The Wight Stuff
ONE OF MARYLAND's best-known rye distilleries,
with expressions popular both before and after the prohibition years, was the
And, as often happened with other old Maryland brands, prohibition found a
strong family continuity in the distilling industry traveling a different
road from the brand name with which it was once associated.
Meanwhile, Baltimore grocer Al Hyatt's son Edward and his partner Nicholas Griffith operated a whiskey dealership (Griffith & Hyatt) until 1863, when Hyatt moved to New York and teamed up with a gentleman named Clark. By 1868 Hyatt & Clark were able to purchase the Wight distillery in Cockeysville and enlarge it to allow broad-scale producing and marketing of their own brand-name Maryland Rye whiskey. Within ten years the Army’s Medical Purveying Depot in New York was stockpiling Sherwood Rye Whiskey for hospital use. In 1882, after Hyatt & Clark dissolved, Hyatt incorporated the firm as The Sherwood Distilling Co., with himself as president. The relationship between the Hyatts and the Wights must have been a pretty close one as well, for after Hyatt’s death in 1894, company leadership was taken over by John Hyatt Wight.
As early as 1914, Frank L. Wight was working at the distillery, and he
continued to do so right up to the day it closed down in compliance with
passage of the 21st Amendment he went on to become a major figure in Maryland's
post-Repeal distilling industry.
He headed the Frank L. Wight Distilling Co., which built a distillery at Loreley, in the Whitemarsh area further toward the east side of Baltimore, and marketed Sherbrook, Wight's Old Reserve, and Congressional Club Maryland straight ryes. That distillery was purchased by the Hiram Walker, Inc. of Canada and subsequently shut down when production moved to their Peoria, Illinois facility (see photo of label). Whereupon, Wight organized the Cockeysville Distilling Company and in 1946 he built a distillery just down the street from where the original Sherwood site had stood until the buildings were demolished in 1926. Unable to regain access to the Sherwood brand, Wight produced and marketed instead a Maryland straight rye he called Ryebrook.
Wight's principal backer was Heublein, Inc., of Connecticut, and following Wight's death in 1958 they shut down the distillery.
Altogether four generations of Wights distilled whiskey in Maryland, the last being John Hyatt Wight II, who died in 1990 at the age of seventy-eight.
Portions of the Cockeysville distillery still remain. A brick warehouse on York Road, still wears the word, "Home of RYEBROOK" in faded paint along its roofline.. Even more clear are the words "COCKEYSVILLE DISTILLING COMPANY" inlaid on the front of the building, although partially obscured by a banner for an appliance repair shop. The warehouse and another building are now used as a small industrial compound containing a cafe, the appliance repair, and Mark Downs Furniture, a discount and second-hand store with the cleverest name we've seen in a long while (John says he can visualize the late-night TV commercial, with the proprietor himself -- faithful dog at his side -- saying, ".. .best deal in the Tri-State. I'm Mark Downs, and you have my word on it!").
The Ryebrook brand is a name that is virtually non-existent in internet searches. The only example we've found is this label, shown here courtesy of John Sullivan's wonderful collection of miniatures. John specializes in miniature vodka bottles, but that doesn't prevent him from supporting an impressive display of American whiskey minis as well (not unlike our own "non-collection" of rum or beer bottles).
Standing next to the warehouse, and part of the same complex, is another rambling building, even larger than the warehouse. It has no old markings or signage, but it appears to be contemporary with the other building, if not a bit older. The furniture store is actually a separate, more modern structure behind, and across a small creek, from these two.
Heublein also marketed "Wight's Sherbrook Straight Rye Whiskey", which they produced at their giant facility in Peoria, Illinois. That brand name may seem to have been chosen in order to take advantage of customer confusion, as that was a common practice among Maryland whiskey merchants, but actually there really had been a "Sherbrook" brand before prohibition, albeit not in Maryland. The Sherbrook Distillery which operated in Cincinnati from 1900 to 1918 was a very large company. The Robert E. Snyder Whiskey Brand Database lists no less than forty-five different brands registered to Sherbrook, with names that indicated at least national, if not worldwide, distribution. Such a well-recognized name would have been advantageous even without the similarity to Sherwood. The shot glass seen here was distributed as a promotional piece for the Cincinnati Sherbrook.
Meanwhile, the Sherwood brand didn't entirely disappear. During prohibition, Sherwood Rye was sold as prescription medicine and eventually the brand was purchased by Louis Mann. His Sherwood Distilling Company was located, at least nominally, in Westminster, about 25 miles northeast of Cockeysville. Much of the bottling, however (and perhaps distilling as well), was done at the William Foust Distillery, twenty miles further north in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. Mann built The Sherwood Distilling Corporation into the fourth most important independent distilling company in America
According to journalist James H. Bready, writing for the Maryland
Historical Society, some of the early (Hyatt & Clark) Sherwood Rye was shipped
to Cuba and back as part of its aging process, a smaller-scale implementation of
the "grand tour" method being used by Outerbridge Horsey. Interestingly, that's
not the only connection we've discovered between these two brands.
post-Repeal Sherwood Distilling Company (of Westminster) bottled whiskey under
the name Old Horsey Rye in Glen Rock at the Foust Distillery.
Story and original photography copyright ©2006 by John Lipman. All rights reserved.