For connoisseurs of Maryland rye whiskey, it has been a more than 40-year drought since it was distilled in the state. But that all ended last week with the news that Lyon Distilling Co. in St. Michaels will introduce its Maryland Free State Rye Whiskey.
During rye whiskey’s L’Age d’Or, such legendary Maryland rye whiskeys as Wight’s Sherbrook, Old Reserve, Ryebrook, Melvale, Sherwood Pure Rye, Baltimore Pure Rye, Hunter’s, K & L and Pikesville resonated with drinkers across the country.
Small distilleries spread across Maryland during the 19th century but a high whiskey tax made production unprofitable during the Civil War. Once the war was over, rye whiskey began flowing again.
With the passage of the 18th Amendment Volstead in 1920, which outlawed production or sale of alcohol, rye production ground to a halt.
As soon as the repeal went into effect in 1933, Maryland distilleries were busy trying the meet the national demand of rye. And by 1936, the state led the nation in rye production with 14 million gallons of the smooth elixir.
At the end of World War II, rye whiskey’s days were numbered, as drinkers’ tastes changed and they moved onto bourbon, vodka, gin, Canadian blends and scotch.
Finally, by 1982, there was only one company distilling rye in the state and that was Standard Distillers Products Inc., which bottled Pikesville, K & L and a bonded 100-proof Pikesville at its now-demolished Lombard and Commerce streets facility.
Andrew W. Merle Jr., who had been president of the company for more than 20 years, laid down his last order of rye in 1973, and with wine, gin and rum further eroding the public’s taste for rye, decided to sell the Pikesville formula in 1982 to Heaven Hill-Evan Williams Inc. in Bardstown, Ky.
Under federal law, whiskey called Maryland rye must be distilled in the state.
Maryland Free State, which is produced in limited batches and is a “raw white spirit,” according to a press release, is only available at its St. Michaels distillery. Lightly aged versions that are now resting in oak barrels will be released in several months.