There was a time when sipping rye whiskey was as much a Maryland custom as picking crabs. Maryland was rye country, with its whiskey made from a happy combination of abundant crops of rye and water naturally purified by limestone in the earth.
Yet in recent years rye has been eclipsed by clear spirits like vodka, rum and tequila. While bourbon and scotch retain many fans, rye has virtually disappeared from public bars. Some newer mixology reference books don't even contain recipes using rye whiskey, and liquor stores report very small sales.
"As older customers die off, sales get smaller and smaller," says Alfred Schudel, co-owner of Pinehurst Wine Shoppe in North Baltimore. "It's a flavor that is not popular right now, ... but they used to say you couldn't make a better Manhattan than with rye whiskey."
Schudel says rye sales at his shop average one bottle a month or less, mostly Pikesville Rye, one of many old Maryland brand names. Alas, none of those brands survives as made-in-Maryland products. Pikesville Rye kept its name, but is now distilled in Kentucky.
Pikesville was one of many Maryland ryes, some of which can bring a tear to the eye of sentimental Marylanders. One of those brands, Baltimore Pure Rye, earned the affectionate nickname "Baltimore Paint Remover," a reference to the strong taste.
Another was Sherwood, which until shortly after World War I shared the same name as the Baltimore County area now known as Riderwood.
Local lore says that nondrinking members of a local church, chagrined by the connection, engineered a change in the community's name.
Rye drinkers seem to take perverse pleasure in the fact that this whiskey is an acquired taste, which of course became part of its appeal. In 1963, The Evening Sun described rye as "a heavy-bodied, dusky drink, unlike any other," and said that "Maryland rye has some of the ruggedness of the frontiersman and self-reliant spirit that gave Maryland the name of the Free State."
James H. Bready, a retired Evening Sun editorial writer and a premier collector of old Maryland rye bottles, noted in a 1990 article for the Maryland Historical Society that "Maryland rye took getting used to, but many Maryland drinkers started young." Moreover, he wrote, "The loyalty, once formed, was strong."
Bready says he prefers to collect rye bottles, rather than drink their contents. But his wife, Mary, long ago adopted rye as a good sip.
It's strong stuff, she cautions, as any liquor can be when you first encounter it. "It's the perfect bottle to take to a conference," she says. At the end of the day, you can offer it all around without a worry in the world that the group will drink it all up.
Compare that to the heyday of rye. In Happy Days, memoirs of his Baltimore boyhood, H.L. Mencken recalls his father's devotion to Maryland's indigenous whiskey as "the best medicine he had ever found for toning up his stomach."
The elder Mencken would administer the medicine before each meal, even breakfast. According to his son, he routinely "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."
Next time you're in a Maryland mood and have a hankering for a Manhattan, forego the bourbon and give rye a try.
Makes 1 drink
glass of ice
2 ounces whiskey (rye)
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
2 to 4 dashes bitters (optional)
cherry or lemon twist, for garnish
Strain whiskey, vermouth and bitters into chilled glass or pour contents (with ice) into short glass. Garnish with cherry or lemon twist.
- "The Bartender's Black Book," by Stephen Kittredge Cunningham (The Bartender's Black Book Co. Inc., Sixth Edition, 2002)