I’m not sure what the “I’m from Pennsylvania” equivalent of David Allan Coe’s “I’m a long-haired redneck rock-n-roll son of the South” is … but I am that guy. Raised in Amish country, lived in Pittsburgh and the Philly burbs, and now I’m settled next to a cornfield, about 10 miles from the geographical center of the state. I eat Lebanon baloney. I believe in the weather predictions of groundhogs and woolly bear caterpillars. I know how to pronounce “Susquehanna,” “Schuylkill,” and “Kishacoquillas.”
But I came to one Pennsylvania thing late: I didn’t drink rye whiskey until I was 37. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since. Honestly, I hadn’t even known that rye was connected to Pennsylvania at that time, probably because I was from the eastern part of the state.
Monongahela rye … built a reputation large enough to be mentioned in Melville’s Moby-Dick in 1851.
Rye whiskey was distilled up and down America’s eastern seaboard in the 1700s; George Washington made it at his Mount Vernon distillery. But it stood up and roared out in the valley of the Monongahela River. Monongahela rye—made by Overholt, Large, Dillinger, Sam Thompson, Gibson, and the uniquely euphonious Guckenheimer distillery—built a reputation large enough to be mentioned in Melville’s Moby-Dick in 1851.
Before the fall of Prohibition, Pennsylvania rye was famous, and iconic. It didn’t recover from Prohibition until very recently. Now that its revival is finally happening, it’s a touchstone for today’s Pennsylvania distillers, who would love to burnish their brands with that renewed glory.
Problem is … no one’s quite sure what made Monongahela rye so distinctive. There are things in the way it was made that set it apart from Maryland rye and Kentucky bourbon. The rye was mostly from Pennsylvania, and they grew strains of rye we don’t use so much today: Rosen, Danko, Abruzzi. There was little or no corn in many of their recipes, and often some malted rye to go with the malted barley. They used a sweet mash, not the Kentucky-style sour mash.
Distillers used a type of still, called the three-chamber still, that extracted more flavor from the grain than column stills and quicker than pot stills. Warehouses were often brick or stone, and heated through the winter, which would gently change and accelerate the aging. But none of these things were done by all the distillers. Some did … and some didn’t. It’s very hard to center in on even a set of differences and say, “Okay, this is what made Monongahela rye different.” I know because I’m sitting on a distillers’ committee that’s trying to do that right now, and it’s not easy!
It would be a lot easier if these old-time distillers had left behind some kind of rule or definition. But they weren’t making rules; they were too busy making whiskey.
It would be a lot easier if these old-time distillers had left behind some kind of rule or definition. But they weren’t making rules; they were too busy making whiskey. It’s up to us to do something with that Pennsylvania rye reputation to honor them, and the spirit they made.
What to do? Look around at rye whiskey today. Heritage brands like Old Overholt and Rittenhouse are regaining stature. A 95 percent rye whiskey from the old Seagram’s distillery in Indiana is blended and finished in other barrels for bottlers under a variety of names, and craft distillers run in every direction with rye. European distillers are making distinctive new rye whiskeys. Variety reigns!
Pennsylvania distillers should take that list of traits, pick the ones they like, and make their own Monongahela-like rye. Age it to where it’s delicious, heated warehouses or not, and bottle it. Then, you and I will open it up and enjoy it, together, the way Abe Overholt and Sam Thompson and Samuel Dillinger intended. Whether we’re in Pennsylvania or not.