In the summer of 2016, Naomi Karzai, the bar manager of Pen & Quill — a slightly upscale restaurant blocks from Baltimore’s Penn Station — heard an unwelcome rumor from a bartender friend. “I didn’t believe him,” she recounted later, “but I was nervous.”
Word was that Pikesville Supreme — a solid, unassuming, spicy yet smooth rye whiskey born in Maryland and beloved by Baltimoreans — was going out of production. So the next time the bar’s alcohol distributor stopped by, Karzai bought 20 cases. “It’s good and inexpensive,” she said of the whiskey, which retailed then at about $18 for a 750-milliliter bottle. “It does all of the things that we Baltimoreans like.”
In October 2016, Heaven Hill Distillery, which produced Pikesville Supreme, officially confirmed the news. At that point, the hoarding began in earnest. The Wine Source, a liquor store in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, sold close to 700 bottles of Pikesville in the month following the announcement. (In previous months, the store had sold an average of 84 bottles of Pikesville, says manager Lauren Loeffler.) “Most of the people I know have their own little stashes,” Van Smith, an erstwhile Baltimore City Paper reporter and Pikesville Supreme devotee, told me in June. He had bought five cases of Pikesville — at $150 a case — from Canton Crossing Wine & Spirits in December 2016.
Individual fans weren’t the only ones who stocked up. In February 2017, Jen Oliver, who owns the bar Wharf Rat in Fells Point, bought 50 cases and switched her rail whiskey — that is, the inexpensive brand kept within a bartender’s swift reach — from Pikesville to Early Times. Oliver’s bar features Pikesville Supreme in its $5 “Basic Bawlmer Booze” deal: a shot of rye with a can of National Bohemian beer, another Baltimore institution.
Pikesville Supreme is her customers’ preferred rye, Oliver says. At least 20 times a week, as of last summer, someone would stop into the bar to ask to buy a bottle — a request she couldn’t honor, since she had to ration her own stash. By June, she was down to 35 cases; by the week before Christmas, it was 13.
The demise of Pikesville Supreme comes, ironically, at a time when American rye whiskey is enjoying a renaissance. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, the U.S. volume of rye has grown 778 percent since 2009, from 88,000 to 775,000 nine-liter cases. From 2015 to 2016, sales revenue of U.S. rye distillers grew by $21.7 million — to more than $150 million. This past fall, more than a dozen of America’s top whiskey distillers gathered at George Washington’s Mount Vernon rye distillery to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its reopening.
Rye’s popularity has waxed and waned over the course of American history, with Maryland playing a key role. Whiskey distilled from rye, which had proved hardier in the New World than barley, was a statewide commodity even before the Revolutionary War. The Civil War broadened Maryland rye’s reputation, as thousands of outsiders passed through the state, tried it and deemed it serviceable. Between 1865 and 1917, “small Maryland stood a distant but unvarying third, behind only the vastness of Kentucky’s bourbon and Pennsylvania’s rye,” in manufacture and sales of American whiskey, according to the Maryland Historical Society.
By the 1890s, a number of distilleries had opened in or near Baltimore. (There has been a resurgence of local distilleries in the past few years, though no product has yet captured the loyalty of Baltimoreans as Pikesville Supreme did.) Among them was L. Winand and Brothers in the town of Scott’s Level, adjacent to present-day Pikesville, where Pikesville Supreme was born.
“When I was growing up, we had in the basement about 100 different empty bottles, with different labels, for different things they tried,” says 76-year-old John Winand Greene Sr. It was Greene’s great-grandfather John Winand who started the family’s original distilling business on land he acquired around 1869. John’s son Thomas was one of the brothers behind Pikesville Supreme. He ran the distillery, while brother Louis — the “L” in L. Winand and Brothers — handled the day-to-day operations. By the early 1900s, the brothers had formally changed the name of the distilling business to the Winand Distilling Co.
The dawn of Prohibition in 1920 forced Winand Distilling to close. Following repeal, businessman Andrew Merle tried reviving Pikesville. But tastes had changed during the “dry” years, when distillers blended their declining stocks with sweeter corn whiskey. Bourbon became king, helped along by federal subsidies for corn growers; spicy rye was pushed to the back of the shelves. In 1972, falling sales led Merle’s company to halt production. After that, Pikesville Supreme survived in diminishing whiskey stocks — until 1982, when Heaven Hill Distillery bought the brand and began distilling it anew, this time in Kentucky.
Though the market was tightening for a variety of labels of rye whiskey, Pikesville Supreme had a solid base of business. “We were making rye, we had rye to sell, and we had a distributor who wanted that rye in Maryland. So, we continued to service that business,” says Heaven Hill communications manager Josh Hafer. “The exact same thing was happening in other markets with other brands.”
In the 1990s, consumer tastes started to shift once again. By the early 2000s, a convergence of factors had revived Americans’ appetite for rye, perhaps none more so than the reemergence of cocktail culture. Craft bartenders began turning to ryes to create memorable Manhattans, Sazeracs and Old Fashioneds.
Throughout the ups and downs, Marylanders, especially Baltimoreans, remained devoted to Pikesville Supreme, a three-year-old, 80-proof rye easily distinguishable by its trademark white label with gold and black lettering. For some of them, aware that its distribution was largely limited to the Baltimore region, it became an object of reverence.
As tastes changed last decade, Heaven Hill did, too. Take, for instance, the trajectory of another of its brands, Rittenhouse Rye: Until the new millennium, Heaven Hill was bottling an 80-proof version of Rittenhouse. But bartenders making craft cocktails preferred stronger ryes for mixing their signature drinks. Eventually, Heaven Hill phased out its 80-proof Rittenhouse in favor of a 100-proof version — which, in 2005, Esquire magazine drinks columnist David Wondrich declared the best cheap whiskey in the world.
Ultimately, the market dynamics that enabled rye to become king again were the same ones that dug Pikesville’s grave. “Rittenhouse kind of surrounded Pikesville,” says Hafer. “Places wanted the higher-proof rye. It’s a better backbone for an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. That’s really what kept Pikesville from expanding nationally.”
Without a national market clamoring for 80-proof rye whiskeys, Pikesville Supreme’s days were numbered. Three years ago, Heaven Hill began bottling a six-year, 110-proof version called Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey. According to Hafer, Heaven Hill was prepared to keep bottling the 80-proof product indefinitely, but once a stronger-proof Pikesville was on the market, bars and stores began ordering it more. “We saw the sales flip,” he says. When the popularity of the 110-proof version, locally and nationally, eclipsed that of the 80-proof original in Maryland, the company decided to stop bottling the latter. “The product has not been discontinued,” Hafer says. “The product has just changed.”
Tell that to the fanatics. The new Pikesville is not only stronger, thanks to its higher alcohol content; it’s also more expensive (perhaps getting a bump because whiskey expert Jim Murray ranked it No. 2 on his 2016 “World Whiskies of the Year”list). At the Wine Source, a bottle goes for $49.99. “They’re changing it from blue collar to white collar, is what they’re doing,” says John Ellsberry, a Baltimore artist who was turned on to Pikesville by Van Smith.
“It’s a little too potent for my stage of life,” explains Greene, who lives in northern Baltimore County. “I was a big fan of the 80-proof. ... I definitely bought a few bottles. I must say it’s all gone now.”
Pikesville Supreme was the brand that introduced 26-year-old Phil Bolton and his friends to whiskey drinking. They gravitated toward it in liquor stores not only because of the name but also “because the bottle looks so cool,” he recalls.
“It was actually the first rye I ever had,” says Bolton, who lives in Hampden and bought two bottles from the Wine Source shortly after he learned about the discontinuation. Despite its low price, “it was still really good,” he says. “I definitely liked it a lot better than bourbon.” Bolton, who has both bottles stashed away, plans to pull them out after a decade or so.
By now, most liquor stores and bars have run out of their final stocks of Pikesville Supreme: Canton Crossing sold its last bottle in April. Mount Royal Tavern, a historically reliable carrier of Pikesville, exhausted its supplies in the spring and switched to Old Overholt. In June, with only a case and a half left, Pen & Quill raised the price of a two-ounce glass of Pikesville Supreme to $10 in an effort to preserve its remaining stockpile. But in early August, when I stopped by with a friend to savor it one last time, we were told we were too late (misleadingly, I’d later learn from Karzai; as of January, Pen & Quill still had eight bottles).
Saddened but determined to raise a glass of Pikesville, I went in for the 110-proof. I had always recalled the 80-proof rye as Van Smith described it to me: good and sweet, with the right spiciness lingering in the aftertaste. The higher-proof version was not that — which isn’t to say it was bad. Deliciously potent, it was a jangly kick to the throat. I drank two more glasses (unadvisedly so, I found out the next morning).
The 110-proof version is the sort of rye that, to me, really makes a Manhattan stand out. But it’s just not the Pikesville that people like Smith, whose daughters’ names are Rye and Olive, grew to love. In the late ’80s, Smith would show up at parties with a milk crate loaded with eight-ounce aluminum cups and bottles of Pikesville, ready to mix cocktails for friends. “It became my calling card, my signature thing,” says Smith.
Nowadays, he makes a cocktail a night: two ounces of Pikesville Supreme to one ounce each of vermouth and Pimm’s, drowned in soda water and a mixture of bitters and poured into a 24-ounce mug filled with ice. Will he switch to 110-proof Pikesville when his stash is finally gone? Nope. His philosophy is the exact opposite of craft bartenders searching out higher-proof, usually more-expensive ryes: He just wants a cheap rye to use as a mixer. When he’s exhausted his stockpile of Pikesville, he plans to buy Canadian Club.
And when he has to take that final swig of Pikesville Supreme Rye, Smith will drink it down with a big grin and a satisfied sigh. “Pikesville: It was the best option for your money,” he says. “Real good, cheap whiskey.”
Maryland writer Andrew Zaleski last wrote for the magazine about Safe Streets, a Baltimore anti-violence program run by former felons.