|Pikesville Rye Ad from 1937|
An Aristocrat in Decline
As I was chatting to Atwell about the cocktail, I asked him whether he saw rye whiskey making a comeback in Baltimore. I had already written about the rye revival taking place these days in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, and was curious to hear how the old spirit was faring in Charm City. Rye has an even deeper history in Baltimore, which made its fall into near oblivion there all the more dramatic.
Whiskeymaking in Kentucky and Pennsylvania dates back to the colonial era, arriving with the first Scotch-Irish settlers, who brought a deep-rooted culture of grain distilling with them. Distilling arrived much later in Maryland, an outgrowth of the city’s commercial boom after the Civil War.
Gilded Age Baltimore sat at the center of a wide network of trade, and among its many merchant houses were dozens of liquor wholesalers, who bought spirits from inland distilleries (most of them in Pennsylvania) and packaged them for sale to retailers throughout the surrounding region, especially in Virginia and North Carolina. A few of these wholesalers, like Charles H. Ross & Co. and the Gottschalk Company, decided to try their hand at making their own whiskey, and by the 1880s a flourishing local distilling industry was underway.
In Pennsylvania and Kentucky, hundreds of small-scale distilleries existed side-by-side with major industrial producers. In Maryland whiskey production was dominated by a handful of large firms. These distillers may have come late to the game, but their brands--Mount Vernon, Melvale, Monument, Pikesville--became some of the most well-known in the country.
“The best rye,” the journalist, humorist, and cocktail authority Irvin S. Cobb wrote in 1936, “has always come from Maryland, just as the best Bourbon has always come from Kentucky.” Cobb attributed the quality to the state’s “radiantly pure spring water” and the softening presence of limestone conjoined with the skill of the traditional distillers.
Cobb wrote those words as the American whiskey industry was trying to stage a comeback after fourteen years of national Prohibition. Unfortunately for Maryland rye, its best years were already behind it. Most of the old Maryland brands had changed hands during the blackout years, and though they were brought back on the market after Repeal, they never regained their former stature.
Why Maryland’s distilleries failed to recover remains a mystery. Some historians have speculated that in Kentucky, bourbon-making families didn’t know any other trade, so they held onto their buildings and equipment during the dark years and returned to the business once it was legal again. In Maryland, whiskey distilling had always been more of a large-scale commercial venture than a family tradition, no different than selling any other manufactured goods. When Prohibition shut their businesses down, the proprietors moved on to more profitable lines of work and never looked back.
It’s as good of a theory as any. The actual causes may be murky, but the unfortunate results were clear: one by one the old Maryland brands disappeared from the market. By the 1970s Baltimore, once one of the country’s most prominent whiskey towns, had moved on to vodka and gin. In 1972, the final barrel of Pikesville Rye whiskey was filled at the old Majestic Distillery and rolled into a warehouse to age. It was the last barrel of rye whiskey produced in Maryland. The Pikesville brand was sold to a Kentucky distillery, though, in a fitting irony, it’s still sold and consumed almost exclusively in Baltimore.
When Doug Atwell and his partners opened Rye in 2011, the whiskey they named their bar after still languished in obscurity. "There were still people drinking Pikesville,” he told me, “but it was a kind of dive bar thing. Old Baltimoreans would drink it, especially in Fells Point, as shots."
Slowly and steadily, though, more and more of patrons have started returning to rye whiskey, and it’s the classic pre-Prohibition cocktails that are driving them toward it.
When Rye first opened, Atwell told me, they focused on what he called ’nouveau classics’--their own inventions inspired by but riffing upon older recipes. Not too long ago, though, “we put a sidebar on menu for classics like Mahattans and Sazeracs, and we started moving a ton of them. People during the holidays were drinking like their uncles and grandfathers.” Within weeks, their top three top sellers were Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Sazeracs, all of which are made with rye whiskey.
For Atwell, it’s a satisfying turn of events. “When we opened here in this neighborhood, there were plenty of people who thought we were crazy for doing what we are doing. 'Fells Point, that’s a beer and shot neighborhood',” he says. “Now we’re seeing groups of 25-year-old guys coming in and ordering four Old Fashioneds.”
That’s introducing a whole new generation to the glories of what was once Baltimore’s signature spirit. And it suggest that in the long, proud history of American rye whiskey, there are still plenty of more chapters left to be written.