Maryland said goodbye to its celebrated rye Spirits: Of all the local delicacies that have vanished, surely none is more lamentable than the disappearance of this state's distinctive whiskey.

Way Back When

November 28, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

With the arrival of the holidays, as Baltimoreans prepare to go into gustatorial overdrive, tossing aside concern over caloric intake as easily as credit card worries at Towson Town Center, talk invariably turns to gourmet delicacies and purveyors long gone but fondly remembered.

What of the oysters from Dunlop's on North Howard Street and tureens of steaming terrapin stew at the now-demolished Rennert Hotel? Or thinly sliced pieces of cured country ham beneath the bonnet of an old-fashioned Maryland Beaten Biscuit (before the medical community started screaming about the inherent cholesterol danger and ruining it all)?

And who recalls the old-fashioned Lady Baltimore cake once available at the long-gone Betsy Patterson Bakery on West Read Street or Hendler's sumptuous egg nog ice cream?

What of the Independent Beef Co. in the Richmond Market, Heidelbach's Grocery of Catonsville and Cold Spring Lane, and Hopper-McGaw & Co. on North Charles Street, Baltimore's version of S.S. Pierce, the fancy Boston grocer?

Gone, all gone.

In almost wistful and surely reverential tones, the topic at some point will turn to Maryland rye whiskey, that wonderful local elixir that for years was the basic ingredient of mint juleps, Old-Fashions and Manhattans, or was simply taken straight or neat or with a little water on the side.

Old names such as Baltimore Pure Rye, Hunter, Melvale, Wight's Old Reserve, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Waldorf and Sherwood still provoke powerful memories for anyone over 60.

What conspired to finish off rye was a demand by Americans for lighter whiskeys, wine and beer. Competition from bourbon and Scotch didn't help. Except for private supplies lurking in local private or club cellars, Maryland rye vanished forever from the state in 1982, when Standard Distillers Products closed its doors and sold its Lombard Street building.

Under the direction of Andrew W. Merle Jr., whose father before him also headed the business, the company manufactured Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey and K & L Rye. Their billboards -- "Your Best Buy -- Pikesville Rye" -- were a fixture of the cityscape.

"People understand about Maryland rye -- or they don't, just as it is lost upon the masses that the Parkton Local and the Bay Line run no more," reported the Evening Sun in 1982.

"Men who have spent their lives in the whisky business talk about Maryland rye with the same fondness some men speak of hand-made guns, meerschaum pipes, fast horses and beautiful women," said the Evening Sun in 1963.

"Maryland straight rye is, almost by definition, not a light whisky. A heavy-bodied, dusky drink, unlike any other, Maryland rye has some of the ruggedness of the frontiersman and the self-reliant spirit that gave Maryland the name of the Free State," stated the newspaper.

The label on a bottle of Waldorf Maryland Old Rye Whiskey attempted to explain the allure and benefits which one could accrue from imbibing Maryland rye.

"Since very early in the (19th) century the Whiskies distilled in Maryland have been renowned for their peculiar medicinal qualities. The equable climate, remarkably soft water, together with the Superior rye grown on the Uplands of Maryland combine to make the product of her stills peerless among the Whiskies of America. The Whiskey contained in this bottle is thoroughly well matured, and of a rich exquisite flavor ... As a tonic for those recovering from illness, the delicate and weak, nothing can take its place."

Frank L. Wight, the famed Maryland rye distiller who died in 1953, considered rye-making an art not unlike gourmet cooking.

"Give three cooks the same ingredients and one will produce a fine cake, another a mediocre cake and the third a cake not fit to eat. So it was with the distilling of whiskey," Wight told the Evening Sun in a 1934 interview.

H.L. Mencken, who once said, "I'm omnibibulous: I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all," recalled in his book, "Happy Days," his father's penchant for a daily shot of Monticello rye. "In those days it was always straight, for the old-time Baltimoreans regarded blends with great suspicion, though many of the widely-advertised brands of Maryland rye were of that character. They drank straight whisky straight, disdaining both diluents and chasers.

"Before every meal, including breakfast, [my father] ducked into the cupboard in the dining-room and poured out a substantial hooker of rye, and when he emerged he was always sucking a great whiff of air to cool off his tonsils. He regarded this appetizer as necessary to his well-being. He said that it was the best medicine he had ever found for toning up his stomach."

"Maryland rye took getting used to, but many Maryland drinkers started young," wrote James H. Bready, retired Baltimore journalist and Maryland rye authority, in a 1990 article for the Maryland Historical Magazine. "The loyalty, once formed, was strong."

Pub Date: 11/28/98

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