“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Let me tell you why the Maryland Heritage Series immediately captured my attention. When the word about this new exclusive lineup started trickling out, as an astute internet denizen I could immediately sense that there was genuine excitement surrounding it. I happen to know a good number of fine folks in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) area who alerted me to the fact that these releases would be something special.
Ever the cynic – especially as it pertains to new whiskey brands that pop up overnight and become viral sensations by the dawn – I couldn’t help but take a hard look at what was happening here. The Maryland Heritage Series consists of three different batches of 95/5 ryes that spent the lion’s share of their lifetime in Indiana before being aged an additional two years in Maryland. For those keeping score, that means we have here a revival of vintage labels that honor Maryland’s history with whiskey that was, for the most part, “born and bred” at Seagram’s Lawrenceburg Distillery Indiana, the precursor to MGP. What, then, could be the cause of the excitement?
Considering the fact that these were distilled at LDI we immediately have one indication of what makes these whiskeys interesting: they’re 14 years old and thus considerably older than the majority of MGP-sourced whiskey hitting the shelves in today’s barrel-scarce market. Okay, so we have old whiskey. Old rye whiskey, which is a style typically released at a much younger age… but is that all it takes to make taters tate with baited breath? Well, after speaking to Maryland Heritage Series co-founder George Fotis, I found that there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
George is an easygoing, affable guy, and his longtime patrons typically call him “Doc” due to his background as a pharmacist. In fact, he worked as the pharmacist for the store he now owns (Drug City Pharmacy and Liquors) for over two decades before taking the reins back in 2016. So, how did Doc George come to found a whiskey brand? That story traces its origin back to another intriguing figure in the Maryland whiskey scene, and that man’s name is Henry Wright Jr.
To hear Doc George tell it, Henry Wright is one of the central whiskey figures to know in the region. “He’s been in the industry since he was a child and he is, in my opinion, one of the most important people in our Maryland industry as far as what he knows and what he’s seen.” Best known to American Armed Forces members as the purveyor of Military Special bourbon – an expression exclusively available at United States military exchange stores across the world – Henry Wright has elsewhere been described as rye royalty.
His father first founded a liquor brokerage and bottling business in Maryland in 1933, as soon as Prohibition ended, and Wright Jr. would join the business in the 60s. Today he is president of both the wholesaler Atlantic Wine and Spirits and the Henry M. Wright & Co. Distillery.
“My father probably sold more rye than anybody in history, and now myself and my company have the largest collection of vintage rye whiskey in the world. I have pre-Prohibition stuff from the 1880s all the way up to the last Maryland barrel.” Wright Jr. told MarylandSpirits.org earlier this year. From there, George Fotis relayed the story of how he and his business partner, Justin Jarvis, came across 40 barrels of hyper aged LDI rye.
“Because of Military Special he blends a lot of MGP, and he had these barrels in Indiana (where he stores all of his barrels) and somehow these 40 barrels got put by the wayside. By the time he realized they had them, they honestly did not know what to do with them because they’re not going to make Military Special out of them!” [laughs]
George went on to tell me that Henry got in contact with him and Justin (who also owns a local store, Allview Liquors) and the group worked out a deal where Henry would provide the barrels and vintage branding while George and Justin were allowed to blend the liquid as they saw fit, making the venture akin to a super-premium private label bottling. At last, a fuller view of what makes these releases both unique and relevant to Maryland’s heritage in rye comes into focus.
Yes, the barrels for this release come from LDI, a fact that certain corners of the internet’s cottage industry of cynicism have openly decried. However, they’re also inextricably linked to Maryland “rye royalty” in terms of both provenance and branding. As aforementioned, those barrels were then aged an additional two years in Maryland (once Henry Wright Jr. realized he had them) and blended by two of the Mid Atlantic region’s most trusted palates. A direct indication of this union can be observed on the front label of each expression which reads, “bottled by Henry M. Wright & Co. Inc. Baltimore, Maryland.”
Hopefully this backstory has abated some eye rolling from those who would question why “Maryland Heritage” is releasing rye from Indiana, but even those who might quibble over the branding can surely agree one thing matters above all: is it any good? To find out for myself, I will be tasting all three releases side by side today. I received these three samples courtesy of Blake Riber of Seelbachs.com, and I’d like to thank him sincerely for sharing them with me (thanks Blake!) I’ll be trying them in the order they were released, which means that first up is Mount Vernon Straight Rye Whiskey.
As an ironic inadvertent tie-in with history, it should be said here that when Mount Vernon Rye was first sold in 1870 by the Hannis Distilling Co. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania it was produced in Baltimore, Maryland. That is to say: we had the reverse of what is happening today, where once an out-of-state brand sold Maryland rye now we have a Maryland brand selling out-of-state rye.
Today’s Mount Vernon Straight Rye Whiskey clocks in at barrel proof which is 108.2 (54.1% ABV) and, like all of the bottles in this release, it has been aged for 14 years (12 in Indiana and the final two in Maryland) with a 95% rye and 5% malted barley mash bill. Available exclusively at Allview Liquors, Drug City Pharmacy and Liquors, and Seelbachs.com this expression carries a suggested retail price of $200.
Mount Vernon Straight Rye Whiskey – Review
Color: Marigold with glints of honeyed yellow.
On the nose: Caramel, red apple, and faint sherbert, which give way to a baking spice rubbed orange rind, are the first aromas to entice. Maple syrup features prominently on the nose as well. Over time the caramel apple and maple notes become more effusive forming a rich sweet medley. This is easily the sweetest and most fruit-forward nose of the bunch which is right up my alley.
In the mouth: It completely coats the tongue and has a rich caramel creaminess that just lasts and lasts. Notes of red apple, vanilla pod, and maple syrup take turns swirling around with the apple note most prominent on the front end while the vanilla pod pops at midpalate and maple syrup comes sauntering in on the finish where it clings to the back of the palate. Mellow clove is evident throughout along with subtle, sweet oak. It has a nice full mouthfeel that carries just enough heft without becoming a distraction. Lastly, I didn’t find it all that drying, which can be expected with a whiskey this old. Rather, the finish seems to coat the palate before slowly dissipating which whets the appetite for repeat sips.
Well, hello there! This is a “bourbon drinker’s rye,” as the rich, well-developed sweet notes take center stage and are only later joined by some slight clove spice, vanilla, and cardamom. Featuring great balance despite skewing so sweet, and with a depth of flavor only achieved by patient aging, this is indeed an exceptional pour.
At $200 it does feel a bit ambitiously priced, and thus I’m inclined to dock it a point, though I’m sure some will argue for it being a value given its specs. In fact, if I were to do so myself, I would say this is the best value of the bunch due to it being the most moderately priced. However, even with the deduction I feel comfortable calling this “Superb” on Malt’s price-sensitive scoring bands.
Next, I’ll be trying the second release from this series, the Sherwood Pure Rye. One interesting thing I discovered about this label is that there was a time when “Pure Rye” was an unregulated term that frequently appeared on Monongahela or Pennsylvania style ryes as a way of distinguishing them from Maryland rye. Prior to amendments to the 1909 Pure Food & Drug Act, Maryland rye frequently featured additives such as port wine, cherry juice, or caramel coloring which made the distinction important to consumers seeking an alternative style. However, in time “Pure Rye” came to be understood as a whiskey that contained at least 90% of the rye grain.
When I asked about what mash bill might have gone into vintage Sherwood Pure Rye, George Fotis shared with me that it would have contained a similarly high rye content and no corn. He estimates it would have been between 8 to 20% barley, with the rest being rye.
Now let’s get into the contemporary expression which, again, is 14 year old distillate of LDI’s 95/5 mash bill. Barrel proof for this release is 110.4 (55.2%) and it was priced at $250 upon release.
Sherwood Pure Rye – Review
Color: Light amber with an auburn tint.
On the nose: Mellow spearmint and rich milk chocolate captivated me at once. Then lemon zest, sweet oak, caramelized sugar like a creme brulee top come rushing in after the initial whiff. It has a dark, classic rye nose featuring a nice allspice layer and a touch of hazelnut coffee. Perhaps even a bit of buttered popcorn? There’s a lot to like here on the nose.
In the mouth: Rich chocolate and allspice are the immediate stand outs and they’re followed shortly thereafter by the mellow spearmint that pulses through each sip. The lemon zest from the nose shows up midpalate before receding to allow the hazelnut to develop on the edges of the tongue. This one has a medium to long finish and, again, a great show of balance. Over time a bit more oak and rye spice develop. Texturally it’s a bit leaner than Mount Vernon but that makes it different, and not necessarily “less than” as it’s also more complex.
While my personal preference falls more in line with the flavor profile of the Mount Vernon expression, I think a wider audience of rye fans will gravitate towards this Sherwood batch. It has more classic rye notes without going overboard on the mint and to my palate there’s nearly no dill weed either. Instead, there’s a gentle herbaceousness joined by some nutmeg over dark chocolate that makes this a treat to enjoy from start to finish.
Like the Mount Vernon, it shows its age in the form of well-developed flavors and it never threatens to be too dry or over-oaked, which is impressive. With a suggested price $50 over Mount Vernon Rye, it too suffers a bit in the value department though it’s delicious enough for me to call it “Superb” as well.
Closing out the series we have Sherbrook Unfiltered Straight Rye Whiskey which features essentially the same specs as the previous two expressions. Formerly a product of the Frank L. Wight Distilling Co. out of Lorely, Maryland, the Sherbrook brand was subsequently purchased by Hiram Walker Inc. before being shuttered shortly thereafter. The contemporary version, like the others in this lineup, is barrel proof at 109.7 (54.9% ABV) and it carries a suggested retail price of $275.
Sherbrook Unfiltered Straight Rye Whiskey – Review
Color: Amber through and through.
On the nose: Salted toffee, nougat, and leather with a nondescript citric undercurrent -like cinnamon sprinkled marmalade – invite me in at first. Soon, notes of stewed red apple begin to bubble up with every whiff. Clove plus a touch of thyme develop next and I begin to notice this nose is a little floral with dark chocolate peeking out from underneath it all. Again, there’s a nice hint of allspice to remind you this is a rye. Overall, this strikes me as the “best of both worlds” in this lineup.
In the mouth: Right out of the gate this has easily the most oily viscousness of the lineup, as the leather and stewed red apple immediately plant their flag on the palate. You get the salted toffee and nougat on the back end where the dark chocolate also emerges. This is perhaps the least drying of the three and has an equally medium-to-long finish as the Sherwood Pure Rye. The palate is notably less floral than the nose with a bit less spice as well, though clove does translate nicely on the sip. All in all, my sense that this represents the middle ground between Mount Vernon and Sherwood seems to be spot on and I’m inclined to believe this was done intentionally.
Superb yet again! Credit belongs to George and Justin for creating three distinct batches from that initial 40 barrel lot. When it comes to this Sherbrook release they managed to capture some of the alluring sweetness in Mount Vernon Straight Rye, plus the mouth-watering dark chocolate and array of spice from Sherwood Pure Rye. Due to this, I can understand them releasing this expression last (and charging the highest premium for it) though, again, I struggle a bit with the price. Due to this range’s age and uniqueness I certainly understand its price point in today’s market but, speaking from the consumer side, I also don’t feel comfortable endorsing it. At risk of sounding like a broken record, this is a fantastic whiskey that is held back a bit by Malt’s price-sensitive standards.
Frank’s Final Thoughts:
Did I really give all three of these the same score? I think it’s warranted given their exorbitant price tags and exceptional, but not-quite-transcendent quality. To be sure, these are some of the best ryes that I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying this year, and they’re also exceptionally blended to create three unique yet complimentary batches.
Though I’ve argued above against their pricing, I think it’s difficult to ignore that in 2022 these are more “norm” than “exception.” With such a low bottle count coupled with a hefty age statement these ryes are a rarity in today’s whiskey world and that’s before you consider their provenance and connection to local lore (yes, even though they were distilled in Indiana).
To keep things simple, I would love to own all three of these bottles – and would have awarded all three an 8/10 if price weren’t a consideration – but I would be inclined to buy the most moderately priced of the bunch: Mount Vernon Rye. I can easily understand if others consider this the third best of the bunch based on personal preference, but I also think that’s part of the point.
There’s something in this lineup that will impress even the most hardened cynic as they each capably cater to a different crowd. Enjoyed in succession, they show a wonderful breadth of flavor and deserve the enthusiastic audience they’ve garnered since first being announced. Price gripes aside, I have to applaud George Fotis and Justin Jarvis for this incredible inaugural foray into blending. I most definitely cannot wait to see what comes next from the Maryland Heritage Series.