Rye Shills: A Short History of City Paper’s Long Obsession with Pikesville Rye

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 23, 2013


A text message lit up my phone in the middle of the night recently: a New York friend was at a pub in Edinburgh, Scotland, and wanted me to know that “they have a bottle of Pikesville Rye behind the counter.” How far the lowly have risen, for the self-styled “aristocrat of whiskeys,” distilled in Kentucky but based on an old Maryland process, to be stocked deep in the peaty heart of exalted single malts.

Even here in Baltimore, where rye traditions run deep, Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey has proven at times a rare commodity. Certain joints and packies have reliably purveyed it for years, but most didn’t – and barkeeps and store-owners would even, at times, claim total ignorance of its very existence. That’s been changing of late, though. Just as rye generally has enjoyed a revival over the past 10 years or so, Pikesville, too, has re-emerged as an old faithful. And we here at Baltimore’s most Pikesville-Rye-promoting weekly will presume, however unscientifically, to take some credit for that.

For all practical purposes, written history today begins with online content, and City Paper‘s reveals an abnormal, against-the-grain obsession with Pikesville Rye. It started with Tom Scocca’s “You Gonna Eat That?” feature in 2000, which, along with other notable Maryland edibles (crab cakes, scrapple, etc.), established the nutritional values for rye . A year later, after the Ravens won the Super Bowl, David Dudley wrote in from Canada, where he was living at the time, that he celebrated by doing shots of Pikesville and spinning Kix albums.

Our Pikesville-promoting ways picked up steam in 2004, when an Eat feature about shad roe included a photograph of the dish – and in the frame, inexplicably, was a one-third empty bottle of Pikesville . More rational was its inclusion in a photograph for that year’s “Some Like it Hot” feature, about hot drinks, which recommended Pikesville for making hot toddies.

Starting in 2005, and continuing nearly unabated since, we’ve been hyping Pikesville Rye in Best of Baltimore awards:

2005’s Best Cheap Drink was a Pikesville Rye with a soda back at Mount Royal Tavern (hereinafter called, simply, “the Tavern”). Ditto in 2006, also at the Tavern, except substitute Natty Boh for the soda back. In 2008, a Pikesville Rye mention was included in Best Wi-Fi Spot, awarded to the Tavern , while Best Opportunity for Free Whiskey went to Alexander’s Tavern, where a shot of rye goes to anyone who puts a Dropkick Murphys song on the jukebox . Club Charles was dinged for not having Pikesville when it got Best Bar for Tourists in 2009, and in 2010 it got Best Bar, Station North, in part because Pikesville’s place behind the bar had been restored. In 2011, the Tavern got Best Cheap Drinks, with a nod to its low price for Pikesville, and Best Totally Disgusting Thing to do with a Natty Boh went to Windup Space’s “Kosher Boh,” a Pikesville Rye-involved concoction.

The Nose made much of the relative benefits of the Tavern and the Club Charles as Pikesville Rye purveyors in 2005 and 2007. In the first instance, we were shocked – shocked! – to find Club Charles out of the stuff on Christmas night, saying “we’d been tasting our favorite rye there since we had more pimples than wrinkles,” so “this news was drink-shattering,” then adding that we “huffed off to the Tavern, where they reliably serve Pikesville in topped-off rocks glasses-a neat feat if ever there was one, especially for the reddening Nose at closing time.” In 2007, by which time Club Charles had started stocking Pikesville Rye again, the Nose got into it with proprietor Joy Martin, who told us the high pricing is “because only you drink it,” adding that so few people buy it that “we have to toss” out bottles before they’re empty – “but the fruit flies seem to like the stuff.”

In the Holiday Guide, a bottle of Pikesville Rye has only been recommended as a gift once, in 2005, though in 2011, when touting a bottle of Sloop Betty wheat vodka, we declared that “we won’t be satisfied with the Maryland craft-booze scene until we get Pikesville Rye back in Pikesville.”

In 2009, an end-of-the-decade recollection of the year 2000 painted a picture of a Pikesville-Rye addled writer, obsessed with the shadow-economy figures who’d opened a car-chopping shop next door, and in 2010, four paragraphs of a seven-paragraph review of Frank DeFord’s book, Bliss, Remembered, were dedicated to deconstructing DeFord’s references to Pikesville Rye (his mistakes were duly forgiven).

Finally, in 2012, all of this shilling started to pay off. The City That Drinks celebrated Pikesville Rye, raising hopes that someday a rye will be distilled in Maryland again. Juice extolled rye generally as a Manhattan’s foundation, while dryly acknowledging Pikesville’s long-ago exit from Maryland. Topping it all off, Joe MacKeepacigarhandy, in a calendar write-up for the Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Festival, boasted that “we’ve been imbibing Pikesville Rye for years and recommending it to anybody who will listen, and now ‘the hottest adult beverage in the market today’ will have its own special tasting area” at the festival.

Apparently, our work is done.

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