THE GREAT SUSQUEHANNA RIVER VALLEY cuts through eastern Pennsylvania and Western Maryland, and at the very base of it lies Baltimore. It is, today, one of America's premier cities, a hugely active hub of mid-Atlantic trade and culture, and so it was throughout the 19th century as well. It's sister city to the north, Philadelphia, shared many of the same qualities. When American whiskey left the realm of "farm by-product" and its industrialization began to accelerate, it was to these centers that it was transported. Baltimore was a very sophisticated city, and its merchants knew the value of identifying unique product features with a regional descriptor. The Baltimore wholesalers and rectification companies called it "Maryland Rye", and there were numerous brands of it. In Philadelphia the product became known as "Philadelphia Rye", because the term "Pennsylvania Rye" had already been in use for decades and was understood to mean a completely different kind of spirit. Testimony to the skill of Baltimore merchants is the fact that, although most of the Maryland whiskeymakers had vanished into obscurity while Philadelphia's giant Publicker complex was still cranking out whiskey, the concept of Philadelphia Rye as a regional name just never really caught on the way Baltimore rye did.
There is also "Kentucky Rye", but you'll almost never hear anyone use that name for it. Kentucky has its own, very distinct spirit, bourbon, of which it is justifiably proud. Not that they don't take rye whiskey seriously in Kentucky; far from it. With the exception of Maker's Mark, which makes only one product (and it doesn't contain rye grain), every Kentucky distiller of bourbon also distills rye whiskey. But, although the popular myth is that Kentucky distillers arrived there fresh from the Whiskey Rebellion by way of the Ohio River, the truth is that all the successful Kentucky distillers came over the mountains, mostly from Maryland. And they brought the same concepts with them. As a generic regional term, "Maryland Rye" can be logically extended to include Kentucky as well as Maryland and even Pennsylvania, east of the mountains.
Today, except for a couple of specialty brands, all of the rye whiskey made in America for commercial sale is made in Kentucky. And that doesn't mean there's a whole lot of it being made there, either. Pikesville Supreme, the last of the so-called "Maryland" ryes, is now distilled and bottled in Kentucky, at the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown. Jim Burger, in an article for the Baltimore magazine, Style, quotes Larry Kass of Heaven Hill as saying, "All the rye that we're going to make in a year, we produce in one day."
OKAY, SO LET'S have a look now at Maryland Rye, and especially the numerous brands that poured out of Baltimore between the end of the Civil War and beginning of the first World War.
What made Maryland Rye so special? Was whiskey made in Maryland really all that different from whiskey being made in Pennsylvania or Kentucky?
Are there any brands of whiskey available today that are similar?
Why did the industry go away? What happened to it?
In this page we are going to visit places in and around the city of Baltimore where distilleries (or at least liquor manufacturers) used to be. In some cases there will be ruins. An empty warehouse or two. Perhaps a smokestack with a famous old brand name still spelled out in contrasting brick. Rusted, abandoned equipment. Maybe even a remaining old building, still identifiable even though now part of some other enterprise. We did this in Louisville, and it was very enlightening. As it was with the Kentucky whiskeys, many of the brands that existed before the 1920s returned in the 1930s, only to be absorbed by one another until by the nineties only a handful of distilleries actually make the bewildering number of bourbons available. The Kentucky bourbon families -- the Beams, Dants, Ripys, Thompsons, Browns, McKennas, and so forth -- didn't know any other business. When Tennessee went dry, a decade earlier than the rest of the nation, Lem Motlow took to raising mules, which he did very successfully. And while he was at it, he succeeded in rescuing the Jack Daniel's brand and keeping it alive and well; out of hundreds, he was the only Tennessee distiller to do so. But Motlow was an exception. The late Sam Cecil used to refer to the whiskey business as a "blood disease", because it was part of a whiskeymakers very being. In Maryland (and Pennsylvania, too) that wasn't generally the case. Companies were formed to produce and sell whiskey, and did so with the same pride and honor one might expect from companies producing fine pottery or tractor tires. When it became impossible to manufacture whiskey profitably, many simply shifted to some other product. For some, the incentive for such a decision was passage of the 18th amendment in 1919; for others, it was the demands of 1906's Pure Food & Drug Act (the Wiley laws) that did them in.
Prior to 1909 (there were three years worth of amendments added to the 1906 act), the term "Maryland Rye" was used generically to describe a type of spirit which is generally similar in its content and production regardless of where it was actually distilled. In his February 2005 article in the Potomac Pontil, author Jack Sullivan notes that Samuel C. Boehm & Co. of New York City had a brand they called "Maryland Union Club Rye" and a St. Louis distiller not only called one his brands "Old Maryland", but even included the Maryland state seal on the label! One of our favorite examples is "My Maryland Rye", a product of the Sherbrook distillery in Cincinnati. Of course the name Sherbrook itself is conveniently easy to confuse with Sherwood, a well-known Baltimore-area brand. Such blatant appropriation of a regional identifier is no longer allowable, but canny Baltimore merchandisers were perfectly at ease with the sense of "known quality" a generic regional identifier can bring to a buying decision. And why not? After all, most of these wholesalers were already selling their share of "cognac", "champagne", and "New England rum". And what's a little product confusion among friends anyway?
So when the sweet light of reason shone again in Baltimore, there wasn't a scramble among the old-line whiskeymakers to rekindle their old brands. Oh, the brands reappeared, all right. With perhaps one or two exceptions, every brand whose distillery we will visit in Maryland was very popular prior to prohibition. And every one of them was popular after prohibition. But the number of those brands that reawakened in the arms of its former owners is rather startling... zero. As you look down the list of famous Maryland Rye brands, you will find not a single one whose pre-prohibition owner became involved in the beverage alcohol business after repeal, at least not with the same brands as they had before 1920.
New people did, though. Every name on this list is (or at least was) well-known as a classic Maryland Rye of the "good old days" -- although those days all started on or after December 5, 1933. And then, just as it had before there even was a prohibition, they started falling away.
And that's where we can shine some light on one of those questions at the top of the page. And maybe even touch on a little on the others...
In Kentucky, if a distillery falls on hard enough times that it can't remain in business, the brand is sold to another and quite often maintained without its regular customer base even noticing the difference. Oh, the fine print on the label may change from "Distilled and bottled by Abie Seedy Distillers, Owensboro, KY" to "Bottled by Abie Seedy Distillers, Bardstown, KY", and the whiskey will certainly change, either suddenly or gradually, to whatever the new company's normal whiskey already tastes like. But the name and the label style will continue. Some may believe that's because of a desire to fool customers into thinking they're buying the same product they've come to know and enjoy, but others understand it as a deeper motive than that. It's a Kentucky distillers' thing, and it's a part of what sets that community apart from all others. As it would be anywhere else, in Baltimore (with a few exceptions) when the companies that produced whiskey found it not making a profit anymore, they declared bankruptcy, moved on to manufacturing or wholesaling something else, and the once-beloved brand simply disappeared.
Now, as for the rest of the second question: Maryland whiskey was different from Kentucky whiskey in that it was rye whiskey, made primarily from rye grain. Kentucky whiskey is mostly bourbon, made from corn. The United States legal definition of straight rye whiskey requires it to contain a minimum of 51% rye grain. Actual amounts vary from one distillery to the next, but most keep the rye content considerably lower than they do the corn content of bourbon (which is often between 65% - 80% corn, despite the same 51% minimum rule). There were no federal laws defining "pure" rye, and before the 1909 amendments to the Pure Food & Drug Act some highly-respected brands of Maryland Pure Rye were manufactured beverages containing little or no rye whiskey at all, but in general, Pure Rye was expected to contain over 90% rye grain. After prohibition things were much more regulated and the differences between rye whiskey made in Maryland (or eastern Pennsylvania) and what was made in Kentucky became less pronounced. Monongahela-style rye whiskey from western Pennsylvania also changed after prohibition, but remained distinctly different from either of the others.
During prohibition many of the old brands (from all regions), and just about all of the old stock, had become the property of large conglomerates such as Schenley, Seagram, or National Distillers. And those firms, while respecting the quality of their various whiskey stocks, were not terribly concerned with just what whiskey went into bottles wearing what label. For example, we have a bottle of Monticello Special Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey, bottled for the Monticello Distillery Company, Baltimore Maryland. However, the federally-required origin statement on the back label identifies the distiller as the Jos. S. Finch Distillery, Schenley, PA. -- And that means that what we taste in this fine Maryland Rye from around 1944 is actually Monongahela from one of the premier distilleries of that type of whiskey.
As for the third question: Well, the easy answer is, of course not! They just don't make whiskey like they use'ter. And that's true. Kentucky bourbon and rye made since the 1980's is definitely different-tasting than the same products (from the same makers) before then. And all of the Maryland rye brands had ceased to exist by that time. Pikesville Straight Rye, made today by Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Kentucky, does not taste like Pikesville Maryland Rye made by Majestic Distillers in 1972. But then, Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond made today doesn't taste like it did in 1972 either. Could you make a Maryland Pure Rye equivalent today? We think you probably could. But we also think you'd go broke doing it, because that's the reason these brands aren't there anymore -- you can't make a living from a product that appeals to only a small portion of the people who drink whiskey. At least, not on a mass-production scale. Could you do it at a craft-distiller's level? We believe this is the most fascinating question of all, because we believe it really could happen.
Okay; it's your move next.
Click Here to visit where some of those famous old Maryland ryes were distilled.
Story and original photography copyright ©2006 by John Lipman. All rights reserved.