Food & Drink

Whiskey Business

Rye whiskey makes a comeback in Maryland.

When news broke last Fall that 80-proof Pikesville Rye was being discontinued, lots of locals were dismayed. Events were even planned to mourn the loss. That’s because we in Baltimore are a loyal bunch and Pikesville, though no longer distilled in our state, has a deep local history dating back to the 1890s.

It’s also because rye is experiencing quite the comeback.

Our region was once synonymous with rye whiskey (what bourbon is to Kentucky) and, though rye production was hit hard by Prohibition, it’s back with a vengeance. Bar patrons are ordering old fashioneds with rye, local distilleries (and athletic apparel CEOs) are getting in on the game, and “Maryland-style rye” has been resurrected as a spirits category all its own.

“It’s gone crazy recently,” says Michael Leeds, owner of Barfly’s in Riverside, which has the city’s largest whiskey selection (with 98 bottles of rye alone). “It never used to be a big thing in cocktails, but now a lot of people are asking for rye specifically.”

Bar managers are also seeing a change in who is doing the drinking.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that the younger kids are drinking it now,” Leeds says. “Manhattans and bourbons in general were something your dad drank.”

Similarly, Loch Bar, which currently has about 450 whiskies on hand, has seen a huge boom in requests for rye. The bar even has a Maryland Free State flight with four 1-ounce rye pours for $30.

“You get all these rich, oaky flavors of vanilla and it has more of a spicy bite to it than a bourbon,” says Eric Smith, managing partner at Atlas Restaurant Group and head of the beverage program at Loch Bar. “It’s a great way to change it up in the colder months.”

While weather is one factor, many agree, it’s the emphasis on local that has helped the trend take off.

“People are drawn to it because of its rich Maryland history,” Smith says. “Wars and Prohibition caused it to recede. But, just like our city continues to fight back, rye is doing the same thing.”

Tasting Notes

Sagamore Spirit Rye American Whiskey
Sagamore Spirit, founded by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, is getting into the rye whiskey game, with its version
blending two mash bills—a high rye and a low rye. The result is a sweeter, smoother rye whiskey.

Lyon Distilling Free State Rye
This St. Michaels distillery might be better known for its rum production, but its rye whiskey is noteworthy. The 100-proof Maryland Free State Rye is aged in oak barrels for less than a year, resulting in a spicy flavor with hints of vanilla.

New Liberty Distilling Melvale Straight Rye
Inspired by the Melvale Distillery, which opened on Cold Spring Lane in the 1880s, Philadelphia-based New Liberty Distillery re-created the recipe. The 90-proof rye is sweet (honey, vanilla) and spicy (cinnamon, pepper).

One Eight Distilling Rock Creek Rye
Washington, D.C.-based One Eight Distilling just released the first grain-to-glass rye to be bottled in the District since Prohibition. Using local rye and corn and a copper pot still, the distillery’s 94-proof rye has a nutty finish and is ideal in cocktails.