Rye whiskey is back, baby!

City Paper

Rye whiskey is back, baby. Well, duh. You’d have to be living under bridge in Pyongyang to be unaware of this bar-rail revival. All the drinks mags tout its glory and the whiskey’s resurgence loomed large in my January cover story on local craft distilling. But now I can quantify the comeback. How much has demand for Maryland’s erstwhile native spirit grown over the last decade? Answer: eightfold.

Back in 2004, Bardstown’s Heaven Hill Distilleries—makers of Pikesville and Rittenhouse brands of rye—distilled all the rye they needed for the year on a single day. Or so CP contributor (and imbiber-about-town) Jim Burger learned when he spoke with Larry Kass at the distillery for a Baltimore Style piece on Pikesville. And now? Kass, the Hill’s director of trade relations, says they make rye eight days a year. (He also admitted that Pikesville and Rittenhouse are essentially the same juice, just offered at different ages and proofs.) That’s a trickle against a tsunami of bourbon, but rye is clearly off the endangered-species list.

“When rye got really hot six or seven years ago we got blindsided and most of our stocks were depleted,” Kass says. One response to the crunch: Pikesville’s aging was reduced from four years to three. This is a far cry from the 1980s, when demand was so low and barrels so plentiful, the distillers were bottling 10, 12, even 14-year-old Pikesville without bothering to reprint labels or change the price, or so veteran liquor wholesaler and distiller, Henry Wright, told me.

With rick houses filled with rye again, Kass says they will roll out a new, 6-year-old version of Pikesville this summer. Sadly (and bafflingly), this double-aged rye—originally made in Baltimore and named after our small town-cum-suburb—will debut in New York City for $49.99 a bottle. He assures me that Maryland remains a “priority market” and our allotment of premium Pikesville should arrive by fall.

While we wait for this new-old whiskey, I decided to test-drive the rye shelf’s current offerings via a quickie tasting at Blue Pit BBQ and Whiskey Bar, the “whiskey open” joint. Not unlike my earlier Blue Pit-hosted bourbon tasting, this was a blind tasting with scoring from 1 to 5. The lineup was Pikesville, Old Overholt, Rittenhouse 100, Russell’s Reserve, Bulleit, Cody Road, and High West Double Rye. Tasters were my bro Brian, manager Alec Franklin, sous chef Joseph Conrad, bartender Josh Sullivan (a founder of the Baltimore American Whiskey Club, which chronicles far more serious tastings at postprohibition.com), and me.

High West won the day with average score of 4. This $30-buck-a bottle offering is a happy marriage of a brash 2-year-old rye and a mellow 16-year-old. The loser was Cody Road, an underage product of an Iowa craft distiller that earned an anemic average of 2 for being “thin” and mere “moonshine.” Rittenhouse came in second at 3.6, with Bulleit close on its heels at 3.5. The biggest surprise? Pit co-owner David Newman pulled one over on us, secretly subbing out cheap-o Overholt for spendy, 18-year-old Sazerac rye. Thing is, we only rated it a 3.1. I gave its “cherry” taste and rich mouthfeel a 4, but for most, an overt sweetness trumped any rye bite.

Russell’s earned only a 2.5—surprisingly low for a 6-year-old, but we all found it weak in both color and taste. And Pikesville? It came in at an underwhelming 2.7, though opinions were quite mixed on it, which was the cheapest bottle tasted. Franklin and Conrad both gave it a 4, praising its “citrus” qualities and drinkability.

We will have to see what three more years in wood will do to this locally beloved brand. Meanwhile, dig around in your basement or back corner of the drinks cabinet for any overlooked old Pikesville bottles. Give me a shout if you find one dating from the 1980s.

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