Melrose Rye: a Whiskey Aristocrat, Made by Patricians

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

The book chronicles the story of Melrose whiskey and its guiding family, the Goldsboroughs of Baltimore, Maryland. The founders of American drink dynasties represented all kinds: German immigrants; not a few Jews; Italians, prominent especially for wine and brandy; old-stock settlers like Jack Daniel in Tennessee; Catholic Irish arrivals of the 1800s; and old American Catholic families, many with ancestors in Maryland who had decamped to Kentucky.

Then there were the Goldsboroughs, an American upper crust who traced their heritage to a prosperous past in England. A hamlet of Goldsborough still dots the U.K. map, near Harrogate outside Leeds. The maternal line of the founder of Melrose includes French nobility.

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

The Melrose book smoothly states:

… 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.

 

No doubt the best whiskey from Melrose was as mellifluous on the tongue.

The blue blood family was also notably accomplished in civic and public affairs. They provided no less than six Maryland governors, and yet other men of influence. The whiskey saga started after Henry Goldsborough returned to Baltimore from Texas with his wife and young family, in the late 1880s. He had been engaged in business out West but came home to seek new vistas.

He invested in a liquor rectification business, Records, Mathews, finally called Records & Goldsborough. The firm specialized in blending whiskey but also sold some straight (unblended) product, Canton Maryland Straight Rye Whiskey was one. By about 1943 at least two blends of all-straight whiskey were offered, clearly the house specialty.

Initially, whiskey was sourced on the open market as the Goldsboroughs did not distill, but in 1897 the firm bought a distillery in Canton, MD, outside Baltimore, to ensure a constant supply.

The book’s author was Stirling Graham. He was married to Helene Goldsborough Graham, Henry’s daughter and a well-known society figure in the interwar years. She was an author too, and perhaps wrote the book with her husband.

melroserare6yo3Maryland was a great whiskey state. In Edgar Preyer’s pre-WW I portrait of the American whiskey business, he divides rye whiskey into two categories: Eastern Rye and Western Rye. The former was made mainly in Pennsylvania and Maryland, with perhaps some contributions from New York.

Western Rye was made in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, likely 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 Maryland’s production was blended with neutral spirits but as I’ve mentioned, the high-end blends were all-straight in character. This meant they were fully comparable in quality to straight rye or bourbon – maybe superior in some cases. Distilling in Maryland was never as significant as in Kentucky and indeed stood behind that of Pennsylvania, but the whiskeys were always highly regarded. I was able to taste some, that American friends brought years ago to our gatherings in Bardstown, KY. They were very good but some of Canada’s ryes today of a straight character are comparable, in my opinion.

Initially, Kentucky almost exclusively made bourbon but increasingly in the 1800s (see the Preyer book) it distilled rye whiskey as well. Straight rye is still made today, in Kentucky and Indiana, and until recently nowhere else. But with the rise of craft distilling straight rye is being produced again in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and many other places.

Maryland rye often had a characteristic red colour, especially the Sherwood and Sherbrook brands, Melrose too. It seems this was often achieved with a blending agent (and Melrose used one), but the result was very good. A commenter on a bourbon forum stated a brand he once tasted had a “juniper” character. Rye grain can contribute the signature, but the top-fermenting yeasts of early Maryland brewers (for ale, porter), perhaps loaned to distillers in their area, may have contributed estery notes as well.

Anyway, Maryland rye had regional character.

The industry was killed off by Prohibition for 13 years (1920-1933) but Melrose returned after Repeal. By the 1970s the last producer still active, Pikesville, had sold its name to Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, KY. Heaven Hill makes Pikesville rye to this day (our LCBO has carried it) and while it is very good, it seems not quite Maryland in style to me and more in the Pennsylvania vein: less fruity and more bourbon-like. But there were probably many genres of rye whiskey even in Maryland.

the-frank-l-wight-distilling-co-wrights-sherbrook-rye-whiskey09-2In the 1940s rye distilling was still bankable in Maryland. Indeed Melrose emerged from the war (when whiskey production was curtailed for war needs) in good shape but finally couldn’t make it and was absorbed by the liquor giant Schenley.

Graham details how the flagship blend was confected. It took months to combine and marry five constituent whiskeys. A blending agent was added, type not specified. Graham stated it didn’t contribute flavour but served as a marrying and catalytic agent. I’d guess it was fruit-based, perhaps involving sherry or port.

A suave yet complex whiskey, Melrose fit well into the epicurean heritage of Maryland, regarded from the 19th century as a cradle of fine living. Graham noted 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 mini bottle site, here. All copyright therein or thereto belongs to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

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