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Whiskey Distilleries and Speakeasies Celebrate the City's Rebellious Roots

Baltimore is in the midst of reviving and reclaiming Maryland’s historic whiskey legacy thanks to local distilleries Sagamore Spirit, Baltimore Spirits Company and Old Line Spirits, as well as local bars that appreciate the importance of a good rye. Our whiskey history spans centuries, beginning in the colonial era, through Prohibition to today. Trace that history along the Whiskey Rebellion Trail, which connects Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Libations Legacy

Maryland was once a whiskey distilling powerhouse in the United States, surpassed only by Kentucky and Pennsylvania. During its peak in 1911 – just before Prohibition – half of the 44 distilleries in the state were located in Baltimore.

The Walters’ family, patrons of the Walters Art Museum, amassed their fortune from the marketing and distilling of rye whiskey and other liquors throughout the 19th Century. Learn more about the family legacy at the Walters Art Museum – there is even an antique whiskey bottle on display.

In 1919 Maryland coined the nickname of “The Free State” when it refused to join the rest of the nation in imposing rigid federal alcohol restrictions during Prohibition. As the calls for temperance were ignored, Baltimore’s determined distillers and bar owners made the city the wettest in the union. But after World War II, production slowed and the last original Maryland-based distillery closed its doors in 1972.

Today, Maryland is home to more than 25 distilleries, all of which have opened in the last 14 years, and three of which are located within city limits. Each distillery has its own story and style, but all proudly produce Maryland-style rye whiskey, described as a more refined alternative to bourbon. 

Rye Resurgence

Now, in the 21st Century, distillers are working hard to bring back the legacy of Maryland-style rye whiskey. Made of at least 51% rye, a hearty and durable crop, little else is known about the exact historical process for making rye. The remaining 49% could be corn, malted barley, wheat or another grain. Visit these distilleries to learn how their own exclusive recipe differs from the others and how they have woven themselves into Baltimore’s rebellious history.

Founded in 2017 by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, Sagamore Spirit Distillery is located on the water in the up-and-coming Port Covington – it’s the first step in a 25-year development plan for the area. A ticket to the distillery comes complete with an hour-long guided tour and tasting. But check out the welcome center free of charge for interactive touch screens detailing whiskey history and Sagamore-branded gifts for sale. The distillery often hosts events like cocktail making classes, yoga and Whiskey on the Waterfront, an outdoor summer concert series held in conjunction with the adjacent Rye Street Tavern.

Old Line Spirits was started by two Navy buddies who left corporate jobs looking to create something of their own. They reconnected as neighbors in Baltimore and in 2017, Arch Watkins and Mark McLaughlin launched their whiskey and rum distillery, Old Line Spirits, in East Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood. The award-winning whiskey recipe was passed down to the duo from a small but successful distillery in Washington after the owner retired. Take a tour of the facilities, enjoy a tasting and then end with a cocktail at the in-house bar, The Ready Room, named for the room where naval aviators gather to plan missions, swap stories and hang out.

Baltimore Spirits Company’s inventory runs the gamut from amari to gin, and, of course, their Epoch rye whiskey, which was awarded the Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Stop by their distillery, located in Union Collective in Hampden – next to other local favorites like Union Craft Brewery, The Charmery and Vent Coffee Roasters – for a free tour and sampling of the spirits.

Wet Your Whistle

During the Prohibition Era, drinkers traveled long and far to buy spirits from local bootleggers, often stopping at iconic Baltimore haunts like The Owl Bar and The Horse You Came in on Saloon that still stand today. The spirit of that legacy lives on with modern day speakeasy-style bars found across the city.

The Owl Bar, opened in 1903, is now an antique bar at the landmark Belvedere Hotel. During the 1900s bar patrons relied on the two ornamental owls’ eyes to know whether it was safe to drink without worry of police raids. Today, guests are greeted by one of the original faux owls, as well as stained glass décor embedded with a nursery rhyme that nods at the bar’s prohibition legacy.

Historic Fell’s Point’s early days were as a shipbuilding town populated by sailors and pirates who always found a way to indulge in the three Bs – bars, brothels and boarding houses. Visitors can take guided tours to learn about this storied past with Baltimore Ghost Tours and Baltimore Wicked History Tours. Highlights include propaganda on a historic row home that reads “Vote Against Prohibition” and a stop in The Horse You Came in on Saloon, where Edgar Allan Poe had his last drink before his mysterious death.

Enter The Elk Room through an unmarked door (Hint: it shares a courtyard with Tagliata) and step into a cozy, dimly lit bar where no photography is allowed. Named one of the best bars in the country in 2018 by Esquire magazine, this speakeasy is known for its handcrafted cocktails and extensive whiskey menu.

Named after a Charles Bukowski poem, this literary-themed bar in Hampden features large communal tables and a gas fireplace. The cocktails at the Bluebird Cocktail Room (named after the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf) are complemented by a menu of European bistro fare including charcuterie, fried sweetbreads, and steak fries.

Rye, in Fell’s Point, was one of the bars that led Baltimore’s craft cocktail movement. It’s Prohibition-era design elements and reasonably-priced, whiskey-heavy cocktails make it an equally perfect spot for a sophisticated night out or a casual happy hour drink.

The name says it all: Wet City, a local bar, restaurant and brewery celebrates Baltimore’s rebellion against federal alcohol restrictions during Prohibition. Wet City primarily serves its own beer, brewed in house, as well as local taps and snacks.

Part of the intrigue of Remington’s W.C. Harlan is the mystery surrounding it. What we can tell you about this 1920s style bar is that the owner, Lane Harlan, is also behind the successful Clavel (a Latin American restaurant) and Fadensonnen (a biergarten and natural wine bar), both nearby. Ask a local to join you for an old fashioned and tell you what they think of this iconic spot.

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