy.