Lyon Distilling Restores Maryland's Rye Whiskey Tradition (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Lyon Distilling Restores Maryland’s Rye Whiskey Tradition

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
So, we just heard the scoop on classic Maryland foods. What we haven't yet explored are the beverages associated with the Old Line State. You've got the official state drink, milk. The classic Preakness cocktail, the Black Eyed Susan, but then you have a libation that was once a very big deal in Maryland. And some folks on the eastern shore are working hard to bring it back. Lyon Distilling is the new brainchild of former currency trader Ben Lyon and his partner, photographer Jaime Windon. Lauren Ober caught up with the couple recently to talk and drink a little rye whiskey.

MS. LAUREN OBER

00:00:35
First, a quick lesson in farming. Back in the day, Maryland grew a whole lot of tobacco. And while tobacco might be great for the economy, it does a number on the soil.

MR. BEN LYON

00:00:46
Tobacco plants naturally just deplete the soil of nitrogen. The way you replenish that is to plant rye and often it was grown as a cover crop in the winter.

OBER

00:00:57
That's Ben Lyon. As the head booze hound at Lyon Distilling, he knows a little something about rye.

LYON

00:01:03
And so you would have all this rye that had been planted over the winter, and then part of it would get plowed under. The other part would be, obviously, harvested, and then turned into something. And of course, there's only so much rye bread you can eat and so the other part of that would go to -- ended up going to making whiskey.

OBER

00:01:20
And this rye whiskey was special. Unlike most ryes, the Maryland version uses less of the grain. The liquor's about 60 percent rye. The rest of the spirit is made of corn and a little bit of malted barley. This gives the liquor a softer, smoother taste than other popular ryes at the time.

LYON

00:01:37
What you had was those desirable qualities of rye, where you're getting kind of that spicy, floral character. You get a little bit of depth and sweetness that comes naturally from that grain. But kind of in a measured way.

OBER

00:01:51
Before prohibition and just after, Maryland distilleries cranked out the stuff. In 1936, Maryland led the nation in rye production. But times and tastes change, and by the 1970s, Maryland rye had fallen off the map. In part, you can blame the James Bond cocktail phenomenon.

LYON

00:02:11
Vodka and gin had started to become extremely popular at the time and so people were sort of looking at rye as well, it's like grandpa's whiskey. You know, I want something new and fresh and cool. And the other thing is, vodka and gin are a little bit easier to drink for the untrained palette. And so people were getting out of rye.

OBER

00:02:32
Today, there's only one distiller in the state making Maryland rye, and that's Ben Lyon. With his partner Jaime Windon, Lyon opened his operation at the end of 2013. It's only the second new craft distillery to open in Maryland in four decades.

MS. JAIME WINDON

00:02:47
With his ingenious creativity, he kind of laid out a very rough sketch of we could do it for very little. I can build everything, except for the stills and I want to do small stills. I want to do things that are a little off the radar.

OBER

00:02:59
Those off the radar spirits include three types of rum, a Maryland rye and a 100 proof corn whiskey that's basically moonshine. Lyon and Windon make fewer than 100 bottles of liquor a week and they're happy keeping it small.

LYON

00:03:13
There wasn't any kind of thought about okay, this is going to become the next, you know, Bacardi or Grey Goose or something crazy like that. I mean, that was never the goal, that was never the idea.

OBER

00:03:27
The old flour mill that now serves as the distillery is huge with soaring ceilings. Big drums of fermenting mash bubble on one side of the room Katty corner are the copper pot stills where the alcohol is distilled. After checking on some fermenting liquid that will soon become rum, Lyon grinds some malted rye with a grinder he jerry rigged himself.

LYON

00:03:49
Gently grinding up the malt. Connected to our home brew malt grinder. Yeah.

OBER

00:03:56
Like brewers, distillers are using all kinds of malts to bring out different flavors in their spirits. This one is a chocolate rye malt.

LYON

00:04:03
So, it's actually malted rye that was then toasted to bring out sort of these, you know, I mean, you can almost smell it. And it smells a little bit chocolaty, kind of malty, you know?

OBER

00:04:14
Yeah. Yeah.

LYON

00:04:14
And it's really cool stuff. And so when -- in the distillate, you know, unlike in rye beer, this will actually bring out sort of one really deep rye characteristic, but it also sort of adds the perception of age to the spirit.

OBER

00:04:28
While Lyon grinds the rye malt, Windon bottles rum.

WINDON

00:04:31
Here we're doing the dark rum right now. So, bottled the white rum this morning, and then the dark rum, he uses these brew pots to slow cook a sugar into a caramel. And so, it just gets a touch of that and then it goes in the bottles.

OBER

00:04:46
And since no trip to a distillery is complete without sampling the wares, we head back to the tasting room to try some of Lyon's offerings.

LYON

00:04:53
This is the precious barrel number one of the Maryland rye. So this is really special stuff.

OBER

00:04:58
Okay. Okay. All right, now what will we be experiencing here?

LYON

00:05:03
So, you're gonna get that typical sort of slightly sweet, spicy grain characteristic from the rye. Some sort of slight floral notes, but then sort of rounding it out with that grainy barley characteristic, as well as a little bit of a sweetness and sort of a more mellow note from the corn.

OBER

00:05:19
The rye spice comes across as a smoky finish, assertive but not overpowering. It's easy to see how this drink once put Maryland on the spirits map and just maybe it could do so again. I'm Lauren Ober.

SHEIR

00:05:39
The folks at Lyon Distilling have put together a series of cocktail recipes, featuring Maryland dry whiskey. You can get in touch with your inner mixologist by checking them out on our website, metroconnection.org.
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