Auction goers will get a shot at distillery

Jacques Kelly

November 12, 1990|By Jacques Kelly

In the days when Route 1 was the East Coast's main highway, northbound motorists knew they were just outside Baltimore when the whiff of a barroom floated into their DeSotos and Packards.

The pungent smell of fermenting grains and yeast settled over Relay and St. Denis in the Patapsco River Valley along the old Washington Boulevard. The odor of Calvert whiskey marked roads, railroads and villages from the 1930s through the 1980s. When you smelled John Barleycorn, you knew Baltimore was not far away.

A highball glass full of industrial history goes to the highest bidder this week. Come Thursday, the House of Seagram, which purchased the home of Calvert whiskey in the middle 1930s, is holding an auction sale of the distilling equipment that took grain and turned it into alcoholic spirits.

"We were the first distillery after Prohibition and we're the last," said Frank Noppert, general manager of the Relay operation, which continues to bottle, package and distribute bulk shipments of Scotch, Canadian whiskey, blends and liqueurs for shipment elsewhere. No liquor has been distilled here since 1985.

The Calvert distillery is no ordinary auction sale. Included are yeast mash drums larger than most swimming pools and fermentation vessels the size of one of the fish tanks in the National Aquarium. There are boilers, grain scales, unloaders, pumps and air compressors. Some buyers will have to hire professional riggers to remove these massive pieces of machinery.

After the auction, the Seagram's bottling operation will remain on its Baltimore County site. But the familiar red 1930s brick buildings, topped by ads for "The Home of Calvert Whiskey" and decorated with initial Cs in masonry, will be demolished.

Exactly 57 years ago this month, that brick mortar was wet on a high circular smokestack being constructed along the side of Washington Boulevard. In lighter colored bricks, the words "Calvert Pure Rye" stood out.

Prohibition, which forbade the sale of liquor, except for medicinal purposes, was not yet over in November 1933, but this sprawling alcohol distillery was feverishly being constructed. Its owners, which included Baltimorean E. M. Fleischmann, figured that Prohibition was a dead issue. It made good economic sense to have a plant ready to supply thirsty customers.

At 5:33 p.m., Dec. 5, 1933, the first legal alcohol was sold in Baltimore's packed bars and hotels. A German band appeared outside a brewery and played President Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign song, "Happy Days Are Here Again."

The Calvert plant, then known as the Maryland Distillery, was built on 18-plus acres of land purchased from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The campus-like complex of buildings was strategically located near the rail line for the necessary supplies -- the grain needed for the fermentation, the water for distilling and steam, and the rail connection for supplies and delivery.

When the plant opened some months later, it produced gin [easier to make because it does not require a long aging period], Calvert blends and Old Drum whiskey. Its bottle was shaped like a drum and carried the slogan, "You can't beat it."

Within a matter of months, the distillery was purchased by the corporate giant Joseph E. Seagram & Sons. The plant was later enlarged with new buildings and land purchases. Today, it contains 19 buildings on 102 acres.

In its day, the Calvert operation was as famous a piece of roadside architecture as the classic sign for the One-Spot flea powder dog, a few miles to the south on Washington Boulevard.

But if gin was the first elixir distilled at the plant, it was also the last. If you sniff very hard, you can very faintly detect a scent of juniper berries in one of the tanks due to go under the auctioneer's hammer.

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