Sunday, June 15, 2014

Leopold Bros Maryland-Style Rye Seeks To Capture History in a Bottle.

Maryland Rye, also known as Baltimore Rye, is a style you will often see mentioned but rarely explained. According to John Lipman, it was a marketing ploy first, a distinctive regional style later. Apparently the product called 'Philadelphia Rye,' and hailing from that city, wasn't much different. That 'Maryland Rye' became recognized as a style can be demonstrated by the fact that distilleries in New York and as far west as Cincinnati and St. Louis made products identified as 'Maryland Rye.'

But what was distinctive about it, especially in comparison to other American ryes? David Wondrich, in the Summer 2014 issue of Whisky Advocate, cites the use of steam distillation in a three-chamber still made of wood, not metal. The grains were rye and barley malt, no corn. They were sweet mash fermented, not sour mash like most bourbons. He cites an 1828 study that "found significantly greater average quantities of everything they tested for--alcohol, acids, dissolved solids, fusel oils, and the all-important flavor-bearing esters and aldehydes" in Maryland Rye, compared to bourbon of the same age.

"In other words," writes Wondrich, "these were huge whiskeys, dark, rich, and chewy, and these are what Prohibition killed." (Emphasis his.)

Colorado's Leopold Bros Distillery has attempted to recreate the Maryland style as they imagine it. It isn't much like what Wondrich describes. Red, White & Bourbon, a Colorado-based whiskey blog, in a review of the Leopold's effort, writes that compared to Monongahela Rye, Maryland Rye had a "softer profile" due to a lower rye content. In those days before the Standards of Identity, Maryland distillers added "dark fruit juices to contribute a certain level of depth."

It's impossible to know if Leopold Bros hits the mark. The tiny amounts of actual Maryland Rye that remain are very late pre-Prohibition or post-Prohibition, when the style was likely corrupted by the dominant Monongahela and Kentucky styles. But what is nice about a recreated whiskey is that the maker can combine the historical clues that survive with his own imagination and skill to create a spirit that honors its antecedents while also being a distinctive and enjoyable drink in its own right.

In a 2012 post on, Todd Leopold described it like this: "It's (around) 65% rye, 15% corn, and 20% malted barley. The cocoa you picked up is actually chocolate malt (I was a brewer for 15+ years), quite literally a handful of it. The fruit you are tasting comes from acetic acid bacteria. We allow for a secondary bacterial fermentation in our cypress open fermenters which leads to esterification in the barrel. More clearly, the acetic acid that is put into the distillate by the bacteria mixes with the oxygen coming into the barrel to create fruit flavors and aromas. So those strawberry notes are from bacteria, not from yeast. The floral note is from the rye. To me, it tastes and smells very much like lavender."

Upon tasting, it is easy to imagine drinkers becoming accustomed to this style of rye whiskey and preferring it. Compared to mainstream ryes it seems thin, due to its low corn content, and has some qualities of a young malt whiskey. It's slightly hot, but in a way that grows on you. Carmel and vanilla from the oak barrel complement nicely the chocolate malt. Although it probably is fairly young, it tastes mature for what it is. You wouldn't want it to have very much more wood. As it is, it is well-balanced, appealing, and distinctively different.

If you like rye whiskey, you should give Leopold Bros Maryland-Style Rye Whiskey a try. You won't confuse it with your current favorite but you'll discover that there are other ways for rye to taste.


ezweave said...

I've engaged in almost this exact discussion a few times. I'm on the fence as to whether anyone should use the term Maryland with regards to rye. At this late date, it seems like it's all speculation.

I have trouble with the wood still story... I can't fully imagine a wood still made with pre-prohibition methods, that wouldn't corrupt the flavor of the beer/low-wine (was it a two pass distillation?) with the beginning steps of wood distillation. If you remember junior high science class, you can destructively distill wood pretty easily. Direct heat on the base of a wood still would pretty effectively hit the 450 F mark while trying to boil the alcohol.

I think the Whisky Advocate story is suspect.

Chuck Cowdery said...

While I was unfamiliar with the Maryland three-chamber wood (poplar) still, I have read about wooden stills being used in Canada. It's a tight wooden box filled with with smooth stones. The stones, heated by rising steam, function like the plates in a modern column. 'Packed' stills like this are sometimes used in ethanol production, but usually not for potable spirits.

Chuck Cowdery said...

And it's always steam, created in a boiler some distance from the still. There is no direct heat at the base of the still.

Nick said...

Chuck, is this Maryland similar to Old Potrero from Anchor Distillery?

Chuck Cowdery said...


danz said...

Demerara Distillers Limited apparently uses a wooden still for the El Dorado 12 year rum:

ezweave said...

That doesn't quite make sense, perhaps I'm missing something.

In a pot or column still, the boiler is heated and the rising vapor (the mixture of water and alcohol) enter the column (or the pot head) and if it's packed or it's a column, the vapor will circulate until it hits the condenser.

That's kind of hand wavy, but there you go.

Where do the stones go? If they are below the boiler, then they don't work like plates in a column because they never even touch the vapor. The plates in a column provide reflux for the vapor in the same way that a copper packed pot still "traps" vapor.

If the Maryland still did some type of reflux, then that would make the produced spirit pretty clean... which would explain a different taste, though sort of the opposite of the dark and chewy description.

Am I missing something?

ezweave said...

Hmmm... re-reading your comment. So the stones are then in the top box which acts like a column?

I wonder what would lead them to use wood over copper? Perhaps a materials problem?

It would have to be constructed very precisely to prevent vapor from escaping. It still doesn't sound all that feasible.

Chuck Cowdery said...

If I'm reading you correctly, you think the boiler is under the still. It isn't. It's in another room. It could be in another county. A pipe carries steam, at a steady rate and temperature, into the bottom of the box. Once there, it immediately encounters the stones, heating them. The stones near the bottom are hottest and the temperature goes down as the steam rises. Meanwhile, beer is descending from the top of the still, hitting the hot stones and boiling, stripping off the alcohol, which rises with the steam until it condenses back into a liquid in the condenser. I hope that helps.

ezweave said...

Ah, I see now. I wasn't thinking the boiler was under the still, I was referring to the boiler in a more common still (where the beer/low wine hangs out and is heated up).

The part about the beer dripping down is what I was missing. Very odd.

Thanks for the clarification. Does anyone actually do this commercially?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Substitute plates for the rocks and a steel column for the wooden box, and I've described every column still in existence.

EllenJ said...

First of all, thanks Chuck for the callout ("According to John Lipman..."). I've always been happy to be a contributor -- especially to someone from whom I first learned to explore this territory. It's good to be recognized. I wish other know historians would be so willing.

Sam Komlenic, who is often a contributor here and even more often a contributor to Whiskey Advocate, is pretty well-versed on the way the "box-o'-rocks" stills worked. They were apparently quite common in the Monongahela distilleries, and probably in the Eastern PA and Maryland distilleries as well. I, myself, was only vaguely aware of that process (which includes wooden stills) other than as used by really low-tech farmer-distillers of the "moonshine" pursuasion. Wondrich's article brings up a whole new viewpoint, considering truly commercial use of such technology.

That it existed is one thing.

That the idea (which Wondrich doesn't delve further into, but SOMEONE should) that the flavor of whiskey being distilled (i.e., condensed) in an environment made of wood could hardly NOT be affected by that. If stuffing the top of a stainless steel column still with copper mesh or old copper tubing can be considered neccesary to produce fine quality bourbon, and wood-contact (however brief) is a REQUIREMENT for making a product worthy of being called straight whiskey, then how much affect would reflux in a wooden environment change the nature of the distillate? Wow! There is SO much to learn there; far more than whether barrels need to be made from the top or the bottom of the oak tree.

As for Leopold Brothers, I have a bottle and I find it very good rye whiskey. I don't see it as particularly different from other really good small/craft rye whiskies, and certainly not very similar to original Maryland Rye. It doesn't taste as though it were made any differently than most Eastern Pennsylvania/Maryland/New York rye whiskies; to me it most closely resembles Dad's Hat (Mount Laurel Distillery, Bristol, PA), except that Dad's Hat has more complexity and depth. It's not made with a box-o'-rocks still, just a nice copper Carl -- probably similar to Leopold's. Two other craft distillers who make really good Eastern-style rye whiskey, both in central New York, are Cheryl Lin (Delaware Phoenix) and Tom McKenzie (Finger Lakes). In Ohio, we have Joe Duer producing historically-accurate Eastern-PA style rye whiskey using copper pot stills, but the whiskey does not taste like commercial Maryland rye from the early 1900's. Nothing does. Then again, none of those distillers use either wooden stills or true three-chamber stills. I would LOVE to see a distiller produce rye whiskey from such a contraption.

Meanwhile, for those who have access, I recommend Dad's Hat as the best example of true Eastern PA or Maryland rye whiskey available... so far.

Sam Komlenic said...

Early three-chambered stills were made of wood. Later versions of the three-chamber used in the post-Prohibition production of rye at major distilleries like Overholt at Broad Ford, Pa. on the Youghiogheny River were copper, just like the column stills at other U.S. distilleries.

Having read Wondrich's Whisky Advocate piece numerous times, I am in total agreement with his assessment of the four criteria he cites to distinguish "Eastern" rye (not just Maryland) from "Western" rye (Ohio, Ky., Ill., etc.) which also included steam-heated warehouses that never fell below 70 degrees in the winter.

In the 1894 Sanborn industrial survey maps of the Pennsylvania rye distilleries, not one producer used anything but the sweet mash process.

Soon one of the craft distillers (Dad's Hat, most likely) will be offering a straight "Eastern" rye for our drinking enjoyment. Look for it, and drink history.

EllenJ said...

@Sam Komlenic - Many of the "western" distillers operating in the "real wilderness" (i.e. Ohio, Illinois, Indiana near the river) used methods related more toward Eastern PA/Maryland than Monongahela. But I'm still waiting (quite anxiously, really, since this discussion and Dave Wondrich's article are bound to have some reactions from distillers) for someone to actually construct such a still.

Florin said...

Chuck, on a tangent topic: in the excellent Whisky Advocate issue on rye you and Wondrich make unequivocally opposite statements regarding pre-prohibition prevalence of rye:

Cowdery, p54: "The alternative, and America's second choice until after Prohibition, was bourbon".

Wondrich, p65: "Kentucky made more than twice the amount of whisky as Pensilvania and Maryland combined. It's a modern myth that rye was more popular than bourbon before Prohibition".

So who is right?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I'm not sure how well that question can be answered. If all one knows is how much each state produced, then that's not the answer, since all states produced both types. It's certainly undisputed that rye sales never recovered from Prohibition and by the 1990s, the remaining distilleries that made rye whiskey were all in Kentucky and only made rye one or two days a year.

EllenJ said...

Nice catch, Florin. But it's a little bit apples 'n oranges (and BTW, apples were another big liquor crop before prohibition that never came back at all, really)

"Before Prohibition" covers a lot of time, and the demographics changed during that time. As of 1881, more whiskey was coming out of Kentucky, by far, than from Pennsylvania and Maryland combined. The reference on that is the Bonfort’s Wine & Spirit Guide (via James Bready). However, at the beginning of that century, in 1810, Pennsylvania was cranking out 6.5 million gallons vs Kentucky's 2.2 million (source: Tench Coxe's "A Statement of the Arts and Manufactures of the United States of America, for the year 1810", Phila, 1814).

So it depends on just WHEN before prohibition you're thinking of. Seems to me both writers are correct. Of course, neither of these figures tell us how many gallons of RYE WHISKEY are included, and my guess (as I take a very rare sip of Old Crow Rye Whiskey bottled by H.B. Kirk & Co. from about that time period) that very little of Kentucky's production was bottled as rye whiskey (the H.B. Kirk bottling was intended exclusively for the New York/New England market).

Now, as to WHY that might have been the situation...

One possibility could be that a lot of the rye actually distilled in Kentucky was never bottled and sold as such, even before Prohibition, but certainly afterward. Just is was the case with Seagrams in Indiana, rye whiskey may have been produced in Kentucky as a flavoring ingredient for blended whiskey. Remember that, until recently, bourbon folks didn't like to talk about "that place" in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and most had little good to say about it. They also tended to play down the importance of rye whiskey in general, some very well-known Kentucky distillers proudly bragging about how little of it they made. Many are the same ones who, today, vehemently deny that they contract-distill for sale to bottlers of sourced whiskey. Believe them if you feel you should, but that WOULD explain why more rye whiskey was produced than bottled as such.

Another reason could be simply that rye is (or was, before the ethanol bubble) more costly to produce than corn whiskey, and all of the whiskey, even before Prohibition, was being produced by congomerates that had (1) bought up most of the existing brands, stock, and facilities, and (2) consolidated same into a few facilities in Kentucky where they were appreciated, rather than Pennsylvania where Repeal was barely tolerated. The folks running the distilleries were bourbon people, and not inclined to promote rye whiskey brands. Notice that when Schenley and National Distillers shut down there wasn't a scramble to grab up their brands and redistribute them as Kentucky rye... or even as bourbon brands. Beam kept Old Overholt, but not Mount Vernon or other ND brands; Heaven Hill - already distilling the juice for Rittenhouse and Pikesville - continued supporting those labels. But what about Sam Thompson? Calvert? BPR? Monticello? Guckenheimer (as rye whiskey; there is a blended whiskey under that name)? Not to mention the Schenley label itself, which must have become available eventually. Who knows? Maybe Buffalo Trace already has and is holding out until we get bored with the new Old Taylor (yes, I'm just kidding).

EllenJ said...


I just had an opportunity to taste a Maryland/Eastern-style rye whiskey I'd never tried before, and I have to tell someone, so guess what? It's you!

The brand is Gunpowder Rye.

The label hype is zero; everything stated in the back label notes is true and verified. I visited the distillery in 2012, before any of this was available. The white dog tasted good, but, Holy Moly!, who'd a thunk the aged product would be THIS good!

It is distilled, aged, and bottled by the Ned Wight at his New England Distillery in Portland ME, whose roots go directly back to both New England rum and original Maryland rye (the Wight family is a seminal member of the old Maryland rye community; see our page for more on the subject. Chuck has already listed our site, but if he doesn't mind, it's at

I have a lot of friends who make rye whiskey; good rye whiskey. I have tasted from bottles of rye whiskey dating from each of three centuries; I have tasted more rye whiskey than you probably have. This is the best young rye whiskey I've ever encountered - bar none. I talked to Ned Wight and he is holding back some barrels (full size barrels, BTW) for additional aging; when this stuff gets to be twelve, the Van Winkle family'd better watch out!