Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Distillery Even Prohibition Couldn’t Kill

Shown above is a stone building that was constructed as a Baltimore distillery in the mid-1800s that has been in continual operation ever since, initially making whiskey and more recently vinegar.  Under the management of members of the Cummings family, the structure once was the largest producer of Maryland whiskey and its flagship was the iconic “Melvale Rye.”

Before the Cummings came on the scene, this location in Baltimore as early as 1806 was the site of a merchant flour mill, employing the waters of Jones Falls, a 17.9 mile stream running through the city.  The mill was operated by a series of owners until it came into the hands of the Gambrill family about 1830.  In addition to milling grain, they are reported to have operated a sawmill and milled cotton at the site.

For the next three decades the Gambrills operated there until the location became important during the Civil War because the property held a railroad station, dam and strategic bridge.  In 1861 Union troops marched in and garrisoned it.  Southern sympathizers, the Gambrills were unhappy with the occupation and in 1862 sold the property to William Denmead. During the war the name “Melvale” was first attached to the area. 

Denmead, with his son, Aquilla, expanded the use of the property.  Sometime between 1862 and 1872, according to the Maryland Historical Trust, they built as a distillery the stone building shown above.  It was an Italian rubblestone structure with segmentally arched window openings and architecturally distinguished by a cupola centrally located on the ridge line of the roof.

Over the next few years the facility was developed by adding two warehouses, a boiler shed and a dwelling, likely for the distillery manager.   An advertisement published in the Baltimore American in April,1880, mentions the valuable machinery on site, including a "Davis Disintegrator for grinding bones.”  Distilleries often used animal bones as a filter in making whiskey.

After running the distillery they called Melvale for about two decades, the Denmeads separated the plant and two acres of the grounds from their farm and sold it to a group of locals in which John Cummings was the lead figure.  A Baltimore commission merchant, Cummings by that time was 50 years old and married.  The 1880 census found him and his wife, Ellen (nee Gorman), living with their seven children, four boys and three girls.  Residing with them was a nephew of Cummings.  Their second son, William, at 17 already was working with his father and soon would be moving into a management position at the distillery. Under Cummings family ownership, the Melvale Distillery was further expanded, adding warehouses and outbuildings, as shown above in a artist’s rending of the site. 

The owners advertised widely in Maryland newspapers.  Melvale Pure Rye Whiskey, was described in a 1914 ad as "Manufactured whiskey distilled from the highest grade rye. Its pronounced high flavor, character and bouquet make it most desirable for medicinal and other purposes."  

In addition to their Melvale Brand, the Cummings featured “Lake Roland Whiskey,” named for a 100-acre, now defunct, reservoir in Baltimore County that in turn was named for Roland Run, a nearby stream that fed the lake.  They packaged their liquor in amber glass containers varying in sizes from flasks to quart bottles, as seen here.  

A closeup of a label, unfortunately damaged, reveals an artful picture of the distillery and the company logo.   When the Bottle in Bond Act was passed by Congress in 1897 the label was revised and overprinted in red to indicate that Melvale Rye was being produced under the terms of that legislation.  That same year, the Cummings, father and son, joined a syndicate of local whiskey men to take over the Orient Distilleries, renaming the facility the Canton Distilleries.

This move indicates the Cummings’ need for more whiskey supplies, despite their distillery having one of the largest mashing capacities of any in Maryland.  Records of the Maryland State Tax Commissioner document the growth of production over the next dozen years.  In 1897 the Commissioner reported that the taxable value of Melvale distilled spirits for the year was $168,196.  By 1905 that number had more than doubled, to $373, 316.  The trend continued through 1902 when the taxable value reached $446,880.  Aided by exceptionally good railroad access, Melvale Distillery had become the largest whiskey producer in Maryland.

By this time, John Cummings had died.  He passed away in 1900 at the age of 74 and was interred in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery next to his late wife, Ellen, who had died in 1891.   William B. Cummings, having worked at the distillery since he was a youth, took the reins of management.  His young brother, Alexander joined him as the company secretary-treasurer.   Melvale Distillery continued to thrive, moving beyond Maryland to sales in other nearby states.  The company’s back-of-the-bar bottles are found throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

A measure of the brand’s prestige was the number of copy-cat whiskey names that emerged on the market, including “Melville,” “Melwood,” “Mell-Wood,” and “Melbrook,” as other liquor dealers apparently tried to cash in by causing confusion among consumers.  Despite the fact that the Cummings brothers had trademarked “Melvale” in 1902, an illustration here shows a label from Melvale Rye marketed by F. W. Hunt & Co. of Boston prior to 1920.  It is clearly an infringement of Cummings’ trademark.

Likely more troublesome to the owners was the onrush of prohibition as states and localities increasingly were voting “dry.”  Although Maryland refused to ban alcohol production and sales, it was helpless against the amendment to the Constitution that in 1920 ushered in National Prohibition.  Historians have suggested that Melvale was designated a bonded warehouse by the government at the beginning of the dry era and that the Cummings brothers were allowed to stay open for several years to produce grain alcohol for government purposes.

The family sold the distillery in 1925. In 1928 the plant was purchased from that owner by William A. Boykin Jr.  His firm,  American Cider and Vinegar Co., operated the facility until 1956 when the Boykin family sold it to Standard Brands, Inc., that has continued to operate it to produce vinegar.  Although it no longer makes whiskey, the Melvale Distillery — unless there has been a recent change — is still operating.  The stone building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although Melvale Rye was not revived for many years after Repeal, the brand name has re-emerged recently, the product of the New Liberty Distillery, a “boutique” whiskey-maker located in Philadelphia.  On its website, the distillery claims:  “Our Melvale Straight Rye’s mash bill is 51% rye and 49% malted barley to capture the bright and grassy flavor and softer finish of the old Maryland rye brands…This medium body spirit is true to its roots….”   Assuming that is true, those Melvale roots are sunk 150 years deep in whiskey history  — with a stone building in Baltimore to prove it.  

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