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Taste testing Maryland whiskeys (and they're not all rye)

Whiskey is deeply rooted in the history of Maryland, which trailed only Kentucky and Pennsylvania in the spirit's production post-Civil War. But after Prohibition, Maryland whiskey fell out of favor, and appeared destined to remain in the past tense.

That is now far from the case. A new generation of Maryland liquor companies has set out to make local whiskey a topic relevant today.

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Formed in 2015, the Maryland Distillers Guild counts nearly 20 companies as members, and many either have whiskey products (including rye whiskey, the spice-forward version most associated with Maryland) available now or plan to release some in the future. The operations range from a modest, two-person team in the back of a warehouse to Kevin Plank's ambitious plans with Sagamore Spirit.

So, it seemed like a good time to pour some whiskey.

Over the course of two tastings, I — along with two locals, Amy Langrehr (food writer and public relations consultant) and Ryan Detter (freelance writer who has covered food and alcohol for Baltimore City Paper and Baltimore Magazine) — tried whiskeys from six Maryland-based brands to taste what they've been working on, while looking for clues as to where the industry is headed. No mixers, ice cubes or splashes of water — just whiskey, neat.

(While this is a sampling of whiskeys currently available, there are more coming in the future from Seacrets Distilling Co., the Baltimore Whiskey Co. and others.)

As you'll read in this roundtable discussion, which has been edited and condensed, we're confident local whiskey is in good hands.

Old Line Spirits

4201 E. Pratt St., Highlandtown. oldlinespirits.com

American Single-Malt Whiskey (86 proof; $49.99, available at select liquor stores)

While this new company is based in Highlandtown, its flagship product is made with barley from Washington state and is then contract-distilled in Ohio. Owners Mark McLaughlin and Arch Watkins plan to move the production operation to Baltimore this year but decided to launch the whiskey in the meantime.

Ryan Detter: It definitely has some smoky, peat character to it. Good nose. It's bourbon in the front, when you first sip, and then it's more of a Scotch on the end.

Wesley Case: I taste caramel, vanilla. It's not thin; it has some body to it. It serves as a nice introduction to the brand.

Amy Langrehr: There's a little burn at the end. I think I could sip it.

RD: It's unique in the sense that it's kind of like training wheels for someone who might want to get into Scotch. You can taste the peat. I get a little more vanilla in the finish. I like it the more I have of it, which tends to be the case. [laughs]

Sagamore Spirit

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101 Dickman St., Suite 500, near Port Covington. sagamorespirit.com

Straight Rye Whiskey (83 proof; $40, available at area liquor stores)

Kevin Plank's Sagamore Spirit debuted its first product, a rye whiskey, in May, and then released a higher-proof Cask Strength version in December. Both products are distilled in Indiana, but the company plans to move the operation to its new Port Covington distillery this year.

WC: My impression is that Sagamore wants its Straight Rye Whiskey to be as accessible to common drinkers as possible. They want it behind every bar.

AL: I like this in a cocktail, but I have not loved sipping this on its own. It's OK.

RD: It's super thin. I just took a bigger swig, and I got a lot more flavor that way. There's not much nose at all.

WC: The finish is pretty clean, but I wouldn't grab for this to drink neat or on the rocks.

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Sagamore Sprit: Cask Strength Straight Rye Whiskey (approximately 112 proof; $73.99, available at area liquor stores)

RD: When you hear "Cask Strength" or "Navy Strength," it's just boozier. But just look at the difference in color between the two. The Cask Strength is darker.

WC: This is much better. There's a kick in the front that's way more present as soon as you taste it. I was impressed by how it smoothed out right after. For as strong as it is, I could see drinking it on the rocks — slowly.

RD: It's got a lot of caramel in the finish. My lips are tingly, for sure. I think the spice of the rye comes out a lot more in the Cask Strength, which is what the overarching character of a rye should be, compared to bourbon.

Louthan Distilling

3005 Montebello Terrace, Beverly Hills. louthandistilling.com

Oak-aged Corn Whiskey (93 proof; $26-$35, available at select liquor stores and 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly on Saturdays)

The father-daughter team of Len and Kelsey Louthan opened the first Baltimore City distillery since Prohibition in October 2014 to produce corn whiskey. Their commitment to nearby sourcing means all of their corn comes from just outside Salisbury, and is then mashed, fermented, distilled and aged in a 400-square-foot area of a warehouse near Lauraville.

WC: Louthan is unique out of all of these brands because they don't currently age their whiskey in oak barrels. When I stopped by recently, they had just received some barrels to play around with aging. But for now, they let the whiskey age six to eight weeks in glass jars filled with oak shavings.

RD: Oh, wow. It's one of the most unique flavors I've had in a whiskey.

AL: Smoky! It hits you in the face a little bit. It is not shy. I like that it has a strong flavor but it doesn't really burn.

WC: It could be the boldest of what we've had so far, and that alone makes me like it. It's a little bit sweet at the end, which makes sense since it's corn-based, and the oak comes through strongly.

RD: But not in a tannin-y way. It's clean. It has almost a citrus finish. I think it'd be really interesting to know what a Manhattan tastes like with that.

Lyon Distilling Co.

605 S. Talbot St. No. 6, St. Michaels. lyondistilling.com

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Maryland Free State Rye Whiskey (100 proof; $85, sold only at distillery, currently sold out)

Founded in 2012 and known for its rum, this St. Michaels company also makes a rye whiskey in very small batches (along with corn and American malt-based versions). A blend of rye, corn and malted barley, the whiskey is double distilled and then aged in new American oak barrels. Lyon has produced less than 450 bottles to date, and does not have any in stock right now. Co-founder Jaime Windon said she expects to have more in April, and those interested in reserving a bottle should contact the distillery.

AL: I smell molasses and whoa, nutmeg. This would be great in a hot toddy.

WC: This is pretty great. It tastes like Christmas. Way more spice on the back end than the others we've tasted so far.

AL: Yes, it's baking spices — allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon.

RD: It's got a little bit of burnt sugar at the end. I don't think I've ever tasted a rye like this. It's got a rum profile to it. If you order this expecting a traditional rye, you're going to be disappointed. But I like its uniqueness. It's such a wild card.

Twin Valley Distillers

711 E. Gude Drive, Rockville. twinvalleydistillers.com

1794 Maryland Four Grain Rye Whiskey (99 proof, $37-$44 at select liquor stores and distillery)

Founded by former chef Edgardo Zuniga, Montgomery County's first distillery makes a variety of whiskeys, rums and vodkas using ingredients all found within a 50-mile radius of the Rockville operation. We tried the Raven Maryland Bourbon and the 1794 Maryland Four Grain Rye Whiskey.

RD: You know what this tastes like? Burnt marshmallow.

AL: I like burnt marshmallow, but not in my rye.

WC: I'm looking for a stronger kick from the rye's spice.

Twin Valley Distillers: Raven Maryland Bourbon (90 proof, $37-$44 at various liquor stores and distillery)

RD: This is way better than the rye. I think the edges could be a little rounded off, but the sweetness level is really nice.

AL: I'd drink this. It's pretty balanced, and the finish is definitely spicy at the end. A slight burn, but maybe that's because I'm wimpy. It's sweet but not too sweet.

RD: I give them bonus points for actually sourcing all of their stuff locally. It gives them more leeway than people that are coming right out of the gates with [distilled products] from Indiana or something.

Fiore Distillery

3026 Whiteford Road, Pylesville. fiorewinery.com

Maryland Straight Rye Whiskey (90 proof; $25, available only at distillery)

In 2007, Mike Fiore began distilling grappa and limoncello in Harford County. Now, led by his 29-year-old grandson and distiller Tony Fiore, the small business debuted its whiskeys a decade later. Tony Fiore said his main motivation was simply to see if he could produce a whiskey. Once the current batch on sale at the distillery sells out, they won't have more whiskey until next year, as the next batch ages until March 2018, he said.

WC: The law requires rye whiskey's mash to contain at least 51 percent rye grain. This bottle from Fiore is 100 percent rye, sourced from New York.

RD: This smells really good. It's got a thinner mouthfeel, but it's pretty accessible. It doesn't taste like 90 proof, I'll give it that. It's not smacking you in the face. The only thing I'd say is it's a little light in body.

AL: It's got some fire on the nose. I get caramel, too. It's pretty smooth.

WC: It has enough of the spicy notes to distinguish it as a rye. I don't think it's announcing itself by kicking the door down. It's a nice sip.

Maryland Straight Bourbon Whiskey (90 proof; $40, available only at distillery)

RD: There's no spice in there at all — a lot more caramel and vanilla. Both of these were aged two years in new oak barrels. I think this tastes just a little young, in terms of how long it aged.

WC: This dives directly into the sweet attributes of bourbon that many tend to like. A really good bourbon, though, should still have a noticeable kick. This is a little bit one-note, but it's not bad at all. I think I prefer the rye.

Final thoughts

WC: We've tasted, essentially, the early stages, the baby steps, of Maryland whiskey as craft distilling, in general, continues to find fans nationally.

AL: I think all of these are sippable. There are some I'd like to have in a cocktail and see how they taste. There's room for improvement, but I don't mean that in a bad way.

RD: It's awesome that people are embracing Maryland's past with whiskey, and putting their money where their mouth is.

WC: These distillers seem serious about what they're doing. And if they're not where they want to be now, based on what we've tasted, I don't doubt that they could one day get somewhere that's very exciting and interesting. I feel like I still haven't tasted the ultimate new Maryland whiskey, and maybe that's just going to take tinkering and time, but I'm excited about what's to come.

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