Rye whiskey was once synonymous with Maryland

State had many distillers

  • A mixed drink and three types of rye whiskey.
A mixed drink and three types of rye whiskey. (GENE SWEENEY JR, Baltimore…)
February 26, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Blackwater Distilling is set to begin bottling Sloop Betty vodka in Stevensville next month, marking the resumption after nearly 30 years of the proud tradition of distilling spirits in Maryland.

"There's something about bringing that industry back that means something," Christopher Cook, a partner with his brother Jonathan in Blackwater, told Baltimore Sun reporter Jill Rosen recently.

During rye whiskey's golden age, connoisseurs across the land instantly associated Wight's Sherbrook, Old Reserve, Ryebrook, Mount Vernon, Sherwood Pure Rye, Hunter's — "First Over the Bars" — and Pikesville Rye, to name only a few that were once distilled here, with Maryland.

The distilling of rye whiskey in America goes back to the 1700s, when farmers who had planted rye and wheat as cover crops over tobacco-ravaged land found it was easier and more profitable to distill rather than ship the surplus grain.

George Washington's overseer at Mount Vernon, John Anderson, urged him to turn his surplus rye into whiskey and established a distillery on the grounds. The formula was simple: rye grain, malted barley and Indian corn.

Rye whiskey is 51 percent rye, while bourbon is 51 percent corn, in case you want to try cooking up a batch at home sometime. For rye, add 34 percent corn, 11 percent barley malt and 4 percent rye malt.

The "green whiskey" is then placed in barrels for aging from four to eight years, so don't reach for glasses and ice right away.

By 1799, Washington's still was producing about 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey, some of which found its way to the public houses of nearby Alexandria, where it found favor with the thirsty in the new republic.

Several years ago, the distillery was rebuilt at Mount Vernon, and the first 471 bottles were sold last summer at $85 apiece.

Small distilleries were established throughout antebellum Maryland, but a high whiskey tax during the Civil War made production unprofitable. After the war, the industry was re-established, and Maryland rye's reputation soared.

Marylanders and other drinkers enjoyed their rye until the enactment into law in 1920 of the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the production, sale, import or export of alcoholic beverages.

With the coming of repeal in 1933, Maryland distilleries were busier than ever, trying to slake the nation's thirst for its products. By 1936, the state led the nation in rye production with 14 million gallons.

Two years later, bonded government warehouses broke the news that they had 15 million gallons of rye to dispose of.

With the coming of World War II, rye production would never reach those stratospheric pre-war levels again.

During the war, grain and alcohol was diverted for military use, and blended whiskies began to make their appearance, which found favor with the public and meant that the days were numbered for straight rye whiskey.

The drinking public's taste was changing in the immediate postwar years as they clamored for scotch, bourbon, Canadian blends and gin, conspiring to end Maryland rye's popularity.

In 1941, the highly regarded firm of Frank L. Wight, which had produced Sherbrook and Old Reserve "Maryland Straight Rye" at its Loreley distillery, sold its business to Hiram Walker, which shocked Marylanders when it closed the distillery seven years later.

At the time, 15 other distilleries were still producing rye. In 1949, Zellic Cohen founded Majestic Distilling Co. in Lansdowne. After a few years, it dropped rye in favor of bourbon, vodka and gin, as demand for rye continued to fall.

One by one the rye distilleries closed, leaving by the 1970s only Standard Distillers Products Inc., whose now-demolished brick building and bottling works at Lombard and Commerce streets was across the street from the old News American building, itself now only a memory.

Standard Distillers bottled rye was distilled by Majestic and sold under the Pikesville label. Its slogan, which dated to 1937, was "Pikesville, the aristocrat of Maryland straight rye whiskies, more popular today than ever."

Andrew W. Merle Sr., who had been with Meyer, Pitts Co., bottlers and wholesalers of rye before Prohibition, went back into the business when he established Standard Distillers. He was later joined by his son, Andrew W. Merle Jr., who had graduated from the University of Virginia and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Standard offered three varieties of Pikesville that it began bottling in 1936.

Basic Pikesville was four years old, with K&L being aged for seven years. The granddaddy of its line was a bonded 100-proof Pikesville that was recognizable by its black-and-red label.

Andrew Merle Jr., who served as president of the company for more than 20 years after his father's death in 1965, was not terribly hopeful by the 1970s that Maryland rye would survive.

He laid down his last batch of Maryland rye at Majestic in 1973, and told a Sun reporter in 1975 that he had enough rye on hand to "last seven or eight years."

By 1982, Merle had thrown in the towel and sold the building, and the Pikesville formula and the remaining inventory of 2,200 barrels were purchased by Heaven Hill-Evan Williams Inc. Production was shifted to the new owner's Bardstown, Ky., plant.

Under federal law, rye whiskey must be distilled in Maryland to be called "Maryland rye." The new owner bills its Pikesville as "Maryland or Potomac-style" rye.

Merle died in 1987.

For sharp-eyed urban archaeologists, there are still several fading Pikesville Rye signs on the walls of buildings around Baltimore.

For years, before urban renewal demolished it, there was a painted Pikesville sign on a building that greeted motorists getting onto the northbound entrance ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway near Monument Street.

A large bottle of Pikesville, slightly tilted, was surrounded by type that read: "Your best buy … Pikesville Rye. 1st in Maryland. Rye Whisky."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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