Wednesday, December 1, 2010

singin' "this'll be the day that I die"

I guess I'm what you would call a historical drinker. I have no inclination to get drunk. I don't drink because I'm in any particular mood. I don't have much of a taste for many types of alcohol. I only drink socially sometimes. But most of my significant motivators have been historical.

In Akkadian class we learned about how Mesopotamia and Egypt were beer cultures, while Palestine was a wine culture. We read an article about how someone actually followed an ancient Sumerian recipe to brew a modern equivalent, and I remember thinking that it would be interesting to sample.

Sometime later, I was exploring Christmas traditions--actually trying to give more meaning to the season--and got interested in wassail. I never did come up with a good recipe, but I gave it a shot--that might be the first beer I ever bought. (Well, I think Julie bought it, but at my request.)

I reacted to the low-carb craze with indignation. Bread in one form or another has been a staple of just about every culture on earth. For most of human history, meat was too expensive to eat very often. I wanted nothing to do with a diet plan that reversed this trend. Drinking beer (liquid bread) was one form of rebellion.

More recently, I was looking up the differences between types of spirits out of curiosity. (Yes, that's what a serious drinker I am--three months ago, I couldn't have told you the difference between bourbon and brandy.) I noticed that several were tied to specific locales--bourbon to Kentucky, vodka to Russia, and of course scotch. I began to wonder--was there a spirit indigenous to Maryland?

Well, as it turns out, there is--or was. Before Prohibition, there were two main variants of American rye whiskey--Pennsylvania and Maryland. There was a minor revival of the industry after the ban was lifted, but over the next few decades labels went under or were sold off. Eventually, rye production--what remained of it--moved entirely to Kentucky. As it happens, the Pennsylvania variety survived almost exclusively. To my knowledge, the last rye to be produced in Maryland, and the only authentic Maryland style rye being distilled today, is Pikesville.

Yes, "rye" is an actual drink, not just a delicious kind of bread. It makes a good deal more sense, now that I know what "them good old boys were drinking" with their whiskey in "American Pie" (the song, not the film). And appropriate, too, that the drink is featured in a song about death and memories. The Free State, where Governor Ritchie thumbed his nose at Prohibition, now has some of the toughest liquor laws in the Union and trucks its favorite drinks from elsewhere.

Anyway, lucky for me the stuff is cheap. At $13, it wasn't too big a risk to buy a bottle and give it a try. (And speaking of cheap, I've already figured out that, matched drink for drink, it's a good deal more economical than beer.) So, how has it gone?
  1. I figured I ought to start by trying it more or less unadulterated. I wasn't quite ready to start pounding shots (don't even own a shot glass), so I had it on the rocks. I don't know enough of the terminology to say what I didn't like about it, but I decided pretty quickly that I'd need to mix it somehow.
  2. My next attempt was a rye sour. That looked pretty simple to make and didn't require any ingredients I didn't already have. Success. The concoction was much more palatable.
  3. I'd seen somewhere that rye was the traditional base for a Manhattan. I didn't have vermouth or bitters, and I didn't want to buy them before knowing what I was getting into, so I ordered one while we were out for dinner. Maybe Red Lobster just doesn't make a good Manhattan, but it tasted almost exactly like cough syrup. Guess I'll stick with the sour.
  4. I also ran across a description of a hot toddy, which is essentially a whiskey sour served hot. Tried one of those the other day--that wasn't too bad either. OK, so now I have a couple of options for using up the bottle.
Well, the other night I was killing some time in the liquor store while waiting to pick up a prescription for Julie. My beer of choice actually is brewed in Maryland (a microbrew, of course--Natty Boh moved away years ago), and I was looking for something to have on-hand. (You never know when you might want to bring something to a party, especially around this time of year.) I decided to pick up a six-pack of imperial stout. I'm not a big fan of hops, so I lean more toward darker beers. I was looking up online this morning to see exactly what makes something a stout (again, you see what an expert I am), and somehow I came across a reference to Diageo, the parent company of Guiness.

What? Diageo makes alcohol? Well, yes. As a matter of fact, they make Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Baileys, J&B, Captain Morgan, . . . they make a lot. But the reason for my double-take is that there's a Diageo plant just up Rt. 1, on the other side of the river in Relay. I've driven by it countless times--on the way to church, on the way to Walmart, on the way to get pit beef, etc. Pretty much everything around here sends you up or down Rt. 1, so odds are pretty good I'm going past the Diageo plant. I had no idea what they did.

I put up a comment on Facebook, and a friend who grew up in the area says it used to smell like whiskey driving Rt. 1 through Relay. Apparently it was once Maryland's largest distillery (including rye), back when it looked something like this:

After Prohibition, Seagram's bought Calvert Distilling Company. Diageo bought Seagram's somewhere around 2000, but before that happened, the distilling operation in Relay shut down. I haven't discovered exactly what they do there now--distribution, and probably bottling? It doesn't smell like whiskey anymore, so I assume they're not distilling. They do, however, turn up here and there in lists of environmental violations, including something about radioactive materials--no idea what that is.

From Maryland rye to miscellaneous alcohol--the story of a state, the story of a town. Sometimes being a localist is just depressing.


  1. If ever you make it to the Baltimore Museum of Industry (which I highly's great fun for the kids and interesting for the adults) they have quite the display of the "alcohol" industry in Maryland, including old bottles of Calvert Whiskey. You could further your research there :)