The State of Maryland has a long history of distilling. In fact, many early Kentucky distillers started distilling in Maryland. The most prominent family that came from Maryland were the Medley family, who came from Medley Bend on the Potomac River in Maryland. There was a large migration of Maryland Catholics to Kentucky in the early 19th century where they settled in the Bardstown area.
Early Maryland distillers were making rye whiskey. They could also have been making a Bourbon, but they became famous for their rye whiskey. The rye whiskey probably had corn in the mash bill and that made it taste different from the Pennsylvania rye being made in the Monongahela River valley that was made completely of rye and malted barley.
After the American Civil War, Maryland distillers started flavoring their Rye whiskey with flavoring agents such as sherry and port wines, caramelized sugar, prune or cherry juice, and other ingredients. They may have also been aging their whiskey in used sherry and port wine barrels. It was a highly rectified whiskey, but a popular style of whiskey. There were several prominent distilleries such as the Melrose Distillery, Baltimore Distilling Company, Carrol Springs Distilling Company, and the Melvale Distilling Company producing these rye whiskeys.
This all changed in the early 20th century with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The “What is whiskey?” question caused the consumer to call for straight whiskey. With the Taft Decision of 1909, it became required to label blended whiskeys as blended whiskey. This caused many Maryland rye producers to switch their production to straight rye whiskey. To differentiate their whiskeys, the Maryland producers started using more corn in their mash bill to sweeten the rye whiskey. Still, many distilleries continued to make their traditional whiskey as a blended whiskey.
Prohibition hit the Maryland distilleries hard. Most of the distilleries went out of business. Their brands were often sold to other companies such as National and Schenley. Those that survived Prohibition tried to come back, but faced the same problems all distilleries faced at the time – The Great Depression and competition from imported, aged whiskey. World War Two put the final nail in the coffin for many of the remaining Maryland distilleries, forcing them out of business. Maryland Rye was slowly disappearing from the market.
The 21st century has seen a return of Maryland Rye. The growth in American whiskey and the artisan distilleries that came with that growth has brought back Maryland rye whiskey. The new Maryland rye is being defined as a high corn mash bill rye whiskey. The trend to finish whiskey in used wine barrels is also making it possible for Maryland distilleries to create a rye whiskey similar to the 19th century Maryland rye. The future of this style of whiskey is promising.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller