American Whiskey
Rye Distilleries of Eastern Pennsylvania & Maryland

February 18, 2006
Needwood Distillery: Old Horsey Rye 
Burkittsville, Maryland

Maryland's Wild, Wild West


THE IDEA WAS TO CREATE a spirit that would have the qualities once thought unique to New England rum. The spirit should be smooth. Not harsh, as was so often the case with freshly-distilled alcohol. It should have a richness and complexity that comes from an intimate intermingling of fermentation congeners and oak barrel wood. And above all, it should have a deep rusted amber hue found only in the finest Cognac… and in New England rum that had returned from many months aboard a rocking ship, sailing through the tropics and back to Rhode Island.

Monongahela was close. Certainly close enough, when New England rum no longer existed and all that people had were their memories. And for most distillers, that was good enough. For a few, so was outright fraud, such as adding food coloring and tannic acid to industrial-grade neutral spirits and claiming the resulting concoction to be “Aged Rum” or “Pure Rye whiskey”.

In western Maryland, about halfway between Frederick and the Antietam battlefield, lies the tiny, very picturesque village of Burkittsville. The current population of about 175 people (none of whom, we have been carefully assured, are Blair witches) continues to support no less than three churches, just as they did a century ago. But back then there were also two commercial distilleries in or near here.

One of these was at the Needwood Estate, just outside of town, where it was founded in the 1840s by Outerbridge Horsey II (1819-1902), the sort of gentleman whose social circle gave him an opportunity to sit on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal board of directors and to have been Maryland's member of the Democratic National Committee for many years. It also afforded him the ability to produce and market perhaps the most fastidiously perfect whiskey ever made in America. 

The Needwood Distillery produced "Horsey Pure Rye" and a very special brand called "Golden Gate". Outerbridge Horsey II himself (it's interesting to speculate on what his friends might have called him, Outie, perhaps? The Big "O"?) was obsessed with the desire to produce the highest quality spirit ever made, and to that purpose he traveled to Scotland and possibly Ireland so as to learn from the masters and to purchase the most modern equipment for the distillery. It was his desire to produce a no-holds-barred, full-tilt-boogie, best-in-class American whiskey, with no regard as to costs… and priced accordingly, of course.  He piped water down from Catoctin Mountain, and he didn't actually use Maryland rye, preferring to use either Tennessee or imported Irish rye grain. Even more stunning was his method of aging his whiskey after distilling. Barrels of "Golden Gate" were routinely loaded aboard ships and sent around Cape Horn to San Francisco, then returned to Maryland by railroad train before being bottled. The idea was to capture the months of sloshing about and the climactic extremes of such a voyage that were the hallmark of the old New England rums. Horsey wasn’t completely alone in this technique; Sherwood had a brand of rye that was shipped to Cuba and back (basically the 2nd half of the triangle itinerary), and King’s Ransom, a scotch produced by a Glasgow distillery, from whom Horsey learned it, had a special “ ‘Round the World” edition. In fact, the OTHER distillery in Burkittsville, Ahalt, sent it’s whiskey to Rio de Janeiro and back as part of its aging process.

But of course the real kicker for Horsey was that, once it had landed in San Francisco, his whiskey then proceeded to travel by rail back across the continent, traveling through every railroad-served city from San Francisco to Baltimore, with the brand's name prominently displayed on the side of the cases and the  train cars. Considering that the railroads in the 1800s were the elite equivalent of today's jet-set, such identification only added to the exclusiveness of Horsey Rye Whiskey.

In his definitive treatise on Maryland rye, newspaperman James Bready notes that Horsey Rye’s clientele extended from Massachusetts to California, but only at the finest hotels and clubs, not at corner saloons.

Needwood Farms still exists – in fact there are multiple examples of estates, probably pieces of the original, calling themselves Needwood. None of these appears to be owned by people not in the National Social Register. The village itself looks like a museum piece, with each building carefully restored, resulting in what can only be called a scale model of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.  We were not able to find even a trace of either Horsey’s or John Ahalt’s distilleries (although we did find an Ahalt Road within the village), but the entire village/farm environment made it clear what sort of operation it must have once been.

Like so many other wonderful examples of American whiskey, Horsey did not survive national prohibition. Listed in the 1910 Bonfort's industrial register as Maryland Distillery #17, the name reappeared in 1933, but this time as "Old Horsey Very Fine Rye Whiskey", "Old Horsey Maryland Rye Whiskey", and "Old Horsey Rye Whiskey". The word "Old" was added, and also the word "Whiskey", which was a legal requirement after prohibition.

But, of course, it wasn’t the same product. Old Horsey (the NEW Old Horsey?) was marketed by Sherwood Distillery, itself a replacement for a once-prominent pre-prohibition whiskey, and was bottled at the old William Foust distillery in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. But even before prohibition, Horsey had fallen victim to the scourge of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Superior quality aside, it appears that the new legal qualifications for labeling a product "pure rye whiskey" caused many a previously popular brand to suddenly disappear from liquor store shelves. And after Outterbridge Horsey died in 1902 his heirs shifted half or more of Needwood Distillery's to corn whiskey and basically vanished from the beverage alcohol scene.


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Story and original photography copyright ©2006 by John Lipman. All rights reserved.