Rye Tasting V: Pikesville Supreme

(part of a series of posts on a recent panel tasting of 18 American rye whiskies that starts here. For more information on rye whiskey and additional tasting notes, pick up the January/February 2007 issue of Imbibe magazine.)

I didn’t want to get too complicated while talking about rye — after all, it’s a strange enough creature to most people, and I didn’t want to muddy the waters any. But with Pikesville Supreme, something needs to be cleared up regarding rye whiskey’s heritage in the United States.

Traditionally, there were two types of rye that existed until fairly recently: the spicier, tangier Pennsylvania rye, also known as Monongahela rye; and the softer-tasting, brighter Maryland rye. During rye’s heyday, there were numerous brands of each variety, many hailing from the whiskey’s namesake states, but as with other products such as vermouth, the name ultimately had less to do with geography than with style.

As the rye world crumbled beginning with Prohibition, fewer distilleries produced rye (or much of anything, for that matter), and the liquor industry became dominated by fewer, larger players. Today, to the best of my knowledge, there’s not a drop of rye whiskey commercially distilled in either Pennsylvania or Maryland (if I’m wrong, please, somebody tell me — I’d love to know), and almost all rye whiskey is now made in Kentucky. As these Kentucky distillers bought up old brands of rye from defunct operations, the Pennsylvania style of rye prevailed. Despite occasional rumors and discussions about which camp Jim Beam Rye falls into, I believe that Pikesville Supreme is the last remaining brand of Maryland-style rye.

Manufactured by Heaven Hill — makers of the mighty Rittenhouse ryes, among others — Pikesville Supreme was originally named for Pikesville, Maryland, where Pikesville whiskey was distilled by L. Winand & Bro., beginning in the 1890s. Prohibition killed the company, but after repeal, the brand name (and, reportedly, the recipe) was purchased by Andrew Merle. For the next several decades, Pikesville Maryland Rye continued to be made in Maryland, at the Monumental Distillery (later the Majestic Distillery) in Lansdowne. Majestic ceased distilling in 1972, but for the next decade, it continued to bottle and sell Pikesville rye (it’s likely some of this whiskey was purchased in barrel lots from other distillers). In 1982 the brand was sold to Heaven Hill, which has produced and bottled it ever since.

Pikesville Supreme Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey

Pikesville Supreme is bottled at 80 proof, and aged three years. The simply designed label proclaims it’s “The Aristocrat of Straight Whiskies,” but its price in the $12 range suggests this aristocrat may be a bit down-at-heel. Commonly found in the mid-Atlantic states (and, apparently, the U.K.), Pikesville Supreme is pretty scarce everywhere else.

In a blind tasting, mixed among the other ryes, Pikesville Supreme was something of a surprise. The nose was very crisp and fruity, with notes of raspberry and pear. On the palate, the whiskey came across as quite sweet, with a big round flavor marked with vanilla and fresh-mown hay. Several panelists remarked on its nice balance and long finish.

As opposed to most of the other ryes tasted, the Pikesville had a lighter, grassier flavor, more smooth and sweet than spicy and sour, and without the moody oakiness of the longer-aged whiskies. While the whiskey was a shift of gears from spicier ryes such as the Rittenhouse and the Wild Turkey, panelists found it quite pleasant, if without ambition. One panelist summed it up perfectly: “It’s sweet, but well-balanced. If this costs $60 a bottle, I’d say it’s overpriced; if it costs $12 a bottle, I’d say it’s great.”

Verdict: At around $12 a bottle, the Pikesville Supreme is a real catch. I think we all expected to be disappointed by this whiskey, but it outpaced similar-range ryes such as Old Overholt and Jim Beam. One panelist even placed this whiskey in his top tier (near the bottom end of the top tier, I should note), and while the Pikesville is easily outgunned by the super-premium upstarts in the rye market, when taken for what it is — a good, cheap mixing whiskey — Pikesville Supreme is a pleasant surprise.

Next: Hirsch

19 Responses to Rye Tasting V: Pikesville Supreme

  1. I’m enjoying this series quite a bit. Wish I could actually buy some good rye near here.

    As for Jim Beam, the category it falls into is “bad bourbon”. I bought a bottle a few years ago and found nothing distinctively “rye” about it. I’ll just keep searching for real rye whiskey in other states.

  2. Hi Paul – I just found your blog while doing a google search for grenadine. I love it!
    I mostly write about my version of home cooking, but every once in a while, I enjoy making and drinking creative cocktails. I’ll be back…

  3. Sittin’ here enjoying your article on rye whiskey and sippin’ on my Pikesville… An agree, damn good cheap whiskey as rye whiskey was intended…

    Stay safe!

  4. Finally got hold of some Pikesville (at Hi-Times Wine Cellar in Costa Mesa, CA). I have been using Old Overholt as my usual cocktailing Rye, so I decided to do a blind comparison of the Overcoat & Pikesville.
    The Pikesville had more complexity and a bigger finish than the Overholt. We both favored the Pikesville, but that’s straight up–this weekend we’ll try them in a couple French Manhattans. Thanks for your work, which I keep coming back to (especially since trying the Maple Hill 23–wow & thanks!).


  6. Picked up some Pikesville on the spur of the moment with the intention of trying to make a Sazerac (sneaky liquor store manager placed some Peychaud’s right next to the Lucid and I had to commit).

    I’m no mixologist, nor am I a whiskey aficionado, and my Sazerac skills need improvement…but thanks a bunch for the review, at least I know what kind of rye I’m actually dealing with!

  7. Great site keep up the good work
    I have been told by numerous people that the Pikesville rye is the same as the rittenhouse 80 just a different bottling.

  8. Murray’s latest whisky bible rates this stuff at 92- just two points less than the Rittenhouse 100.

    Quite a testimonial!

  9. Bob,

    I’m 18 months late on this, but if you’re still looking to sell please reply to this comment and let’s work something out.

    I grew up in Canada where rye does not seem to have faded as much. when I went to college in DC I could find this and Beam Rye. I chose this. mostly make rye and gingers, though not bad for a few sweet shots to pregame here and there.

    I’ve moved to predominantly single malts now, and the odor of Pikesville reminds me of college and over-frequenting the bottle. But that scent has a powerful nostalgia which will not be easily replaced.

  10. I located Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey in Maryland. (I have had difficulty locating it in other states.) Just a month ago, the MD retail store had the 4 year old Pikesville Rye. Today, my niece went to buy the Pikesville Rye for me, she found that it was only a 3 year old. Your post mentions it as a 3 year old.

    Has the producer, Heaven Hill, changed the product? What is the difference in taste between the two ages?

    Thank you.


  11. I wrote to Heaven Hill Distilleries, the producer of Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey. They indicated that they have been aging Pikesville Rye for 3 years over the past few years, due to the increased demand for rye whiskey. It is available only in CA, KY, MA, MD, TN, & Washington, DC. (Their Rittenhouse Rye is still aged for 4 years.)

    I picked up some more Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey while driving through Maryland recently. I found the 1.75 L bottle selling for $18 to $22!

    Pikesville Rye has become a mainstay of my liquor cabinet.


  12. there are 1.75 bottles around? oh, my.

    i found this a few years ago and immediately found it superior to all of the lower end ryes.

    enjoying a bit tonight myself. an outstanding value. would love to find some of those 4 year old bottles — a touch sad, like HH cutting the 15 year “old van winkle” — i found my last 2 bottles in wisconsin 4 years ago.

    excellent review. thanks.

  13. I found this at an MMI shop at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, a very pleasant surprise since I didn’t think it was possible to find rye anywhere at all in the UAE (including at the duty free). The label and price give the wrong impression of this really great drink. This. is. rye. Sweet and simple, bold but not brash, it is the perfect sippin whiskey for any good American. Or anyone else for that matter!

  14. I’m from the UK and just bought a bottle, £20, which works out at around $30 I think. Cheaper than Canadian Club (the only other Rye I’ve seen so far in off-licences). So it’s good to see that the Pikesville has a good review. Not worth $60, but possibly worth $30!? I’ll enjoy my Manhattan anyway 😉 Although I think we pay a fair bit more for our spirits in the UK, for $12 (or £8) I could only buy the cheapest of the cheap supermarket own brand, which isn’t really drinkable.

  15. Pikesville is a band practice staple for the ensemble I’m proud to be part of here in Baltimore. Between the 7 or 8 or 9 of us (depending on who’s free), a couple 30-packs of Natty Boh and a 5th or 2 of Pikesville to pass around between tunes really gets the ol’ creative juices flowing.

  16. Love pikesville Rye, can’t get it in the U.S.A. Would like to find a store that ships to the U.S.A. Can someone help me out. Thank you. Please e/mail me. Would love a few bottles before Christmas. Nelson

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