A New Backstory: Rekindling Maryland’s Craft

Posted on October 20, 2015 by Perez Klebahn

Beyond the brush and chain link fence is an obscured image of the remnants of a once prolific operation on Sollers Point Road in Dundalk.

A man flips through slightly varying images on his iPhone, searching for the best angle.

He then proceeds to drive to Westminster and with points out another subject with much enthusiasm. In better focus a clear view of history appears on a narrow column of brick with the word Sherwood etched into its edifaceAlthough not one drop has met a bottle at the former Sherwood Distilling Co. since the 1950’s what’s left of the plant has been refurbished into a long established family oriented Italian restaurant.

The courtyard acts as a headstone to Maryland’s once prominent distilling age. This historical joyriding is hedonism to the likes of Doug Atwell, craft barman and managing partner of Fells Point cocktail haunt Rye.

Most casual drinkers and day-trippers wouldn’t give that history a second thought, less fill their phone with such data. But a faint pulse emanating from their bar menu and off the liquor store shelves gives this backstory a little more relevance. A new generation of distillers has emerged onto the local market, doing so with a bit of history in tow.

A new generation of distillers has emerged onto the local market, doing so with a bit of history in tow.

Maryland Rye dates back to colonialism. It held the esteem of the young tippling nation and was its signature spirit. “Between 1865 and 1917… Maryland Rye commanded national respect. To a legion of fanciers Maryland Rye was on par with whatever might be nominated as the ne plus ultra of American whiskey,” as written by James H. Bready published by the Maryland Historical Society in 1990 almost ten years after distillation left Maryland. It was perhaps amidst a perfect storm that sent the Maryland distilling industry fleeing. What emerged out of prohibition was massive rye whiskey production. Enormous productions initially aimed to meet the demand of repressed imbibers then contracted to fortify grain and alcohol for the wartime military.

Foreign tastes opened new doors for tipplers and Maryland’s distilling industry, which was largely on the shoulders of rye whiskey production, fell out of fashion to blended whiskey, Scotch and gin. “I use the phrase ‘proofed out of existence’ when describing the situation” says Atwell, who recently spoke at “Tales of the Cocktail” in New Orleans on the history of the once landmark Maryland Rye industry. He notes the size of the operations post prohibition, fierce competition and the shift in consumer palate as detrimental factors. Monticello,

It was perhaps amidst a perfect storm that sent the Maryland distilling industry fleeing. What emerged out of prohibition was massive rye whiskey production.

Enormous productions initially aimed to meet the demand of repressed imbibers then contracted to fortify grain and alcohol for the wartime military. Foreign tastes opened new doors for tipplers and Maryland’s distilling industry, which was largely on the shoulders of rye whiskey production, fell out of fashion to blended whiskey, Scotch and gin. “I use the phrase ‘proofed out of existence’ when describing the situation” says Atwell, who recently spoke at “Tales of the Cocktail” in New Orleans on the history of the once landmark Maryland Rye industry. He notes the size of the operations post prohibition, fierce competition and the shift in consumer palate as detrimental factors. Monticello,

What emerged out of prohibition was massive rye whiskey production. Enormous productions initially aimed to meet the demand of repressed imbibers then contracted to fortify grain and alcohol for the wartime military. Foreign tastes opened new doors for tipplers and Maryland’s distilling industry, which was largely on the shoulders of rye whiskey production, fell out of fashion to blended whiskey, Scotch and gin.

“I use the phrase ‘proofed out of existence’ when describing the situation” says Atwell, who recently spoke at “Tales of the Cocktail” in New Orleans on the history of the once landmark Maryland Rye industry. He notes the size of the operations post prohibition, fierce competition and the shift in consumer palate as detrimental factors.

Monticello, Mellrose, Roxbury, Wight Sherbrook, Sherwood, Pikesville, Ryebrook; labels that were ubiquitous once, are the mastodons of mostly forgotten eras of Maryland distilling, through pre-prohibition, post prohibition, post WW2, then out of vogue and bought up by the operations in the Midwest. Standard Distillery Inc. barreled its last batch of Pikesville Rye in early 1970 and by 1983 the whiskey that was once birthed on Lombard and Commerce was now a product of Kentucky.

“I don’t know really why it took so long for distilleries to emerge in the state,” remarked Chris Cook, founder of Blackwater Distilling in reference to the three decades of absent Maryland spirit production. “It may have been perceived barriers… we happened to be first but I have little doubt there would be distilleries in Maryland by now if we hadn’t been.” Blackwater Distilling, Maryland’s oldest craft distillery, was founded in 2008. “It’s a time consuming process and the state laws needed improvement.” That’s how Kevin Atticks,Executive Director of the Maryland Wineries Association, partially diagnosed the long vacancy of licensed home grown elixirs. Atticks has served as an advocate for Maryland wineries and now its breweries and distilleries. In early 2000 an emerging Maryland wine industry was met with archaic regulations that presented a series of challenges for the upstarts. Leveling their trade as an agricultural commodity was not met with fervor from local legislature.

Alcohol laws mired in temperance after prohibition left future generations of vintners, brewers and distillers with little encouragement to practice their craft. “We met with lots of banks and business leaders,” recalls Cook. “[They] said a distillery couldn’t be done. Or shouldn’t be done. There had been such a lack of advocacy in any legislative initiatives for distilleries that once we were licensed we faced the real possibility of going out of business.” There is a payable to be the first. The participants of Maryland’s burgeoning wine industry consisted of eleven operations in 2002, today there are over eighty, adding value to Maryland’s rural tourism. Racking focus now.

“There is a paradigm shift, a larger cultural movement to buy local,” notes Atticks who founded Grow & Fortify,a firm that advocates for local producers and agriculture, earlier this year.

He notes the trend from the West as does Cook. We sought to emulate folks like St. George Spirits and Distillery No. 209 and others [west coast distilleries],” explains Cook. “Seven or eight years ago they took our breath away in an epiphany moment sort of way. People feel good about supporting local business and I suspect the thought process goes something like this: ‘why should I spend money on a faceless mega-distillery owned by Diageo when I can buy some kick ass vodka, rum, or whiskey on Kent Island?”

Locavorism has proved more than a one off. And even if not blatantly exercised it’s settled into part of the middle class American psyche. “As a bartender I enjoy using local ingredients, especially locally distilled spirits,” notes Brendan Dorr, bar manager of B&O Brasserie and notable persona in Baltimore’s craft cocktail movement. “It’s a very exciting time for Baltimore and the state of Maryland as distilleries begin to emerge bringing craft spirit back to the Old Line State. I am really excited to see what some of these new young distillers produce and cannot wait until someone distills and releases a true Maryland Rye.”

This optimism for new market is why Maryland has seven distillers currently bottling and at least eleven more on the horizon. McClintock, Miscellaneous, Old Line, Lost Ark, White Tiger, Sagamore; these names represent a handful of newly licensed operations in the state.

distillerjonblairfillsbarrelwithrum Max Lents and his business partner Ian Newton, run one of the eleven new operations (and at time of this piece, working overtime to get the final push for their first bottling) describe The Baltimore Whiskey Co. as “a passion project”. “Our passion lies in the community,” says Lents.

“There are many projects we could have pursued, but the link between them all is Baltimore. We want to reflect the Baltimore community’s togetherness; it’s youth, its vibrance (sic). Our being part of the ‘craft’ movement, which has a very fluid definition, is only a reflection of our commitment to bringing Baltimore a product worthy of the name. We’re excited to help rekindle the historically rich whiskey production in Maryland, but first and foremost we’re looking forward to giving back to the city that inspired us to create, follow our passions, and, yes, drink a lot of whiskey.” Shot Tower Gin, slated for an initial production of 1000 bottles will be Baltimore Whiskey Co.’s premier bottling.

The future also holds apple brandy, and of course, rye, for the Sisson Street distillery. In this market, retail is detail, and is perhaps why singularly being labeled craft is not as captivating as the attention to the story of these operations. Harkening back to an age before prohibition, when production was local and extended to pocketed reaches, Maryland saw a prolific era. “Blackwater Distilling got started for lots of reasons: A love of history and the heritage that was pre-prohibition Maryland. The desire to start something that hadn’t been around in decades…

The interest in making products by hand that are unique and reflect who we are as a business,” says Cook. sb-132 Sloop Betty Vodka, Blackwater’s flagship distillate is produced from organic wheat., The bottle is unmistakeable for its painted WW2 pin up girl on the bottle, a nod to Cook’s grandfather. Sloop Betty Honey, the distilleries honey vodka, makes use of local raw, unpasteurized honey. Their newly launched rum, Picaroon, is distilled in their customized 500-gallon still.

Each cut is tasted and bottled by a modest team of four. Blackwater’s production manager Jon Blair and distiller, Andy Keller lament the travails of making caramel {those who’ve made it understand}. Yes, even the caramel for the golden rum is made in house by hand. These backstories are what makes Kentucky’s bourbon trail so appealing. It is the reason why we wait for our meticulous bartender to jigger out her pour. It is why we cram into restaurants for a “farm to table” affair. We want to be served and satiated for a value, but there is an appreciation for the raconteur. In the wake of Maryland’s once mammoth distilling age we have received to a new generation of craftsmen and a new backstory to Maryland distilling.

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