We know that Kentucky is all that when it comes to bourbon, but when it comes to whiskey history in general, the Bluegrass State is an upstart whippersnapper compared to Pennsylvania. And while corn is bourbon’s bosom buddy, in Pennsylvania, you’ve got to talk rye. The Pennsylvania farmers of the 18th century, the Scots-Irish, the Swiss-German, brought a distilling culture with them from their homelands and made do with the grains that grew best in their new grounds: rye being foundational.
“Monongahela rye was the first spirit in the United States to be named for its home turf, the terroir where it came from,” says Pennsylvania whiskey historian Sam Komlenic. “Monongahela rye was the dominant offshoot of Pennsylvania rye, with four factors that distinguish it from Kentucky bourbon. Number one is, there is no corn in the mash bill. The mash bill was generally a proportion of about 80% rye and 20% barley malt.”
Sweet mash fermentation (new yeast for every distillation), with that distillation performed in a three-chamber still, were also native to the Monongahela process. “A three-chamber still is kind of a combination of pot stills and column stills in that it’s essentially three pot stills stacked in a column,” says Komlenic. “You’re filling each chamber individually and distilling in the top chamber first, and then that spillage goes down to the second chamber, and is further distilled when a new batch comes into the top and then drops to the third chamber and is distilled again.”
The last factor was heated aging. “Our warehouses were by far predominantly masonry, either stone or brick or a combination of the two, and those warehouses were heated with steam produced by the distillery so that they never went below about 70 degrees. They were heated all year long,” says Komlenic.
Three-chambered stills and year-long steam heating have seen their day, but many Pennsylvania craft distillers are guided by the cherished traditions. The threads in the Pennsylvania whiskey world stretch wide, and the fabric has many cross-stitches. The first name in Beam bourbon, Jacob Beam, was born in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1750s as Johannes Jakob Boehm, before he scooted to Kentucky with an Americanized name. One of his many descendants with his hand in a whiskey barrel some generations later was Everett Beam, master distiller at the original Michter’s Pennsylvania distillery.
Distilling History Meets the 21st Century
That Michter’s connection is a significant one for Avianna Wolfe, co-founder of Stoll and Wolfe distillery. “Our master distiller, Dick Stoll, was the last master distiller at Michter’s in Pennsylvania, which was the oldest operating distillery when it closed in 1989,” says Wolfe. “So many of those original distillers were from Pennsylvania originally, and then made their way down to Kentucky. Most of the people who came here came in the early 1700s, including my husband’s family, were agricultural people with the distilling culture in place. All of the farmers had some sort of distilling setup for their leftover grain. A lot easier to trade and transport whiskey than it was grain.”
Jim Hough at Liberty Pole Spirits is also a strong advocate of Pennsylvania distilling knowledge. “We make the Monongahela style of Pennsylvania rye,” he says. “There are many, many different opinions on what actually Monongahela rye was. But we’re pretty much convinced that Monongahela rye is simply defined as a high rye whiskey and most importantly, lacking any corn in the mash. Monongahela ryes tended to be spicier. They didn’t get the sweetness that you might get from a Maryland-style rye.”
Liberty Pole makes its whiskey-only distillery lineup on pot stills. “We have a 600-gallon pot and we’re a pure pot-still operation. We don’t have a hybrid still or a column or a beer well. We do everything in batches,” Hough says. “We think pot stills produce a heavier and more viscous final product, which we like. That goes back to those Whiskey Rebellion and early Pennsylvania whiskey days when whiskey was primarily made on pot stills.”
Herman Mihalich at Dad’s Hat is fond of the pot still as well. “We have a really nice 2000-liter pot still. We do double distillation. We have a side finishing column that on the second distillation, we use to tailor the final cuts. It’s different than what was done in the big column stills where you do the column still as the first cut and you do the finishing in a doubler. That’s something we do that enables us to really dial in the cuts we’re taking off of the still.”
Dad’s Hat also uses a sweet mash in their fermentation, and have experimented with their malts, going from less flavorful six-row barleys to two-row. “We did our recipe development with what used to be a program at Michigan State University called the artisan distillery program, and they helped us play with some different malts that might bring a bit more flavor to our whiskey,” he says. “The barley malt we use is a two-row brewers’ malt that brings enough enzymes but also has a very really great flavor dimension to it.”
“We’ve been working with some local malt companies to try to introduce some local malts, but we’ve been doing that carefully,” says Mihalich. “The barley malt we use plays a very important role in our flavor profile, so we’ll be careful about switching over to other malts.”
Go With the Grain
We’ll return to more of the distillation niceties of all these distillers later, but let’s get to the kernel of Pennsylvania distilling, old and new: the rye. With their Seed Spark project, Laura Fields of the nonprofit Delaware Valley Fields Foundation has made the phrase “what’s old is new again” ripen—ripen as well as the Rosen rye they propagated. “The Seed Spark project focuses on isolating which grains historically were used in distilling and propagating them, returning them to the beverage industry,” says Fields.” “So this year is our seventh year, our seventh crop, and we’ve been working specifically with Rosen rye to bring that back because of the legacy of Dick Stoll and Michter’s Pennsylvania.”
Fields organizes the annual American Whiskey Convention to fund the Foundation’s work. She had heard that Dick Stoll was frustrated that he couldn’t get his hands on Rosen rye, and that sent Fields sleuthing.
“The way that I retrieved the Rosen is through the USDA’s seed bank,” she says. “You basically need to contact the USDA and ask them to send you these tiny five-ounce packets of rye or whatever particular type of grain. I took that five ounces of seed and turned it into acreage. The nice thing about seed propagation is it’s exponential, so you start one year and you have five ounces, the next year you have a bagful. You’ve got a couple hundred pounds, then you have thousands of pounds, and then you’re into tens of thousands of pounds.”
Fields comes from a farming background, and has strong connections with Pennsylvania farmers. “I gave it to one farmer, Bob McDonald, who had two acres planted. Penn State had it growing there and then another location at Delaware Valley University—all of those locations had donations of seed from me,” she says. “We’ve been keeping records on how it’s growing and the amount of microclimates in Pennsylvania where it would grow best.”
“We spoke to the folks at Liberty Pole,” says Fields. “They were given a donation of Rosen. At Stoll & Wolfe, this is their second year distilling it, so they’ll actually have a straight Rosen rye in September. Our first distillation run was before Dick Stoll passed away. It was so incredible for me that, while he was still with us, he was able to distill Rosen rye again. Because he was the last guy to do it and then he got to do it again.”
Stoll and Wolfe will continue doing it, according to Avianna Wolfe. “Now we’re also planting that Rosen rye and corn on a family farm that has had continuous farming in my husband’s family since around 1740,” Wolfe says. “It was deeded from William Penn’s brother, so it’s been around for a long time. We’re super excited to be working with that grain. That grain will be more and more taking over all our grains. We always used natural and local, but we’re moving to try to completely have the family farm’s grain in all of our whiskies.”
Jim Hough at Liberty Pole uses other heritage grains, like Bloody Butcher corn in his whiskies, but he’s big on Rosen rye as well. “We were one of two Pennsylvania distilleries that were selected to distill a batch of Rosen rye,” he says. “That’s really exciting for us. That’s in a 53-gallon barrel and that will be available in a couple years. We had transitioned into a traditional craft model of using small barrels. But we have been laying down nothing but 53-gallon barrels for the past two years, so we’ve got a lot of big-barrel whiskey that we’re sitting on that we’re really excited about when that starts to come to maturity.”
Herman Mihalich at Dad’s Hat also has contacts with farmers producing Rosen rye. “The farmer we use here right down the road from where we are planted a lot more this year, so we’re hoping that by next fall, we might have enough to do a commercial batch.” Mihalich says he gets his current grain from Meadow Brook Farm, from a family that’s been growing rye on that land since 1716. “Nevada Mease runs Meadow Brook Farms, and he does a great job of managing the quality,” Mihalich says. “He leaves the rye in the ground until very late in the season, mid-July, so we get a very ripe and mature rye berry. He also has cleaning equipment that’s very specific to rye. Also, he put in a special storage silo with air paneling that allows him to keep the grain in very good condition for a long time.”
Always Tinkering with the Craft
All of Pennsylvania’s craft distillers are blessed with the good soil, growing conditions and the hard work of the state’s farmers. Today’s distillers would have had a lot of distilling competition back in the early days. “It’s probably fair to say that about 1 in 10 farms had a still back then,” says Sam Komlenic. “I’ve read accounts of an entire farm being traded for a substantial still because that still had so much commercial potential. They all started out as farmer distillers. Things progressed from a farmer distiller with one pot, or if you were a big guy, you had two or three stills, and those guys who were able to acquire a reputation seem to have built their empires on that.”
Today’s distilleries have a lot of knowledge to build on. “Most of these small distilleries understand the significance of Pennsylvania’s distilling past,” says Komlenic. “But at the same time, the reins are off when it comes to craft distilling. They’re incredibly creative so they’re building on this past and forging into a new present and future that I think is going to be really exciting.”
All of the distillers we spoke to have projects in the barrel that they are excited about. “We have our own bourbon that’s aging, using Dick Stoll’s recipe that was the same as the A. H. Hirsch mash-bill methods that he used,” says Avianna Wolfe. We’re doing some barrel finishing, some bourbon cask finish for our PA rye. We still have quite a bit of sourced bourbon that was chosen by Dick.”
Liberty Pole’s Jim Hough has it going on as well. “We’ve had success with our peated bourbon, so we have done a lot of experimentation with other smoke malts. We have a mesquite rye whiskey that is now a two-year-old straight whiskey that is phenomenal. We’ll be releasing it as a one-off product this year. We also do a peated rye once a year.” Most of those special spirits are small runs, so distillery sales only on that count.
At Dad’s Hat, Herman Mihalich is “… having some fun with barrel finishes,” he says. They have a vermouth-barrel finish from barrels from Vya, a sweet California vermouth. “The vermouth finish is a unique one. As far as we know, we’re the only ones doing a vermouth barrel finish. So, it goes in a new barrel first and then finished in the used sweet vermouth barrels.” They also have a port-barrel finished whiskey as well.
Laura Fields of the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation, is hoping to keep the grains growing—and circulating. “We give grants to multiple farms, distilleries, breweries, mills, and malt houses, and universities to fund our seed-stock projects.” she says. “This coming year I’m going to try and focus on Mammoth White, also called Egyptian White, which was the distiller’s grain for rye back in the 1880s, 1890s. I’m tracking it into Canada and finding out how I can get my hands on the stuff just to help with some other agronomists and seed historians. Some of these very specific varietals are flavor forward. Rosen is sweeter. It has this much more dynamic characteristic. It’s very floral.”
Fields laments that commodity grains became the norm after Prohibition, so fewer farmers were growing small grains. “These grains now, everything is commodity. Everything is ‘grow as much as you can, as fast as you can, and as bulk as you can,’ without consideration for flavor. That’s how we ended up with number-two dent corn and not these other heritage varietals of corn which are vastly more flavorful. Distillers, on the other hand, want specialty grains with flavor.”
And flavor is what Pennsylvania distillers are putting in the barrel. Their work with heritage grains, the merging of old and new technologies, and their willingness to experiment have brought outstanding flavor dynamics to their whiskies, which are making new—appreciative—noises in the whiskey world. This Whiskey Rebellion won’t need any troops sent in, unless they are looking for some stirring spirits to sip.
And if you want to see (and taste) more of Pennsylvania whiskey history, check out the Whiskey Rebellion trail.
Tom Bentley is a business writer and editor, an essayist, and a fiction writer. (He does not play banjo.) He’s had hundreds of freelance pieces published—ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects—in newspapers, magazines, and online. His self-published book on finding and cultivating your writer’s voice,...