Attention rye whiskey fans: Pennsylvania and Maryland rye whiskies are making a comeback.
What exactly is this hyper-regional style of rye all about? In the 1700s and 1800s, rye (the grain) grew abundantly in the fertile Susquehanna River valley, which savvy settlers (many with Scottish or Irish roots) distilled into rye (the whiskey). Then, come Prohibition, these local pours all but disappeared.
Maryland- and Pennsylvania-style ryes are now making a return—and some are even giving Kentucky-made ryes a run for their grain-loving money.
In general, Maryland rye whiskies are relatively bright, often with a grassy character, while Pennsylvania-style ryes (also known as Monongahela rye) tend to be sweeter and more robust.
We test-drove the rye whiskies made in those states, as well as whiskies made elsewhere but in the style of Maryland and Pennsylvania.
MARYLAND RYE WHISKEY
HOMETOWN HERO: Maryland Free State Rye Whiskey (St. Michaels, MD), $85
Craft producer Lyon Distilling started making its crisp, lightly floral, unaged whiskey in March 2014. The one-year-old aged version will be bottled in April 2015. We got a sneak peek, and it’s spot on—with brown sugar overlapping a light, faintly floral core, and finishing with a wash of vanilla and spice. Find it now.
OUT-OF-STATE CHALLENGER: Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey (Bardstown, KY), $19
The brand that once called itself “the aristocrat of straight whiskies” was made in Pikesville, Maryland, before Prohibition. It’s now part of the Heaven Hill portfolio out of Kentucky. This bottle is difficult to find outside of the mid-Atlantic region, but it’s still prized for its crisp, fruity profile with just a tickle of new-mown hay, as well as its deep-value price tag. Find it now.
OUT-OF-STATE CHALLENGER: Leopold Bros. Maryland-Style Rye Whiskey (Denver, CO), $47
This seasonal release is hard to come by, and we’ve yet to get our hands on a bottle. But Leopold Bros. describes it as “fruity, floral, and less aggressive” than Pennsylvania-style ryes. Find it now.
HOMETOWN HERO: Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye (Bristol, PA), $45
This whiskey from Dad’s Hat is bright, fruity and robust, with a flavor that almost resembles ripe bananas and honey. The company makes a raisin-y vermouth-finished variation that’s worth seeking out too. Find it now.
OUT-OF-STATE CHALLENGER: Rittenhouse Rye 100 Proof, Bottled in Bond (Bardstown, KY), $27
Though made in Kentucky by Heaven Hill, this high-proof PA-style rye is a cocktail-friendly pour with lots of rich caramel, brown sugar and spice. Find it now.
OUT-OF-STATE CHALLENGER: High West OMG Silver Rye (Park City, UT), $40
OMG stands for Old MononGahela (get it?). This 100-percent un-aged rye is bottled at 49.3 percent, so the alcohol sting almost overwhelms the malty flavor and citrusy finish. It fares better mixed into cocktails like a white Whiskey Sour. Find it now.
Kara Newman is a New York-based spirits and cocktail writer, and author of Cocktails for a Crowd (Chronicle Books).