Revolution (-lu’shun), n. the act of revolving; rotation; change or alteration of system; motion of a point or line about a center; recurrence.
In 1634 the land that was to become the state of Maryland was beginning to be inhabited by people from Europe. They had a dream for a better life, they came, they settled, and soon after they made whiskey. Whiskey was made here for hundreds of years, the best in the world at times, up until the 1970s when the last whiskey distillery stopped distilling and left the state. Since that time Maryland has not produced a legal drop of whiskey, until now.
I grasped the handle and gave the door a sideways tug to slide it open and it and it barely moved an inch. Repositioning my foot and leaning into it I tried again and this time gave it a solid heave to the right and the heavy door surged open. Entering out of the rain into the front room I was struck by that warm and familiar aroma of yeast and grain undulating together somewhere in this building; an uncontrollable smile came to me with a flash of memories of the other distilleries where I’ve smelled the mash before.
In the center of the room and in motion towards me, either to assist with the door or perhaps to intercept me thinking that I was a customer entering before they were officially opened that morning was Ben Lyon. A giant of a man with a warm smile, he greeted me as if he knew me. From the other side of the room behind the tasting bar, Jaime greeted me with an enthusiasm that was immediately contagious.
I generally try to cool my excitement going in to visit a new distillery. Usually I’m met with earnest craftsmen that, although eager to share their craft with me, no longer wear the giddy excitement they once had of making whiskey on their sleeve and I’m cautious not to present myself a novice in my vocation by letting on just how excited I am to smell the mash and see the process of creating whiskey.
Entering Lyon Distilling Company was different from that. The three smiles in the room, Ben’s, Jaime’s, and mine all seemed to express in unity the same notion; “I can’t believe that I get to do this!” Ben and Jaime were excited that I was there and it was apparent that they were even more excited that they were there. I had been swallowing for days the emotion of what I was expecting to experience this morning and it was now surfacing.
Greetings made, Ben asked if I wanted to taste the rye, or would I like to taste the rum first and then the rye, or that I would probably want to just taste the rye first and then everything else, or however I wanted to do it, it was up to me. I assured him that I definitely wanted to taste the rye but first I wanted to take a look around if that was okay. I wanted to put a face and a story and a pedigree to the whiskey that I was about to taste. I wanted to get to know it and make the experience last a bit… I was stalling.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to react that morning and I had intentionally not thought much about it on the three hour drive down to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Now that I was there I was starting to get butterflies in my stomach faced with what was about to happen.
I’ve been a whiskey enthusiast for over a decade. This hobby of mine, that I’m so passionate about, the history, the heritage, and the heraldry of local whiskey, is coming alive before me in recent years as everyone seems to be finding an interest in it. That I am able to share the enthusiasm that I have had for years with others for the benefit of all involved is wonderful and exciting to me.
I have always loved the local history of whiskey and the history of Maryland and I was delighted when I learned and realized that my Maryland was once the cradle of American whiskey. That this state, along with our distilling brothers in Pennsylvania, once made the best whiskey in the world. When I was young in my hobby of enjoying fine whiskey and loved only scotch I dreamt of the time that I could visit Scotland, the Mecca of whisky.
Then upon growing a love for American whiskey, I learned that I LIVE in the ancient Mecca of American whiskey. All around me were the ruins of the great American rye. Great American whiskeys like Sherwood, Pimlico, Horsey, and Pikesville were made only miles from my house. I no longer dreamed of traveling across the ocean to visit the home of the great Scotch whiskies but rather longed to travel back in time to this very place to see the wares of the great pre-prohibition Maryland rye.
Sipping from a cheap bottle of Pikesville Supreme, now made in Kentucky, I dreamt of one day being invited to taste from a dusty old bottle of Pikesville Maryland Rye discovered in someone’s basement; a bottle that was made here in Maryland back before the distillery closed up and sold the recipe to Haven Hill in Kentucky. In my dream I would finally know what real Maryland whiskey tasted like.
In reality though, I never thought that I would ever taste a true Maryland whiskey; I never really thought it would happen. I thought that I would have to be content drinking Kentucky Pikesville Supreme, and continue dreaming of one day sipping from a bottle of young Maryland whiskey with melancholy reserve.
Then I received the first reports that there was to be a new distillery opening shop in Maryland. The name was Lyon Distilling Company in Saint Michaels, Maryland and there had been rumors that they were going to begin to produce rum just as Marylanders did in the Colonial days when the trade triangle moved tobacco, molasses, and humans in a constant motion. But the rumors also had it, or perhaps it was just my yearning imagination, that this new distillery would evolve, as did the colonial distilleries during the American Revolutionary War and begin to produce Whiskey.
I waited and wished and continued to dream. Part of me thought it only a matter of time, but another part truly would not believe that soon I would experience a historic repetition, or resurgences, or…revolution; yes, a whiskey revolution here in Maryland! I won’t forget the message I received one morning stating that Maryland whiskey was again alive. It had been a part of my family for well over two hundred years and with a slight break of two score it was back; Maryland Rye Whiskey was flowing again.
Marylanders don’t get it. Whiskey drinkers don’t really get it. But history buffs, especially whiskey drinking history buffs get it! This is a big deal! With little notoriety or fanfare an American industry has reaffirmed itself in the form of a two person operation as it began to trickle off the first hearts of a dismissed heritage and I was invited to experience it firsthand.Ben showed me down the corridor to the distillery room. I have been to so many small-batch, craft distilleries but this is the smallest operation with the smallest stills that I have seen. The building is plenty large and with character to spare but the actual operation of distilling the rum and whiskey is not a micro distillery, but a nano-distillery. Ben made mention that he never wants to grow beyond the point that he can have his hands on every aspect of the production and he is certainly achieving that. This is truly small-batch.
Everything from grinding to putting the label on the bottles takes place in one room, the entirety of the operation. Here, in stainless steel barrels lined up, were grain and water and yeast churning in constant motion. There were barrels of corn mash and barley mash, and in a homemade wood framed and tyvek covered warming cabinet was batch number two of Maryland Rye.
I looked around at every aspect of the production and finally realized it was time to take a taste from batch number one. We walked back to the front to where I was to receive a sample of barrel number zero-zero-one of Maryland Rye Whiskey. The little cask was produced from behind the counter. The bung was removed and the slender glass tube of the whiskey thief was inserted and a sample was collected to be transferred to my glass. The liquid was mostly clear with just the slightest amber-grey tint from the six days that it had been resting with the charred wood.
Ben let the liquid slide down the tube into my glass and said I hope you like it or something like that, I can’t really remember what he said to be honest; I had before me a glass of Maryland Whiskey for the first time in my life and everything else in the room became a blur as I focused on the glass.
As I leveled the glass to my nose for a sniff my eyes refocused on Ben watching me with a smile of anticipation from across the counter. I took a sniff and smelled the corn in the mash bill. There are many rye whiskies on the market these days and many of them are 95% rye and in some cases 100% modeling themselves after the Monongahela style of whiskey from western Pennsylvania. But the Maryland whiskey was known to have a little more corn in the mix and some barley too. This combination of grains was what led to the smooth and yet dynamic taste and the quintessential Maryland style. This whiskey was 55% rye, 35% corn and 10% malted barley.
I was standing at the counter in the front tasting room and there were some other customers there by this time ready to taste some of the rums and perhaps buy a bottle or two. Jaime was pouring samples at the other end of the counter and Ben was standing in front of me waiting for me to sip and make an assessment of his whiskey.
Just then Ben was called over by Jaime to assist or to answer a question for one of the customers and I used this opportunity to escape the pressure of being watched in my tasting and carried my glass to an ornate metal chair off to the side of the room where I could continue my experience, if not in private, at least with a little more stand-off than across the counter.
I continued to nose the glass. I could smell the alcohol of a new distillate and the sweet corn. The smell of green corn silk was out in front along with the slight mellow hue of the char from the very short time this liquid spent in the barrel. I continued to smell. It didn’t smell overly sweet and I was very glad of this. Many of the other craft rye distillers seem to be trying to create a smooth and sweet distillate these days. Sweet tasting whiskey is nice but the sweeter tasting whiskeys don’t benefit as well from longer times in a barrel and therefore lose the ability to be aged long enough to reach a whiskey’s full potential that can only be achieved with a longer time in wood.
I put my nose to the glass and inhaled the aroma deeply and continued to tip the glass back to take a sip in one smooth motion. I chewed the whiskey as I do when I analyze any whiskey but I couldn’t get my mind to focus on the taste profile of what was in my mouth. The only thought that was racing around in my head was that I was drinking Maryland Rye Whiskey! For years I’ve been dreaming of this day. I reveled in the moment with still no focus on the flavors.
Finally, I needed to refocus. I had to taste this whiskey. I was invited here this morning before the distillery opened to taste this historic drink straight from the barrel and it was expected that I would at least be able to share with others how it tasted. I needed to glean as much as I could from a tiny sample and not simply drink it away in misty emotion of the moment. I composed myself and began again from the beginning. I again raised the glass to my nose to smell.
With regained attention on the whiskey that was finishing on my palate and another smell from the glass the colors became vivid. The whiskey that was sweet green corn to my nose shared tones of toasted rye on my tongue. The mellow barley was present. The corn now had a suggestion of dark brown King Syrup but the slight sweetness did not overtake the tang and spice of the young rye that was dancing on my tongue. What’s best is that this whiskey was dynamic and evolving, even with this first glass.
Usually with young whiskeys the flavor is monophonic and what is there presents together in two dimensions with no distinction between the individual attributes. This whiskey was dynamic with depth in dimension, there were spaces between the colors of the flavors to move and explore them individually. Very rarely is this found in young whiskeys and this had it, it was three dimensional.
By now my glass was empty and I continued to nose from residual drops in the bottom. Ben, freeing himself from his customers asked if I would like another taste. There was only one answer to that question and this time Ben drew a sample from the bottom of the cask as it rested on its side and I could see more of a smoked-grey color from the charcoal sediment that settled there. I felt like I had to offer some reaction to Ben’s whiskey as he poured my second glass but I hadn’t yet shuffled all of my thoughts of it into an articulate deck that could be translated into a simple “this is really good” or such. What I said instead was “Thank you for not making this whiskey too sweet.” I don’t think it was the reaction he was expecting but it was an honest complement from me.
I added a little water to this sample and a twinge of smoke from the burned wood in the barrel came out in the flavor. With water the flavors continued to evolve, there was a little bit of tire rubber and a nice, slight bitter nuance.
In and amidst all of the excitement that I was having with this historic moment I had to ask myself “Would the average fine whiskey drinker want to drink this”? I think this first batch is just slightly out of reach for most whiskey enthusiasts. The dynamics are there, the flavors are there, but there is just something that I can’t quite put my finger on with this whiskey that leaves me slightly off balance. I have to remind myself that this is barrel 001 and no one can expect to produce Macallan Lalique on their first run, and that this whiskey is only 6 days old. Perhaps some wood aging can bring all of this together, and I have yet another visit planed.
So three and a half months later I return to Lyon Distilling Company to taste again. This time my sample is poured from a bottle containing the same distillate that I had tasted before but that spent another eleven weeks in the barrel. The color was dark and rich. The relatively short duration, amplified by the small barrel size, really left a mark on this spirit. All of the flavor colors from the previous taste were present but now tinted with hues from the charred oak. The quintessential vanilla from the American oak was slightly acidic with tannins but some of the other flavors had begun to round and mellow.
This batch 001, produced as a small prototype could not bare any more time in such a small cask and well it was that they were separated. With such a proportionally large amount of surface contact between the liquid and wood the affect happens quickly; but it’s not exactly aging. The subtle and immensely important exchanges that happen over greater periods of time must occur with less wood-to-whiskey contact. Simply put, this spirit has to be aged longer in a bigger barrel.
What’s wonderful is that this whiskey has all of the attributes necessary to become a great whiskey with the appropriate aging. This rye just needs more time and I am confident it will mature well with it. I asked Ben how old he thinks a Maryland whiskey should be and he indicated around two and a half years. I think this whiskey will be wonderful in two and a half years. And what’s more, will continue to bloom in the barrel, if patience can burden it, for years beyond. And again, I have to remind myself that this is still run number one! No one should expect the first run to be exceptional. And yet I’m still impressed.
Three months again later I receive another call that the unaged Free State Rye is bottled and ready for VIP distribution. This is run number three, Jaime relates to me on a cold windy Maryland afternoon as she delivers my bottle. She adds that Ben likes this run the best. The bottle is signed “For Whiskey America- History in the making for you to taste!” (A play on Whiskey America’s tag line, History You can Taste). And this certainly was not lost on me; this is history in the making. I expect that in the future there may be many new and great Maryland whiskeys but right now, there is one; and I’m holding bottle number 19!
At home the following night I prepare to open the bottle, but first I snap some pictures. I choose the glass, readjust the lighting and readjust the exposure settings on the camera and take some more pictures. I was, once again… stalling.After all these years, I’m staring at the first bottle of Maryland Whiskey that I have ever owned. I felt like there should be something more to the experience then just opening the bottle. Like there should be some kind of opening ceremony. I decided not to use my regular snifters but rather use my Madison Avenue glasses with the silver band around the top for this special occasion. It is at this point that I even consider lighting a candle to emphasize the gravity of opening my first bottle of Maryland Whiskey. (I need to just crack this bottle and drink it already!) And so I do.
I pour the first tipple into the Madison Ave glass and give it a smell. Once again I get the corn and the same color spectrum as before. Then I add some water and something interesting happens. I smell some creamy caramel, which is interesting in that usually this is associated with wood aging. I spend some time nosing the glass and finally go in for a taste.
Wow! What an unexpected surprise. There is a toasted nuttiness that was not at all present in the nose or in any of the previous samples. I attempt to pigeon-hole the flavor: almond, toasted English walnut. I can’t pin it down other than that it is a sweet toasted barley flavor that presents separately from and along side of the sweet green corn. I pause to examine the finish and find the fading flavors shift to a dry corn husk and finally leave me with a mouth drying effect that beckons for another sip. Ben is right, this is a great run.
It is at this point that I begin to play with the water a bit. I try a sample neat, and then add water, then more water. Then finishing the glass that I’m tasting I try the next glass neat again. I begin to realize that the water plays a huge role in the flavor of this spirit and as I drizzle the spring water into this whiskey I am reminded that I’m drinking from the trickling headwaters of a spring that has been dry for over forty years.
So now, months later, I send out the notice to the panel, the Zulu Whisky Club. The group is assembled, dinner is served and we retreat into my whiskey room. There before the group are the glasses and the bottle. The significance is not lost on these men. This group has been assembling in the name of fine whiskey for almost ten years. Headquartered in Maryland, the Zulu Whisky Club has focused on Scotch single malts for most of it lineage, but like me, always waxed poetic on the thoughts of the eastern U.S. regaining the throne.
I begin by reminding everyone of Maryland’s significance in the history of American whiskey. My approach is immediately challenged by the Pennsylvania contingent in the group; that it was not Maryland alone which created the American Rye but Pennsylvania too. In fact it was not a north / south division between these two states but rather an east /west geographical difference. Eastern Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, eastern Virginia, and eastern Pennsylvania were in fact the terroir of this whiskey. Correction noted, the glasses were charged.
My excitement with this new Maryland whiskey is well met by my contemporaries, even those present from north of the Mason Dixon. We all momentarily reflect on this moment of drinking Maryland rye whiskey.
Glasses tip and comments fire crisscross between them. No one pair of ears could follow the mass dialog but only pick up sound bites in the din of historical recounts and mash-bill ponderings, yeast type speculations and flavor profile opinions and the change of the same with the addition of water. I leaned back sipping and basked in the cacophony and patted myself on the back for bringing this experience to the Zulu Whisky Club as we spend time drinking.
Glasses were discharged and refilled and re-swirled. Then the obvious questions were tabled of when will this unaged rye be available to the public and when will we taste it aged?
To the former I answer “I don’t know.” I had asked Ben and Jaime the same question and all I got in response was “Not yet.” To the latter question I rise beaming and walk to my desk to retrieve two small sample bottles containing a brown liquid that Jaime and Ben had supplied specifically for this group on this occasion. The Glencairns were sucked of their final drops of unaged spirit and eagerly produced for a sample of Maryland Free State Rye, aged.
This close room filled with the aroma of vanilla oak and caramel as this whiskey was swirled. Glorious accolades and envy I received to be holding these little brown bottles and praise and thanks for sharing them.
It was now a year later from when I first communicated with Lyon Distilling Company about their aspirations to one day make a Maryland Rye, and here I am drinking it with my friends. In this past year there have been several other distilleries in Maryland that have entered into the revolution to bring back the great American rye. I reflect back to the time when I didn’t think it ever possible to see whiskey again produced in the Free State as my friends drink their rye and discuss what would be the best rout to be able to visit all of the whiskey producers now in Maryland and would it take one day or two to get around to see them all.
Things are cyclical, styles come and go and culture evolves only to find interests again in forgone eras. New things don’t always appear and become the mainstay because they are the better idea just as things that become passé are not always bad. Maryland rye whiskey is one example, it was never bad and there are a dozen separate reasons that all contributed to its retirement. Now it’s coming around again like a rocket using the gravity of the moon to accelerate itself back to its point of origin. Maryland rye is gaining velocity as it circles 180. It’s coming around, revolving, back to us at full speed, and what a revolution!