A historic bung was pulled at the end of February in Baltimore. That’s when the Baltimore Whiskey Company’s first 53-gallon barrels of rye turned two years old and the distillery began bottling Baltimore Epoch Straight Rye Whiskey at their facility in the city’s Remington neighborhood. Rye has to be the majority grain in rye whiskey, of course, but here they also blend in malted rye, which adds tropical fruit notes. Early tastings have been promising.
What’s the big deal? Rye was the country’s fastest growing spirit category last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, and distillers from Florida to Alaska are now busily making bourbon’s spicier cousin. Ah, but in Charm City they make Maryland rye whiskey, and that was once a thing. A big thing.
Kentucky and Tennessee have been brown-liquor giants for so long it’s easy to forget Maryland’s bygone days as a bustling distiller—once ranking third for spirit production. Early farmers found that rye grew more readily in the state’s rocky soil than corn or barley. For much of the nineteenth century, dozens of whiskey makers from Baltimore to Cumberland churned out widely celebrated ryes—Hunter, Old Horsey, Roxbury, Monticello, and Melvaleistilling returned to Maryland after Prohibition, but the state’s punchier products began to lose favor as consumer preferences shifted toward sweeter-flavored bourbon, lighter-flavored Canadian blends, and zero-flavored vodka. The industry gave up the ghost in 1972 when Baltimore’s Majestic Distilling barreled their last batch of Pikesville Rye. (Though named for a Maryland town, the brand is now made in Kentucky.)
Jump ahead to the current craft era, and Marylanders returning rye to its proper place include Lyon Distilling, Twin Valley Distillers, and Fiore Winery and Distillery. Most are small outfits, with the outlier being Sagamore Spirit, which opened on the Baltimore waterfront last year. Here, a gleaming rye-only distillery rambles across a five-acre campus, replete with 40-foot column still. It’s a side project of Kevin Plank, the former University of Maryland footballer who founded Under Armour sports apparel. Sagamore Spirit is a mix of two different rye whiskeys: one that’s almost all rye, one made with a good bit of corn and malted barley. (Give it a try in Sagamore’s Black-Eyed Rye, their take on a Black-Eyed Susan, the official drink of one of the state’s biggest sporting events—the Preakness Stakes, held each May at Pimlico.)
“We wanted some of that rye complexity, but we also wanted to have some sweetness and easy drinkability,” says Sagamore Spirit president Brain Treacy. “Maryland was known for having the best quality rye and we want to live up to that.”