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State Spirit

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State Spirit
Written by Brennen Jensen | Photos by Jim Burger; Small barrels of rye whiskey aging at Lyon Distilling Company in Saint Michaels, Maryland.

Once more popular than Kentucky bourbon, Maryland rye whiskey is staging a comeback

 

Eli Breitburg-Smith, head distiller at the three-year-old Baltimore Whiskey Company, uses a claw hammer to pop the bung off a fifty-three-gallon barrel of aging rye whiskey. Next, he dips a “whiskey thief” into the opening—the curious name for a tool distillers use to extract samples. Well, on closer inspection, it’s a self-styled version fashioned out of a length of bent copper tubing and not the exacting apparatus you might see wielded in Bardstown or the Scottish Highlands. “We don’t showboat or put on any airs,” the grinning distiller says, deftly filling shot glasses with light amber liquid.

The humbleness of the proceedings—we’re also in an aged, bi-level industrial building that began life as the city’s incinerator—shouldn’t distract from the historic tasting at hand. Well, almost historic. In a few months’ time, this rye whiskey will be two-years old, the minimum age to be labeled “straight” whiskey. When it begins to get bottled and released then as Baltimore Epoch Rye, it will be the first straight rye made in Baltimore City in more than seventy years. This sneak sip of the underage spirit is encouraging: tropical notes on the nose, warm rye spice on the tongue, with a long sweet finish.

Head distiller Eli Breitburg-Smith.

Rye whiskey is all the rage these days—brought back from near extinction largely by the next-gen bartenders driving the cocktail revival who sought rye’s bolder bite for both classic drinks and their new creations. The Distilled Spirits Council reports that rye production rose a staggering 778 percent between 2009 and 2016.

Bourbon is still king of the brown liquors, of course. Rye is distilled and aged just like its cousin, the only difference being that rye (naturally) is the majority grain used, whereas bourbon is made mostly from corn. Rye is the original American whiskey and Maryland and neighboring Pennsylvania are the birthplace of the industry. As such, rye’s resurgence has a special resonance in Maryland. Prior to Prohibition and throughout much of nineteenth century, Maryland was a bustling rye distilling state—third in overall spirit production behind Kentucky and Pennsylvania. And rye was the preferred whiskey in the South even into the twentieth century, reports culinary historian Robert F. Moss in his book Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South. Maryland Rye, it’s safe to say, was knocked back with a smile in all corners.

“Maryland had a good reputation for quality rye,” says drinks historian David Wondrich, who’s long covered the cocktail beat for Esquire. “If the quantity wasn’t as high as other states, the quality was generally good.” And so a half-forgotten heritage may be reemerging. “Maryland rye history was a big part of our decision to launch the Baltimore Whiskey Company,” says distillery cofounder Max Lents. “It was kind of like Maryland’s ghost that we get to resurrect a little bit.”

Sagamore Spirit.

A fifteen-minute drive southward from Baltimore Whiskey’s home in the Remington neighborhood brings you to the banks of the Patapsco River and another ghost-chasing whiskey maker: Sagamore Spirit. Residing in some 49,000-square-feet of stone and glass structures on a five-acre campus, it’s surely among the largest and most attractive purpose-built rye distilleries in the world. Opened last year, it’s a passion project for Kevin Plank, the Maryland-born (and Maryland-boosting) billionaire behind the Under Armour sports apparel brand. Sagamore Rye is already for sale in twenty-eight markets, using whiskey sourced from Indiana that is proofed with spring water drawn at the spirit’s namesake: Plank’s sprawling Maryland horse farm, once owned by the Vanderbilt clan. (The distillery’s 6,500-gallon fermenters and forty-foot column still are cranking, but the first Maryland-made rye won’t debut until 2019 at the earliest.)

“Rye history is a driving factor for us,” says Sagamore Spirit’s president, Brian Treacy. “Maryland Rye was considered the best rye whiskey, so we want to make a nod to that. Maryland used to export whiskey to Scotland. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment.”

The distillery has already become a top-ten tourist attraction in Baltimore. In its visitor’s center, a looming, touch-screen map of Maryland shows the more than forty-five active distilleries here before Prohibition. A fingertip brings a host of once-prominent Maryland brands to life: Hunter Pure Rye, Melvale, Mount Vernon, Monticello—along with old engravings of steaming plants, stout warehouses, and barrel-burdened carts. “Most visitors are blown away about Maryland rye history—they just had no idea,” Treacy says.

Location, Location, Location

Why rye and why Maryland? Alas, a definitive history of the country’s nascent whiskey days has yet to be written. As such, mythmaking, conjecture, and purple-prose marketing copy abound. We know that early farmers were commodifying and preserving surplus grain through distilling since Colonial days. George Washington made rye at Mount Vernon (and he could see Maryland from his porch).

The broad sketch as to why rye whiskey emerged in the mid-Atlantic has it that the Scotch-Irish and German settlers here were familiar with the Old-World grain and had distilling knowledge. Rye also grew more readily than corn or barley in the area’s stony fields and marginal soils. Finally, add ready amounts of limestone aquifer water into the mix, and you have the making of a whiskey region. One prominent coalescence was around the Monongahela River flowing northward into Pittsburgh, with tributaries reaching into Western Maryland. This was the site of the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s. Alexander Hamilton might be a Broadway darling today, but he was archenemy to early whiskey makers after he taxed their product. As insurrections go, the rebellion was small potatoes. But it did provide whiskey’s first push westward into what would eventually become Kentucky.

“Maryland used to export whiskey to Scotland. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment.”

Far more cataclysmic, of course, was the Civil War—when Maryland was boot-stamped and bloodied by both sides (the Battle of Antietam saw the single deadliest day in the conflict). Curiously, the war might have been a boon for the state’s whiskey makers. “The Civil War, which brought thousands and thousands of outsiders into Maryland, where many of them would have given the local liquor a try and then gone home deeming Maryland’s rye preferable to more familiar beverages,” the late James Bready wrote in a 1990 Maryland Historical Magazine article on rye. (The veteran newspaperman’s history has emerged as a seminal text on the subject.)

Ben Lyon at Lyon Distilling Company.

Maryland’s product was good and their marketing effective, as numerous brands achieved national sales in the 1800s. To this add some colorful characters—such as Outerbridge Horsey II. He began distilling rye in Burkittsville, Maryland, before the Civil War, while still a teenager. He later developed a unique aging process for his Horsey Pure Rye: Barrels were sent by ship from Baltimore around Cape Horn (no Panama Canal yet) to San Francisco, and then brought back cross-country by train. The sloshing and temperature changes were said to improve the aging process. The rye had such a good reputation that another distiller released Old Horsey Rye after plucky Outerbridge had long gone to his rest.

This ship-and-rail aging scheme only serves to highlight the role Baltimore played in the success of Maryland rye. As a preeminent distribution center, scores of distillers, bottlers, and wholesalers set up shop in and around the city. (Those rail connections also brought in grain from upstate New York and points west, where it was more efficiently grown; Maryland rye was never much about the terroir of local grain.) Sure, by the time the twentieth century rolled in, bourbon-happy Kentucky had long become the alcohol giant. But the dozens of Maryland rye makers in 1910 had no problems selling their goods to a thirsty nation.

Until, of course, they couldn’t. Prohibition officially hit the industry in 1920, though busy-bee bar-bashers led many Southern states to dry up well before then, with Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee all banning booze at least ten years earlier. Wondrich says real estate values “really shafted” Baltimore and other urban distillers during the Noble Experiment (Prohibition as defined by Herbert Hoover). “Kentucky distillers were out in the country and you could close them up for thirteen years and then have them still be there,” he explains. “But nobody was going to let a piece of prime commercial real estate with railroad access sit loafing for that long.”

A few Maryland distilleries limped along making “medicinal whiskey” (yep, you could get a prescription for it). Others were torn down or went a totally different direction. (The stout, stone home of Melvale Rye—once one of the Baltimore’s largest brands—still stands today, but the plant switched to vinegar-making in the 1920s and never looked back.) When repeal came in 1933 many of the big Maryland brands returned to market—some after deep-pocketed expansions—but most of them were under new management. In a way, some roots to rye’s storied past were severed. And they weren’t up and running all that long before World War II kicked off and they converted to making ethanol for the war effort.

Nationwide, some makers responded to a post-war shortage of aged whiskey by mixing it with neutral spirits, birthing the lighter-flavored concoction called American Blended Whiskey (which Wondrich dismissed as “whiskey-flavored vodka”). And, of course, vodka itself began its bar rail ascendancy. Sweeter bourbon found itself better positioned in this palate-shifting marketplace, along with easy-drinking Canadian blends. Soon enough the same sort of acquisitions, mergers, and industry consolidations that bludgeoned Maryland’s brewing industry into a death spiral did the same for distilling—the illustrious industry that outlasted wars, Prohibition, and the Great Depression done in by screwdrivers and seven & sevens.

The stills fell still at the last twentieth-century maker of Maryland rye in 1972. Majestic Distilling in the Baltimore suburbs, with little fanfare, filled their last barrel of Pikesville Maryland Straight Rye, a name dating back to the 1890s. About a decade later, the Pikesville brand was sold to Kentucky distilling juggernaut, Heaven Hill. It’s made there to this day, some 200 miles west of its namesake Maryland town.

Back to the Future

The American Craft Spirits Council reports that Maryland, after a slow start, is enjoying the nation’s third-fastest growth in craft distilling. Local hooch makers increased here over 40 percent last year. Many are making rye, or plan to. Sagamore’s capaciousness is an outlier however, as most outfits are much more humble. Indeed, the first Maryland straight rye of the new era was distilled by the Fiore Winery near the Pennsylvania border in 2015, and they initially only made fifty-odd gallons. The label said it was aged in a “new oak barrel.” Yes, singular.

The discovery of hundreds of well-sealed, old-school Maryland rye bottles for sampling and analyzing helps these new makers understand exactly what the venerable old spirits were like. Yeah, if only. Truth is, how great-granddad’s shot of Maryland rolled across the tongue is widely debated. Distillery records are scarce (to say nothing of full bottles) and there certainly weren’t whiskey writers around to pick apart each release. There is also a lot of ground to cover: Maryland rye was a different beast in 1850 than in 1950. (And some dubious Maryland bottlers were adding fruit juice and other sweeteners to their rye until the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act put the kibosh on such shenanigans.)

Barrels at Sagamore Spirits.

One narrative emerging from the murky past suggests that classic Maryland rye was smoother, sweeter, and more floral than its Pennsylvania counterpart. This taste profile is usually attributed to its having more corn in the mash bill (how distillers refer to the grain recipe used—rye has to be the main grain, but combinations of other grains can make up the rest). Other research says Maryland and Pennsylvania whiskeys were collectively considered eastern ryes, distinct in taste from the western ryes made in Kentucky and beyond. And Baltimore Pure Rye, once a huge brand, billed itself as the “Rye-E-Rye” and touted an almost all-rye mash bill.

Ben Lyon distilled the first twenty-first century Maryland rye in the winter of 2013 at Lyon Distilling Company, which he runs with partner Jaime Windon in the Eastern Shore town of Saint Michaels. He released an unaged version and some that spent a year in one-gallon barrels. It has a high-corn mash bill with some malted barley as well. He used to think that defined the Maryland style, but now he’s not so sure.

“We don’t have a clear mash bill, we don’t have one type of still used, or one particular place where the grain came from,” he says of the historic state tipple. “We know Maryland produced this lauded spirit, but it’s a harder sell to say just how.” Primarily a rum maker, Lyon distills and releases rye only once a year, but remains bullish on the product—he even envisions a Maryland Rye Trail, a co-marketing effort guiding visitors to the state’s distillers, similar to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Barrels at Baltimore Whiskey Company.

Sagamore seemingly split the difference when coming up with its flavor profile. Their bottled product is a marriage of two ryes, one made with a lot of corn, and one that’s almost all rye. “We wanted some of that rye complexity but we still wanted to have some sweetness,” Treacy says. “We found that two different mash bills allows for flexibility and consistency.”

By the time you read this, the Baltimore Whiskey Company will not only have its straight rye out but will have moved to a spacious new home in which to make it. Despite their name, their product line also includes an award-winning gin and a unique smoked apple brandy. Rye got them in the game, however, and they revere its past but don’t see it as a roadmap. “We always want to be respectful of history but that doesn’t mean we’re in handcuffs,” Lents says, noting that Epoch Rye uses an unconventional mash bill of 70-percent rye and 30-percent malted rye.“We wanted to make a new expression of rye, not just Pikesville 2.0.”

Perhaps it’s best to describe Maryland Rye as a spirit—in both senses of the word. A potent potable and a potent ideal. “I want the state’s whiskey history to be known,” says Windon, who is also president of the Maryland Distiller’s Guild. “But craft distillers are able to choose what path they want to go down. New products can nod to the past but the best way to honor Maryland distilling history is through quality.” In other words, just strive to make whiskey with enough heart and passion to please the ghost of Outerbridge Horsey II.