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City That Drinks

Rye Whiskey, I Cry

A journey into Maryland rye’s past . . . and future

Photo: The City Paper Whiskey-Cam™, License: N/A

The City Paper Whiskey-Cam™

Rye Whiskey used to be the drink of Maryland. There were two styles, in fact: a Pennsylvania and a Maryland style. The Pennsylvania style was reportedly spicier, whereas the Maryland style was a bit sweeter. But by the 1970s, as rye’s popularity reached its nadir, the authentic versions of both styles had largely disappeared. Majestic Distillers, in Landsowne, distilled its last batch in 1972, ultimately selling the company to Heaven Hill.

We at CTD drink Pikesville on a regular basis, but we wanted to see how close it was to actual Maryland rye, so we called up Clay Risen, an editor at The New York Times and the author of the forthcoming encyclopedic American Whiskey, Bourbon, and Rye (and a fellow with whom CTD has shared a few tastings).

“Most people old enough to have tasted Pikesville when it was a product of Maryland say it is not the same,” Risen says. “It is a legacy brand and the thing about a lot of legacy brands is that the brand is where the value is, not the stuff in the bottle.”

Risen goes on to say, however, “The cool thing about Pikesville is that it exists. It is not made in Maryland anymore, but it is really a product for Maryland. It’s [one of Maryland’s] foodway[s], part of a residual culture. I can’t think of another whiskey like that.”

In many ways, Pikesville parallels National Bohemian: made elsewhere but still beloved by Baltimore and largely available only here. But there is hope that someone (Sloop Betty’s Blackwater Distilling?) will start to make Maryland rye in Maryland again. Leopold Brothers, a Colorado distillery, has made a Maryland rye, and a few companies are trying to revive the original Pennsylvania style. “I think that would be so cool,” Risen says. “Right now, a lot of people don’t know about whiskeys. It’s like wine in the ’70s, when people knew red and white. Now we can make jokes about Merlot and people get it. There might not be a market now. But in a couple years, when you’ve aged it, you might just hit that sweet spot.”

Until then, we’ll stick with our Pikesville.

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