Melrose: Aristocrat of Whiskeys, Made by Patricians

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Amongst the dulcet-toned, lushly printed encomia to the great distilleries and breweries of the world, not least is Melrose: Honey of Roses. Published in 1943, wartime exigencies didn’t dent the quality of its production.

The book chronicles the story of Melrose whiskey and its guiding family, the Goldsboroughs of Baltimore, MD*. The founders of great American drink companies represented all kinds: German immigrants, some Jews; Italians (prominent for wine and brandy); old-stock frontier people like Jack Daniel; Irish immigrants of the 1800s; old Catholic English families, long associated with Maryland but many of whom decamped to Kentucky; and one or two like the Goldsboroughs.

The Goldsboroughs were American nobility. They traced their heritage to a prosperous past in England where the hamlet of Goldsborough still dots the map, near Harrogate (Leeds). The maternal line of Melrose’s founder includes French nobility.

The first Goldsborough, Nicholas, came in 1669 and settled on Kent Island, on the East Shore, Maryland.

An apt quote from the book:

For scoff if you like at background and tradition, the manufacture of Melrose is altogether different from that familiar American saga of the boy who rose from obscurity to riches by his energies and wits. The sensitivity and loyalty to quality so necessary in the preservation of this whiskey are distinctly family characteristics.  As the ability to make Persian rugs, Swiss watches, and other precious hand-made products is in-bred and handed down from craftsman to craftsman, so the production of Melrose is dependant on traits that spring from inheritance and tradition.

I can dig it.

This family was blue blood but also notably accomplished. They provided not less than six governors for their state, and other men of influence. The whiskey saga began when Henry Goldsborough returned to Baltimore from a business venture in Texas with his wife and young family, this was the late 1880s.

He invested in a liquor rectification business, Records, Mathews. It became known finally as Records & Goldsborough. It specialized in blending whiskeys but also sold some straight, e.g., Canton Maryland Straight Rye Whiskey. Its brands included (c. 1943) at least two blends of straight whiskeys – no neutral spirits.

Initially the house bought whiskey from distillers but acquired its own distillery in Canton, MD (a suburb of Baltimore) in 1897 to ensure a sufficient supply.

The book’s author is Stirling Graham. He was husband to Helene Goldsborough Graham, daughter of Henry and a well-known society figure in the interwar years. She was a writer too, and I suspect may have written the book with her husband; at a minimum her assistance would have been invaluable.

melroserare6yo3Maryland was a great rye state. In Edgar Preyer’s c. 1900 portrait of the American whiskey business, he divides rye whiskey into two categories: Eastern Ryes and Western Ryes. The former were those made in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and probably New York. The latter were made in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana (probably Missouri too). In this period, these states were still a frontier in the public imagination. What is now the west was often called the Far West, or West of the Rockies.

Much of the Maryland production was blended but as I’ve said, high-end blends were all-straight and fully comparable therefore to straight whiskeys – perhaps superior in some cases. Distilling in Maryland was never as significant as in Kentucky and indeed stood behind that of Pennsylvania. But its whiskeys were always highly regarded. I was able to taste some, courtesy friends years ago at gatherings in Bardstown, KY. They were very good and seemed different to the ryes made today in Kentucky.

Initially Kentucky was almost exclusively bourbon country but increasingly in the 1800s it distilled rye too which proved effective competition for the Eastern Ryes. Today, straight rye is still made in Kentucky, Indiana as well, and until recently nowhere else. But the rise of craft distilling has produced a few examples of “new” straight rye in Pennsylvania, possibly Maryland, and some other states.

Maryland rye often had a characteristic red colour especially the Sherwood and Sherbrook brands, Melrose too. Maybe this was achieved, for the blended straights, with a blending agent, but the result was very good. A commenter on a bourbon forum once said a brand he tasted had a juniper character. Not a bad description, the rye mash gin of Holland can have that even where no juniper is added. Or perhaps it came from estery yeasts, as Baltimore was ale and porter country before the blitz of lager c. 1850.

Anyway there was a regional characteristic to Maryland rye.

The industry was partly killed off by Prohibition but some of it, including Melrose, came back in ’33. By the 70s, it was all gone but the last maker sold the Pikesville name to Heaven Hill Distillery (maybe licensed it) in Kentucky. Heaven Hill makes this excellent rye to this day although I feel it isn’t in the Maryland style really – but possibly the Maryland Pikesville had its own character.

the-frank-l-wight-distilling-co-wrights-sherbrook-rye-whiskey09-2In the 1940s, rye distilling – subject to the war ending soon but it occurred by April, 1945 – was still a bankable proposition. Melrose came back in good shape after the war but finally was absorbed by liquor giant Schenley.

The book details how Melrose, the flagship blended straight, was put together. It took months to combine and marry five constituent whiskeys. A blending agent was added, not specified. The author claimed it didn’t contribute flavour but served as a marrying and catalytic agent. I’d guess it was a fruit-based additive, or maybe an old sherry or port.

Suave yet complex rye whiskey fit well into the gastronomic heritage of Maryland, always regarded as a cradle of fine living. I’ll let Stirling Graham tell it in his velvet tongue:

It is only natural that Melrose, a blend of straight rye whiskies, should have originated in Maryland, famous as a “rye state”, as well as for its fine foods, whose people are noted as connoissuers of good living, and whose Chesapeake Bay provides such delicacies as the diamond-back terrapin, oyster and crab. And it is no less natural that so exceptional a whiskey as Melrose should owe its creation and preservation to none other than one of the most distinguished families of the Free State.

Note re images: the first image is drawn from the Amazon site, here. The second is drawn from this whiskey collection site, here.  The third from this bottle site, here. All copyright therein or thereto belong to their owners or licensed users. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*After completing and posting this entry, I came upon Jack Sullivan’s posting a few years ago, here. It appears a different branch of the Goldsboroughs was also involved in the whiskey business.  I wasn’t aware of that, and Jack doesn’t refer to Henry Goldsborough and Canton Distillery from what I can see. I have heard of Highspire Distillery (it was in Pennsylvania). I didn’t know it had a connection to the Goldsborough family. I’ll check Stirling Graham’s book again to see if he refers to this other business. If I find anything I’ll post it in the comments.