Rye Remembrance: A Wish Granted

Jacques Kelly's Baltimore

October 22, 1995|By Jacques Kelly

It was a moody Saturday, the kind of day you want to be anywhere but outdoors. A friend of mine called and suggested we kill the morning at a show of antique advertisements at the Timonium Fairgrounds.

Before long I was looking over old tin trays from long-vanished Baltimore breweries, timetables from the B&O Railroad and beautifully crafted advertising signs from many different companies. I watched a collector friend walk out with a knockout -- a finely rendered mirrored panel promoting Sherwood rye.

He looked as though he'd bagged a rare item, and he had. He also had just the look my grandfather had one long-gone Christmas morning.

Grandpop Edward Jacques Monaghan was a transplanted, die-hard Pennsylvanian from the Clinton County town of Lock Haven.

He regularly and loudly knocked the Free State, except for its Maryland rye, the type produced by the Frank L. Wight Distilling Co. in the Baltimore County village of Loreley. His brand was the 90-proof whiskey beloved by rye drinkers.

By the early 1960s, Wight's rye was becoming scarce. Some years before, the distillery had stopped production. The public's taste for this strong whiskey had fallen off. Lighter blends, gin and vodka came into fashion; Maryland rye was too potent, too heady. It was down-the-hatch drinking whiskey, not the stuff you sip as a cocktail.

The demise of first-rate rye arrived at the time in his life when other nuisances beset him. Pop's doctors had issued restricting advice. Cut down on cigars, eat no salt, take more exercise. His wife, my grandmother, even tried to get him to stop chewing tobacco by driving an ice pick through his favorite cuspidor.

But Ed Monaghan wasn't a man to be discouraged. He asked his daughter, my mother, if she would be on the lookout for Wight's. After all, he reasoned, the name would be easy to recall. Hanna and Esther Wight, whose father made the liquor, were high school classmates of Mom's at Notre Dame.

One day the gods smiled on Ed Monaghan. It happened in the old house on Guilford Avenue where the three generations of the family lived. My mother was housecleaning a locked cellar cupboard that she shared with my grandmother, Lily Rose Monaghan. There was an invisible line down the closet's center to mark the space that each woman could claim.

That day my grandmother said she wasn't up to the chore. So my mother emptied this mothballed cavern herself. Out came Christmas presents, winter and spring coats from O'Neill's department store, old blankets and quilts, toppers and hatboxes. Mom was vacuuming the cupboard's inner recesses when she spotted something resting in a dark corner. There was a precious, unopened bottle of Wight's with State Comptroller's J. Millard Tawes' name on the liquor excise tax stamp.

What was this rare sauce doing on grandmother's side of the closet? Wasn't Lily Rose an unswerving, lifelong teetotaler? She'd make her husband anything to eat -- her special buckwheat cakes, homemade ketchup, the fried rockfish he loved -- but serving him liquor was out of the question. There was never even a liquor cabinet or bar in this house that she dominated. If you had a bottle, it was stashed in your own private hiding place.

My mother suspected that 20 years earlier someone had dropped off a Christmas present, but made the tactical error of not handing it to Pop directly. My grandmother probably seized the Wight's and forgot about it.

Over the years, if my grandmother found an opened bottle of alcohol, she often claimed it, poured half the contents down the sink, and made up the difference with tap water.

The discovered bottle was indeed the real thing. Its label read, "The distinctive Maryland Rye flavor and bouquet of this whiskey is the result of careful adherence to the formula perfected in the early [18]60s by John J. Wight and passed on from father to son through four generations. . . ."

Come Christmas morning, my mother handed her father the Wight's. It would be the last Christmas he'd be well enough to celebrate with the whole family. In that last year of his life, he had his wish, a bottle of Wight's rye.

Pop questioned and questioned, but Mom never revealed its origin. He went to his grave in New Cathedral Cemetery without knowing the bottle had been under his own roof all those years.

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