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Distillers revive old favourite Maryland rye whiskey but have no clue about its origins
HL Mencken, the Jazz Age scribe who loved Baltimore and booze in equal measure, spared no opportunity to praise his state's famous rye whiskey.
It was, he said, "the most healthful appetiser yet discovered by man". The Mencken family doctor, he added, apparently approved.
Maryland was once a whiskey distilling powerhouse, surpassed among the states only by Kentucky and Pennsylvania. It produced 5.6 million gallons in 1911, its pre-Prohibition high point - most of it rye, supposedly made in a distinctive style that was readily recognised from the Midwest to Manhattan. But the distilleries, and the style, disappeared after World War II and the consolidation of the whiskey industry in Kentucky.
Now, with rye sales growing at double-digit rates, a new generation of distillers sees an opportunity to put Maryland whiskey back on the map. At least a dozen distilleries have opened in the state over the last five years.
Several more outside Maryland, as far away as Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minnesota, are making what they call Maryland-style rye.
"I want to get it back to what it once was," said Brian Treacy, the president of the Sagamore Spirit Distillery, which opened in 2017 along a post-industrial stretch of Baltimore dockland. "It was a regional style then, and it can be a regional style again." There is just one problem: For all its fame and praise, no one quite knows what "Maryland style" meant. Most distillers back before Prohibition did not keep recipes, or document how they made their whiskey. Newspaper accounts differ widely; even Mencken left few clues about his beloved drink.
It is one of the great mysteries of the industrial age in America: How could a product so widely appreciated disappear so completely?
"It's a fascinating question, and it's generating a fascinating debate," said Teresa DeFlitch, who studies the history of American distilling at Wigle Whiskey, in Pittsburgh.
That debate is about more than just stylistic accuracy. As distillers dig through America's whiskey legacy for inspiration, what does it mean to recreate a "historic" style? And do they risk imposing contemporary ideas and categories on a past that might have seen things quite differently?
There's no doubt that something called Maryland rye existed at some point. The state was once flush with distilleries - in 1911 there were 44, half of them in central Baltimore - and advertisements from the late 19th century promote the drink as a more refined alternative to its rougher cousins from Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
One ad, for a brand called Maryland Club, appeared in a leather-bound datebook recovered from the Titanic.
Some of that promotion was just marketing. But many distillers and historians today agree that Maryland rye did have a different flavour profile - sweeter than the rye made farther west, with less spice and a supple, perhaps buttery palate.
That, however, is where the agreement ends and the guesswork begins. What, for starters, gave Maryland rye that special sweetness?
According to Jaime Windon, a founder of Lyon Distilling, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and the president of the Maryland Distillers Guild, the state's whiskey-makers mixed their rye grain with a high percentage of corn, which lends sweetness to balance the rye's spiciness.
The distillers at Sagamore agree. They make two batches of whiskey, one almost entirely with rye grain and the other with just 52 per cent rye - the rest being mostly corn - which they then blend together. "Doing so allows us some flexibility, and it gives us that sweet roundedness Maryland rye was known for," Mr Treacy said.
But Ned Wight, who owns New England Distilling and whose great-great-great-grandfather ran one of the largest distilleries in Maryland, says his family's whiskey had no use for corn. (Though based in Portland, Maine, his company makes its own Maryland-style rye, called Gunpowder.) "Generally, old Maryland ryes were made with rye and malted barley," Mr Wight said.
The sweetness might have come from using a brewer's yeast to ferment the grain, which produces lighter, more floral notes than a traditional distiller's yeast, he said.
Mike Veach, a whiskey historian in Kentucky, said many of the Maryland distilleries before 1906 were actually rectifiers - plants that bought unaged whiskey from elsewhere, then redistilled it, or aged it, or added something to it to make a final product they could legally call whiskey.
That doesn't mean that Maryland rye was necessarily dangerous or low quality, said John Lipman, another whiskey historian who has done extensive research on Maryland rye; it just wasn't the unadulterated whiskey we expect today. "Real Maryland rye was a manufactured beverage, like Benedictine," he said.
While distillery record-keeping improved only marginally in the early 20th century, it seems likely that after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and certainly after Prohibition, Maryland rye lost much of its unusual character.
Some sceptics even question whether Maryland rye had anything to distinguish it - apart from where it was made - and apart from some clever marketing.
Sam Komlenic, a whiskey historian in Pennsylvania, believes that Maryland rye whiskey varied too much over time, and that the state's distilleries traded too much product with Pennsylvania distilleries, to allow a clear difference in styles.
"I would like to hope that Maryland rye was as distinctive as people want it to be, but I worry it wasn't," he said. NYTIMES