The Fine Whiskeys of Old Baltimore

Whiskeys For The Carriage Trade

A snapshot of Baltimore, MD’s post-Civil War whiskey industry was offered in The Monumental City by George W. Howard (1873):

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It is known that “vast quantities” of rye were being turned into whiskey in Maryland as early as 1818. Sixty years later the industry was rapidly being placed on a modern technological footing. Indeed more and larger distilleries would implant in Maryland between 1873 and the end of the century, as documented in the late James Bready’s classic study (1990) of Maryland’s whiskey heritage.

Taken together with the very sizeable wholesaling and rectification/blending side of the business, distilling in general and whiskey in particular were a major part of the state’s economy in the last quarter of the 1800s.

One of the most important Baltimore liquor dealers was the Walters family, of whom I wrote back in 2010 on a U.S. bourbon discussion forum. From my posting:

… Walters was a family which made their fortune initially in liquor dealing and retailing (not distilling). Later, it branched into railroad and financial investments. Baker was one of the reputed brands it sold in the mid-1800’s, it was Pennsylvania rye, a classic type of rye whiskey, country cousin to bourbon. Rye whiskey is still sold…. When the heiress and descendant Mrs. Walters died in the 1940’s, her estate sold the collection of fine spirits remaining after the liquor business had long ceased, or which had been acquired on the way by her ascendants. It included wines, brandies and many other spirits, but also some of the rye whiskey which had helped to make the family’s name and fortune. Foremost among those was Baker’s rye…. Indeed the Walters Museum [in Baltimore] is going strong and houses the fine art collection which the family had amassed…. My information is from a Walters family history which you can buy at the museum.

William Walters was the founder and both he and his son Henry expanded the family’s reach into other business ventures. I had visited the Walters Art Museum in 2010 and bought the book, William and Henry Walters, The Reticent Collectors, by William R. Johnston. It’s a fine read and highly recommended.

From George Howard’s 1873 book above, here is an advertisement from the Walters agency, and you see barrels of the Baker’s rye mentioned:

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The bracketing of rye whiskey with Cognac deluxe shows the high status the market attributed to fine rye whiskeys in the 19th century. Rye wasn’t just a frontier drink, indeed common whiskey – un-aged or little aged – and bourbon fulfilled that office more than rye. As George Howard explained, the best rye was sent to the deep south. This is why the Sazerac cocktail of New Orleans was always associated with rye whiskey, and the same was true initially for the Manhattan cocktail.

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Certainly the “Eastern Ryes” had a high reputation for quality. In part this was due to the inherent method of production, involving as it did sweet mash fermentation and heated warehouses. But also, you had a sophisticated blending and rectification business.

The careful selection and blending of whiskey was an art in the old gastronomic centre of Baltimore. Perhaps the dealers’ long experience with brandy and French blending methods for Cognac impelled them to adopt similar methods for the rye whiskeys of their own state and nearby Pennsylvania.

In comparison, Kentucky whiskey proudly bruited its straight character. Indeed such has remained the case to this day. And there isn’t anything wrong with Kentucky Bourbon, oh no.  But the whiskey market then was one of diversity. A choice was offered for different palates and different pocketbooks.

So it should be today.

Note re images: the first two images above are via Hathitrust (the link is given in the text). The third is from the Walters museum’s website, also linked above. All copyright therein or thereto belong to their lawful owners or authorized users. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.