Maryland Rye Whiskey Has Finally Returned. But What Was It in the First Place?


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BALTIMORE — H.L. Mencken, the Jazz Age scribe who loved Baltimore and booze in equal measure, spared no opportunity to praise his state’s famous rye whiskey.

It was, he said, “the most healthful appetizer yet discovered by man.” The Mencken family doctor, he added, apparently approved: “He believed and taught that a shot of Maryland whiskey was the best preventive of pneumonia in the R months.”

Maryland was once a whiskey distilling powerhouse, surpassed among the states only by Kentucky and Pennsylvania. It produced 5.6 million gallons in 1911, its pre-Prohibition high point — most of it rye, supposedly made in a distinctive style that was readily recognized from the Midwest to Manhattan. But the distilleries, and the style, disappeared after World War II and the consolidation of the whiskey industry in Kentucky.

Now, with rye sales growing at double-digit rates, a new generation of distillers sees an opportunity to put Maryland whiskey back on the map. At least a dozen distilleries have opened in the state over the last five years. Several more outside Maryland, as far away as Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minn., are making what they call Maryland-style rye.

Brian Treacy, the president of Sagamore Spirit.CreditAndrew Mangum for The New York Times

“I want to get it back to what it once was,” said Brian Treacy, the president of the Sagamore Spirit Distillery, which opened in 2017 along a postindustrial stretch of Baltimore dockland. “It was a regional style then, and it can be a regional style again.”

There’s just one problem: For all its fame and praise, no one quite knows what “Maryland style” meant. Most distillers back before Prohibition did not keep recipes, or document how they made their whiskey. Newspaper accounts differ widely; even Mencken left few clues about his beloved drink.

It is one of the great mysteries of the industrial age in America: How could a product so widely appreciated disappear so completely?

“It’s a fascinating question, and it’s generating a fascinating debate,” said Teresa DeFlitch, who studies the history of American distilling at Wigle Whiskey, in Pittsburgh.

That debate is about more than just stylistic accuracy. As distillers dig through America’s whiskey legacy for inspiration, what does it mean to recreate a “historic” style? And do they risk imposing contemporary ideas and categories on a past that might have seen things quite differently?

There’s no doubt that something called Maryland rye existed at some point. The state was once flush with distilleries — in 1911 there were 44, half of them in central Baltimore — and advertisements from the late 19th century promote the drink as a more refined alternative to its rougher cousins from Kentucky and Pennsylvania. One ad, for a brand called Maryland Club, appeared in a leather-bound datebook recovered from the Titanic.

Some of that promotion was just marketing. But many distillers and historians today agree that Maryland rye did have a different flavor profile — sweeter than the rye made farther west, with less spice and a supple, perhaps buttery palate.

That, however, is where the agreement ends and the guesswork begins. What, for starters, gave Maryland rye that special sweetness?

According to Jaime Windon, a founder of Lyon Distilling, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and the president of the Maryland Distillers Guild, the state’s whiskey makers mixed their rye grain with a high percentage of corn, which lends sweetness to balance the rye’s spiciness.

Leopold Brothers, in Denver, uses a unusual three-chamber still to produce its Maryland-style rye.CreditBenjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

The distillers at Sagamore agree. They make two batches of whiskey, one almost entirely with rye grain and the other with just 52 percent rye — the rest being mostly corn — which they then blend together. “Doing so allows us some flexibility, and it gives us that sweet roundedness Maryland rye was known for,” Mr. Treacy said.

But Ned Wight, who owns New England Distilling and whose great-great-great-grandfather ran one of the largest distilleries in Maryland, says his family’s whiskey had no use for corn. (Though based in Portland, Me., his company makes its own Maryland-style rye, called Gunpowder.)

“Generally, old Maryland ryes were made with rye and malted barley,” Mr. Wight said.

The sweetness might have come from using a brewer’s yeast to ferment the grain, which produces lighter, more floral notes than a traditional distiller’s yeast, he said.

Todd Leopold, who also makes a Maryland-style rye at his Leopold Brothers distillery in Denver, splits the difference: Like Sagamore, he uses corn as well as rye in his whiskey, but like Mr. Wight he uses a brewer’s yeast, as well as a second fermentation with naturally occurring airborne yeast, to amplify the sweetness.

He also employs a custom-made, three-chamber pot still, a piece of equipment rarely seen today but said to be popular in the 19th century because it gave whiskey a rounder, more flavorful character. “By using these techniques, you can make it so the spicy note in the rye is hardly there at all,” Mr. Leopold said.

Not all Maryland-style whiskey is made in Maryland. Here, several barrels of Leopold Brothers whiskey sit in the distillery’s warehouse in Denver.CreditBenjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times
Craig Magri, a distiller at Leopold Brothers, stirring mash for whiskey.CreditBenjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

Then again, maybe the sweetness came from somewhere else entirely. Before the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, it was legal to add fruit juice, caramel and all manner of chemicals to a whiskey. Drinker, beware.

Mike Veach, a whiskey historian in Kentucky, said many of the Maryland distilleries before 1906 were actually rectifiers — plants that bought unaged whiskey from elsewhere, then redistilled it, or aged it, or added something to it to make a final product they could legally call whiskey.

That doesn’t mean that Maryland rye was necessarily dangerous or low quality, said John Lipman, another whiskey historian who has done extensive research on Maryland rye; it just wasn’t the unadulterated whiskey we expect today. “Real Maryland rye was a manufactured beverage, like Bénédictine,” he said.

While distillery record-keeping improved only marginally in the early 20th century, it seems likely that after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and certainly after Prohibition, Maryland rye lost much of its unusual character.

Some skeptics even question whether Maryland rye had anything to distinguish it, apart from where it was made — and apart from some clever marketing.

Sam Komlenic, a whiskey historian in Pennsylvania, believes that Maryland rye whiskey varied too much over time, and that the state’s distilleries traded too much product with Pennsylvania distilleries, to allow a clear difference in styles.

“I would like to hope that Maryland rye was as distinctive as people want it to be, but I worry it wasn’t,” he said.

Does that mean that Sagamore and its fellow Maryland rye distillers are wrong? Or that everyone is partly right? Because the more you dive into the question of what Maryland rye was, the more you realize that you’re asking the wrong question.

Modern ideas about what constitutes a style are hemmed in by a long list of laws, standards and customs, and policed by constant chatter in the media and online. We obsess over how something is made, and imagine that people in the past did, too. But what if they didn’t?

Epoch, a straight rye, is made by the Baltimore Whiskey Company.CreditAndrew Mangum for The New York Times

“Strictly speaking, ‘Maryland style’ didn’t mean as much back then as it does now,” said Max Lents, a founder of the Baltimore Whiskey Company, which makes a Maryland-style rye.

The fuzziness around the definition of Maryland rye may be exactly the point. Before social media, before Prohibition, before the Pure Food and Drug Act and the modernization of distilling, inconsistency was a given. Maybe it was even prized.

Rye grain was prevalent in the Mid-Atlantic, so distillers used that. But if there was corn growing nearby, they used that, too. Before laboratory-grown yeast emerged in the 20th century, they developed their yeast cultures from whatever happened to be floating in the air nearby. Those might make the whiskey taste dramatically different from an identical batch made a few miles away.

And even where there was consistency in a flavor profile, that likely changed over the years, as new rules and changing consumer tastes forced the industry to shift. “At different points in time there were different understandings of what Maryland rye was, and even then it depended on who you talked to,” said Ms. DeFlitch, of Wigle Whiskey.

In other words, one reason to celebrate Maryland rye is that no one can quite agree on what the term meant: It demonstrates the diversity within whiskey regions, as in local food styles more broadly, before the mid-20th century.

“Trying to overdefine something doesn’t actually carry on that tradition,” Ms. DeFlitch said. Instead, distillers should embrace the uncertainty. “The more inspiration we have today, the better.”

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