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Just over a decade ago, no rye whiskey had been produced in Pennsylvania for a generation. Today, more than 20 Pa. distilleries are producing 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 tiny Lititz, Pa., two years ago, we weren’t there for the booze. We were there for the grain.

Fields may know as many farmers as she knows distillers. Beneath the 43-year-old Bucks County native’s passion for whiskey is an underlying goal is to improve the commercial viability of small-scale American farming. Through a nonprofit she founded, her SeedSpark Project has funded research on heritage grains destined for Pennsylvania distilleries.

Her primary 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, partly because of whiskey’s late 20th-century decline in popularity.

But that day two years ago in Lancaster County, I joined Fields to watch a newly-revived Rosen rye grain mash be distilled and barrelled by venerated distiller Dick Stoll. Stoll is the legendary whiskeyman whose love of Rosen first sent Fields on her quest. “It’s his fault,” she joked.

Years of effort are coming out of the barrel now, and it was showcased at the American Whiskey Convention, an annual gathering that helps fund Fields’ heritage grain research by bringing dozens of makers and hundreds of attendees to Philadelphia each September. This month she hosted the fifth annual at the Independence Seaport Museum. Big brands like Bulleit, Maker’s Mark, and Jack Daniel’s were there to show lesser-known corners of their portfolio, as were craft distillers from across the country.

These out-of-state companies joined representatives from the 44 or so distilleries now operational in Pennsylvania. For a big state with an old tradition, that’s a relatively small sliver of the country’s more than 2,000 distilleries overall.

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.

“You can’t be a Kentucky distiller without a bourbon,” one spirits maker told me at the convention. “It could be the same with rye for Pennsylvania distillers.”

A rep from Cooper Spirits accepting an American Whiskey Convention award from Laura Fields Credit: Flicker Elm Photography

Prohibition changed America’s taste in booze

Pennsylvania was once the country’s dominant whiskey producer. Rye was more widely grown than corn in Pa., and the commonwealth became especially known for its rye whiskey.

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, during which President George Washington himself rode into battle, was chiefly an affair among Western Pa. farmers who distilled rye. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pennsylvania-founded brands like Old Overholt, Rittenhouse Rye, and Michter’s became household names. Sometime around 1908, a Russian student brought the Rosen variety of rye to the United States, and Pa. farmers quickly adopted it.

In the 1910s, Pennsylvania was a distilling powerhouse, rye whiskey was a dominant spirit, and Rosen rye was a respected grain.

That all changed when the United States outlawed alcohol consumption. “The impact of Prohibition on grain farmers — not just in Pa. but across the U.S. — can not be understated,” said Fields.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, new generations of drinkers had new taste preferences. Whiskey was on the decline, and the part of the industry that remained consolidated in Kentucky, where corn-powered bourbon dominated. Americans increasingly turned to vodka, mass-market beer, and eventually wine.

Michter’s was a rare holdout in Pennsylvania, distilling in Lebanon County near Hershey through 1989. The last master distiller there was Stoll, who was trained by a descendant of Jim Beam and distilled what has been called “the best bourbon you’ll never taste.” That’s where he fell in love with Rosen rye.

With the help of Penn State researchers, Fields got more than 500 pounds of the grain in 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 available, now nicely aged.

Credit: Flicker Elm Photography

Can you really taste the difference?

Cyrus Kehyari is the great-great-grandson of the original proprietor of what became Central Pa.’s Hughes Bros., one of thousands of distilleries that didn’t survive Prohibition. “I grew up hearing the stories of this distillery from my family,” said Kehyari, who now lives in Germantown and is making an effort to revive the brand.

The region is increasingly dotted with distilleries again. Some are attempting a portfolio that includes whiskey but isn’t limited to it. Others are focusing on the notoriously difficult craft of whiskey alone.

In 2010, Herman Mihalich cofounded Bristol-based Dad’s Hat Rye, which has built a brand on reviving Pennsylvania rye. Along with Pittsburgh’s Wigle, which opened in 2012, Dad’s Hat helped set the foundation for Pennsylvania’s whiskey revival.

It’s a growing market. Whiskey makers currently operating in Pa., many of which have only come online in the last several years, include:

  1. 1675 Spirits (Bucks County)
  2. Altered State Distillery (Erie County) — produces a rye
  3. Barley Creek (Monroe County)
  4. Barrel 21 Distillery (Centre County) — produces a rye
  5. BlueBird Distilling (Chester County) — produces a rye
  6. Boardroom Spirits (Montgomery County) — produces a rye
  7. Brandywine Branch Distillery (Chester County) — produces a rye
  8. Chicken Hill Distillery (Elk County)
  9. CJ Spirits (McKean County) — produces a rye
  10. Cooper Spirits (Philadelphia) — produces a rye
  11. County Seat Spirits (Lehigh County) — produces a rye
  12. Crostwater Distilled Spirits (York County) — produces a rye
  13. Dad’s Hat Rye (Bucks County) — produces a rye
  14. Dead Lightning Distilled Spirits (Cumberland County)
  15. Disobedient Spirits (Indiana County)
  16. Eight Oaks Distillery (Lehigh County) — produces a rye
  17. Five Saints Distilling (Montgomery County)
  18. Hazard’s Distillery (Juniata County)
  19. Hewn Spirits (Bucks County) — produces a rye
  20. Hidden Still Spirits  (Dauphin County) — produces a rye
  21. Hughes Bros Distilling (Bedford County) — produces a rye
  22. Hungry Run Distillery (Mifflin County)
  23. Lakehouse Distilling (Franklin County) — produces a rye
  24. Liberty Pole Spirits (Washington County) — produces a rye
  25. Lucky Sign Spirits (Allegheny County) — produces a rye
  26. Midstate Distillery (Dauphin County) — produces a rye
  27. Nomad Distilling (Lycoming County)
  28. New Liberty Distillery (Philadelphia) — produces a rye
  29. Manatawny Still Works (Berks County and Philadelphia)
  30. Mason Dixon (Adams County)
  31. Pennsylvania Distilling (Chester County) — produces a rye
  32. Red Brick Distillery (Philadelphia)
  33. Silverback Distillery (Monroe County) — produces a rye
  34. Stoll and Wolfe (Lancaster County) — produces a rye
  35. Strivers’ Row Distillery (Philadelphia)
  36. Thistle Finch Distillery (Lancaster County) — produces a rye
  37. Wigle Whiskey (Pittsburgh) — produces a rye
Credit: Christopher Wink

Stoll and Wolfe is presently the only distiller using Rosen rye, which still remains a small-scale experiment. Others may follow: Dad’s Hat’s Mihalich has said he is watching the experiment.

Many of the distilleries above use some kind of locally-grown grain — and several source from Huntingdon Valley’s Double Eagle Malt House. Double Eagle works with other Pennsylvania heritage grains, according to business manager Alan Gladish. One of the best known has the memorable name of Bloody Butcher, which is used in a well-liked bourbon from New Liberty Distilling.

Unlike the simpler process of making wine, whose purveyors originated the concept of “terroir,” a lot goes into a glass of whiskey, including distilling and charred-barrel aging. How much can the grain really count?

That’s what Michael Swanson of Minnesota’s Far North Spirits wanted to know. With support from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture, the farmer-distiller published this spring the results from a five-year study. By tracking a dozen rye types, the study released this spring found that mass-market hybrids have a more limited flavor range than heritage grains.

When I got to 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 hugged. She took my hand and walked me to the Stoll and Wolfe table. A rep handed me a tiny pour of the aged Rosen rye, distilled by one of Pennsylvania’s last old-time masters.

“Whatcha think?” Fields asked.

Whiskey is emotional: 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 have a way of boosting an already tasty experience. Consider me no impartial critic then.

If you’re really asking, though, the rye had cinnamon on the nose and brown sugar on the palate, with a finish that reminds you to count your blessings. Delicious.