Pennsylvania whiskey revival: distillers turn to heirloom grains like rye Rosen
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A little over ten years ago, no rye whiskey had been produced in Pennsylvania for a generation. Today, nearly 20 Pa. Distilleries produce rye – and Laura Fields is at the center of the resurgence.
When Fields asked me to meet her at the Stoll and Wolfe Distillery in the small town of Lititz, Pa. Two years ago, we weren’t there for the booze. We were there for the grain.
The fields can know as many farmers as it knows distillers. Behind the 43-year-old Bucks County native’s passion for whiskey lies an underlying goal that is to improve the commercial viability of small-scale American agriculture. Through a non-profit organization she founded, her SeedSpark project funded research on heirloom grains for distilleries in Pennsylvania.
Its main cause has become the fate of Rosen rye, a grain once championed for its yield, price and taste. Rosen was in danger of disappearing for good, in part due to the decline in popularity of whiskey at the end of the 20th century.
But that day two years ago in Lancaster County, I joined Fields to watch a recently revived Rosen Rye Grain Mash being distilled and casked by revered distiller Dick Stoll. Stoll is the legendary whiskeyman whose love of Rosen first sent Fields on his quest. “It’s her fault,” she joked.
Years of effort are rolled out of the barrel now, and it has been featured at the American Whiskey Convention, an annual gathering that helps fund Fields heirloom grain research by bringing dozens of manufacturers and hundreds of attendees to Philadelphia. every September. This month, it hosted the fifth annual Independence Seaport Museum. Big brands like Bulleit, Maker’s Mark and Jack Daniel’s were there to show off lesser-known corners of their portfolio, as were artisanal distillers from across the country.
These foreign companies have joined the representatives of some 44 distilleries now operational in Pennsylvania. For a large state with an old tradition, that’s a relatively small slice of the country’s more than 2,000 distilleries in total.
For Pennsylvania to regain its place as a leader in American whiskey, Fields said, consumers need new tastes and better stories – and she believes they can find both in rye.
âYou can’t be a Kentucky distiller without bourbon,â a liquor maker told me at the convention. “It could be the same with rye for the Pennsylvania distillers.”
Pennsylvania was once the country’s leading whiskey producer. Rye was more cultivated than corn in Pennsylvania, and the Commonwealth became particularly known for its rye whiskey.
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, in which President George Washington himself fought, was primarily a business among the farmers of western Pennsylvania who distilled rye. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, brands founded in Pennsylvania like Old Overholt, Rittenhouse Rye, and Michter’s became known brands. Around 1908, a Russian student brought the rye variety Rosen to the United States, and farmers in Pennsylvania quickly adopted it.
In the 1910s, Pennsylvania was a powerhouse of distillation, rye whiskey was a dominant spirit, and rye Rosen was a respected grain.
That all changed when the United States banned alcohol consumption. âThe impact of Prohibition on grain producers – not just in Pennsylvania but across the United States – cannot be underestimated,â Fields said.
By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, new generations of drinkers had new taste preferences. Whiskey was in decline and the part of the industry that remained consolidated in Kentucky, where corn-based bourbon dominated. Americans have turned more and more to vodka, mass beer and ultimately wine.
Michter’s was a rare place in Pennsylvania, distilling in Lebanon County near Hershey until 1989. The last master distiller there was Stoll, who was formed by a descendant of Jim Beam and distilled what we have. called âthe best bourbon you’ll ever taste.â It was there that he fell in love with Rosen Rye.
With the help of researchers at Penn State, Fields got over 500 pounds of grain into Stoll’s hands just in time. He was able to taste an early sample before he died last year at the age of 86.
With his blessing, the Stoll and Wolfe Distillery has the first 200 bottles of Rosen Rye Whiskey, now well aged.
Cyrus Kehyari is the great-great-grandson of the original owner of what has become Hughes Bros. of Central Pa., one of the thousands of distilleries that did not survive Prohibition. âI grew up listening to the stories of this family distillery,â said Kehyari, who now lives in Germantown and works to revive the brand.
The region is again increasingly dotted with distilleries. Some try a portfolio that includes whiskey but is not limited to it. Others focus on the one notoriously difficult whiskey trade.
In 2010, Herman Mihalich co-founded Bristol-based Dad’s Hat Rye, which built a brand on the Pennsylvania rye revival. With Pittsburgh’s Wigle, which opened in 2012, Dad’s Hat helped lay the groundwork for the whiskey revival in Pennsylvania.
It is a growing market. Whiskey makers currently operating in Pennsylvania, many of which have only come online in recent years, include:
- 1675 Spirits (Bucks County)
- Altered State Distillery (Erie County) – produces a rye
- Barley Creek (Monroe County)
- BlueBird Distillation (Chester County) – produces a rye
- Boardroom Spirits (Montgomery County) – produces a rye
- Brandywine Branch Distillery (Chester County) – produces a rye
- Chicken Hill Distillery (Elk County)
- CJ Spirits (McKean County) – produces a rye
- Cooper Spirits (Philadelphia) – produces a rye
- Crostwater Distilled Spirits (York County) – produces a rye
- Papa’s Hat Rye (Bucks County) – produces a rye
- Dead Lightning Distilled Spirits (Cumberland County)
- Disobedient Spirits (Indiana County)
- Eight Oaks Distillery (County Lehigh) – produces a rye
- Five Saints Distilling (Montgomery County)
- Hazard Distillery (Juniata County)
- Cut Spirits (Bucks County) – produces a rye
- Hughes Bros Distillation (Bedford County) – produces a rye
- Hungry Run Distillery (Mifflin County)
- Lakehouse Distilling (Franklin County) – produces a rye
- Liberty Pole Spirits (Washington County) – produces a rye
- Lucky Sign Spirits (Allegheny County) – produces a rye
- Midstate Distillery (County of Dauphin) – produces a rye
- Nomadic Distillation (Lycoming County)
- New Liberty Distillery (Philadelphia) – produces a rye
- Manatawny Still Works (Berks County and Philadelphia)
- Red Brick Distillery (Philadelphia)
- Silverback Distillery (Monroe County) – produces a rye
- Stoll and Wolfe (Lancaster County) – produces a rye
- Strivers’ Row Distillery (Philadelphia)
- Thistle Finch Distillery (Lancaster County) – produces a rye
- Whiskey Wigle (Pittsburgh) – produces a rye
Stoll and Wolfe is currently the only distiller using Rosen rye, which is still a small-scale experiment. Others might follow: Mihalich from Dad’s Hat said he was watching the experience.
Most of the above distilleries use some kind of locally grown grain – and several are from the Double Eagle Malt House in Huntingdon Valley. Double Eagle works with other Pennsylvania heritage grains, according to business manager Alan Gladish. One of the most well-known bears the memorable name of Bloody Butcher, which is used in a highly regarded bourbon from New Liberty Distilling.
Unlike the simpler wine-making process, whose suppliers originated the concept of ‘terroir’, there is a lot going on in a glass of whiskey, including distillation and aging in charred barrels. How much can the grain really count?
That’s what Michael Swanson of Far North Spirits of Minnesota wanted to know. With the support of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture, the farmer-distiller released the results of a five-year study this spring. Tracking a dozen types of rye, the study published this spring found that mainstream hybrids have a more limited flavor range than traditional grains.
When I arrived at the American Whiskey Convention this month, I hadn’t seen Fields since that first Rosen rye distillation in Lancaster County two years ago. Wearing our face masks, we kissed. She took my hand and walked me over to the Stoll and Wolfe table. A representative handed me a small glass of aged Rosen rye, distilled by one of Pennsylvania’s last masters.
” What do you think about it ? Â»Requested fields.
Whiskey is touching: knowing the farmer, the funder and the distiller, and drinking it with old friends you haven’t seen in years because of a plague can be a way to reinforce an already tasty experience . So think of me as an impartial critic.
If you really ask, however, the rye had cinnamon on the nose and brown sugar on the palate, with a finish that reminds you to count your blessings. Delicious.