Rye RebelsFeb 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Jimmy Guignard
Born in North Carolina, I always feel like an outsider in Pennsylvania. I absorbed the South the way I learned my accent—effortlessly, through a kind of cultural osmosis. My Southern knowledge and habits are a part of my DNA, like grits, barbecue, sweet tea, collard greens, and sweet corn. In the South, a lot of that corn makes its way into bourbon. I grew up with Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey 101, and a splash of one of those takes me home.
I’ve lived outside the South for over twenty years, seventeen of those in Pennsylvania, and I’ve realized I’ll never soak up another place like I did the South. Which bothers me, because I like to know, really know, the place I live. I want to know the land, the seasons, the flora and fauna, the food traditions. The booze. I have to work to know Pennsylvania, and have learned the northcentral terrain and seasons from thousands of miles of cycling. At some point, I heard about the Whiskey Rebellion and started paying attention. After all, it involved whiskey, rye to be specific, and it’s got a cool flag that doesn’t adorn a Dodge Charger.
The Unofficial Tioga County PA Whiskey Co-Op was distilled in the flames of a northcentral Pennsylvania ritual I love—the fire ring. During the pandemic, Francis, Dan, Tom, and I started drinking whiskey regularly around a fire after our weekend bike rides. We avoided people, because the last thing a cyclist wants is a lung-scorching sickness. As the fire rings and covid continued, we expanded our whiskey range from bourbon to rye. Our motto is “Your whiskey is my whiskey.”
One post-ride fire ring, Francis brought Pikesville Rye. I found it a bit spicier than the bourbon, and I liked it. The whiskey seemed to match my attitude better than bourbon. I find as I get older, I’m a little less patient, a little more ornery, a little more likely to say “I ain’t doing that.” Later, I learned that Pikesville Rye is a Maryland-style rye, which means it is closer to bourbon than the hotter Pennsylvania and New York ryes. Pikesville Rye is a rye on training wheels, though a tasty one.
Then McKenzie Rye Whiskey from Finger Lakes Distilling in New York made the fire ring. Not a Keystone State rye, but the localest I could find at the time. Rye grains don’t care about state lines anyway, just regions. The Co-Op started sending each other articles about rye and learned that Pennsylvania has a tradition of rye going back to the 1700s.
Rye whiskey makes sense in Pennsylvania. Rye is a hearty grain that survives harsh northern winters and cooler climates better than corn does. Back in the day, whiskey distillers had to largely stick to the grain that grew closest to home. These days, many distillers source their grains from anywhere, which has led to grains called VNS, for variety not sourced. Unlike wines, distilling whiskey requires more steps, which means, in the eyes of some whiskey experts, the grains matter less.
But some Pennsylvania and New York distillers aren’t buying it, and they have revived the market for local grains. Dick Stoll, the Stoll of Stoll & Wolfe Distillery, in Lititz, and Laura Fields, of the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation (more on them later), encouraged Penn State professor Greg Roth to borrow a few ounces of Rosen rye seeds from the federal government’s seed bank and re-establish Rosen rye, popular in the 1700s. Roth succeeded, and, in 2019, Stoll & Wolfe began to distill limited quantities of whiskey from Rosen rye. Stoll had a chance to taste just one batch of Rosen rye whiskey before he died.
Liberty Pole’s Jim Hough, who we’ll meet later, uses Bloody Butcher corn, which produces a red kernel and was popular in the nineteenth century, in his rye. Tom Richtmyer at Finger Lakes Distilling, in Burdett, shared with me (over rye, of course) that Finger Lakes buys its grain from a farmer just a few miles from the distillery. “We tell him how much we need,” Tom says. “He figures out where he can grow it locally and makes it happen.” Finger Lakes Distilling is one of six New York distillers to found Empire Rye, “an homage to New York State’s pre-Prohibition rye whiskey-making heritage.” The distinctive New York style of rye meets certain standards that address things like where the whiskey is distilled, for how long, and in new oak barrels at what proof. The standard that grabs me requires that 75 percent of the mash bill, the mix of grains that forms the basis for whiskey, “MUST be New York-state grown rye grain, which may be raw, malted, or a combination.” To this Southern boy, using local grains in the process of distilling rye whiskey is like buying a brown paper bag stamped YELLOW CORN GRITS from an old North Carolina gristmill. Knowing where the grains come from warms my heart as much as my mouth and belly.
Taxation of the Spirit
In this age of corporate this and hipster that, it’s hard to get a true sense of a place. Unaged Pennsylvania ryes taste like 1792. History in a bottle, at once young and old. Roots in the Whiskey Rebellion that ran from 1791 to 1794 help make the connection. The Whiskey Rebellion grew out of farmers wanting to own the full worth of their rye, which they made from excess rye crops. Whiskey was portable and didn’t rot. However, President George Washington and Treasurer Alexander Hamilton found themselves needing to pay for the Revolutionary War (another rebellion of sorts, I reckon). Hamilton asked Washington to levy an excise tax on the rye whiskey being produced in the Monongahela region of Pennsylvania. The excise tax was based on the capacity of the still rather than the amount produced, and the feds wanted their payment in cash, which farmers did not have. Whiskey was their cash. According to whiskey historian Clay Risen, stills were as common as barns in the early days of distilling, and the potential payout for the feds was huge. Of course, the farmers and distillers did not like Hamilton’s plan, so they rebelled at paying, and Washington sent troops to enforce the tax. The farmers got mad, tarred and feathered a few tax collectors, flew some cool flags, and still didn’t pay any taxes.
Many think the Whiskey Rebellion is the reason bourbon started being produced. I did until recently. The myth goes like this: the farmers in the Monongahela region high-tailed it south to Kentucky with their stills to avoid paying taxes. Corn grew better than rye there, so it became the grain of choice. And just like that—the Whiskey Rebellion gave us bourbon.
Except whiskey historians like Clay Risen and Laura Fields will tell you that’s not accurate. What happened is even better. A few skedaddled to Kentucky, but most farmers disappeared into the hills around the Monongahela region and kept on making rye. Which reminds me of North Carolina moonshiners in the 1900s, without the souped-up cars. Nothing says rebel like spiriting your still away into the hills and carrying on.
My wife threw whiskey on the fire when she ordered me a bottle of Liberty Pole Spirits Bassett Town Whiskey, the taste of which set wheels in motion for a Pittsburgh trip and set me to wondering why there were no distilleries in northcentral Pennsylvania. An unaged rye, the label on my bottle says “aged a minimum of 1 days” (not a typo). I taste Pennsylvania in the rye, like I taste North Carolina in moonshine.
Bassett Town Whiskey carries a flavor with a little rebellion in it. The rye is not for someone looking for sweet. It’s edgy, a little in-your-face. It demands attention. You don’t have to like it, but you’re not going to ignore it if you drink it. Unlike the South, whose history needs to be constantly smoothed over by good manners and sweet bourbons, Pennsylvania rye lays it out there. A gustatory rebellion that I can get behind. It’s paradoxical that I find a style of rye that’s trying to capture a 1700s spirit brings a stronger sense of belonging to my displaced twenty-first century Southern soul.
A Taste Back in Time
Francis and I juked our way through Steelers’ fans picking through memorabilia, headed toward the Pennsylvania Libations shop in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The Steelers were playing the Ravens later, but all we cared about was Pennsylvania rye and answers. The night before, we had visited Wigle Distillery a couple of blocks away. Wigle makes good rye, but the place felt more hipster than rebellious to us old farts. Maybe it was the guy sitting next to us at the bar with the perfectly coifed beard and flawless flannel shirt. Maybe it was the guy on the tour with us who told us he came for the peach whiskey(!). Maybe it was the premixed cocktails sold in bottles. (A practice that goes back to the 1800s, turns out. Still don’t seem right.) The place felt more CGI than analog. Since Pennsylvania Libations sold alcohol distilled only in Pennsylvania, we thought maybe they knew whether Monongahela rye referred to a region or a variety. I was hoping for some Stoll & Wolfe rye, a main player in the Pennsylvania rye whiskey renaissance.
We walked into a narrow room with bottles of whiskey, gin, vodka, and other alcohols lining shelves that ran from the floor to out of my six foot two reach. Toward the back, a salt-and-pepper-haired man with round glasses, a scarf around his neck, and a sociable vibe stood at a short bar. He asked, “Would you like to taste something?”
Francis said, “We’re writing a story on Pennsylvania ryes. You got any of those?”
News to me that “we” were writing the story. I added, “We’re looking for Stoll & Wolfe. We’re interested in the history of Pennsylvania ryes.”
“I’ve got Stoll & Wolfe right here.” Tony Merzlak set bottles of clear rye and aged rye on the counter and reached for a stack of small plastic cups. “You should try the clear rye first.” I’d read the White Rye Whiskey was an attempt, like Bassett Town Whiskey, to capture the taste of the rye Hamilton wanted to tax. I took a sip, let it roll around in my mouth, and swallowed. Excellent. The Steelers fans in the streets became people hawking wares in the late 1700s. Electric lights became torches and oil lamps. Jerseys became waistcoats and breeches and long dresses tight at the waist. I felt a little closer to the spirit of Pennsylvania.
That hour in Pennsylvania Libations felt like one of our pandemic fire rings. Like any good whiskey drinker, Tony felt compelled to share, even pouring us some Liberty Pole after we told him we were headed there next. We left with two bottles of Stoll & Wolfe, a bottle of MLH Distillery’s Monongahela Rye Whiskey, and a bottle of bourbon. (One of Tony’s favs—it was superb.) We made him a member of the Co-Op, with all its non-existent benefits, then headed south toward Liberty Pole Spirits in Washington. We were feeling better about the trip, like we had found our people. Tony and his co-worker, Tessa Simpson, had assured us that Monongahela rye was a region, and Jim might be able to explain the lack of distilling in northcentral PA.
After a much-needed lunch stop, we walked into Liberty Pole Spirits, named after the liberty poles erected during the Whiskey Rebellion. There’s a bar set to the right lined with six bottles of Liberty Pole Spirits. A Whiskey Rebellion flag hung to the left, its bald eagle clutching a red and white ribbon in its beak surrounded by thirteen stars on a blue background. An upside-down portrait of Alexander Hamilton hung behind the bar. Two men mixed drinks. Maybe ten people were drinking and talking and waiting for the Steelers game. “You Jim?” I said to the older one sporting a gray sweater, a grizzled beard, and crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. He nodded.
I ordered an old-fashioned, which was super. Jim said later the secret was burnt simple syrup. (Sounds simple to make but it’s not. I tried.) I told him about my experience with Bassett Town, and he asked if I had tried the aged rye. Hearing my “no,” he reached for the ubiquitous plastic cups. “You’ve got to try them in order. You can really taste what aging does to the whiskey.”
I tasted the unaged rye, Hamilton’s upside-down visage staring at me disapprovingly. I looked back at him, appreciating how helpless he looked, and glanced at the flag as the whiskey rolled across my tongue. I believe the eagle winked. After the Bassett Town left my palate, I tasted the aged rye. The rye tasted complex, older, wiser, but no less rebellious. “Wow,” I said to Jim. “That’s really something. Thanks.” He nodded.
“So, why don’t we have a distilling tradition up in northcentral PA?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’ll send you Laura Fields’ email address. She knows a lot about the history of whiskey in Pennsylvania. She should be able to help.”
“Thanks. Any chance we can tour the distillery?”
Jim waved us toward the back and said he’d join us after making a few more drinks. We strolled toward the rear of the former monuments company, admiring the pot still and fermenters and the overhead crane Jim said came in useful at times. We tasted some “white dog,” whiskey fresh out of the still and destined to become Bassett Town. We met Todd, the distributor, who told us that Liberty Pole had spirits in the Westfield and Mansfield Fine Wine and Spirits stores (the bourbon cream is great, but ask for the rye!). We looked at the barrels of whiskey aging downstairs and talked about how the location of a barrel affects the whiskey. Warm temps cause barrels to expand and suck the distillate into the wood while cool temps cause the barrel to contract and force the distillate back into the barrel. That process gives aged whiskey much of its flavor, and varying temps in a warehouse affect it. One barrel was crafted with clear “heads” or ends so people can see the amount of whiskey lost to evaporation, what distillers call the angel’s share. Jim shared images of the new facility he and his sons were building to house their expanding operations. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
Watch Your Temperance
Back in Wellsboro, I emailed Laura Fields to ask her why there were no rye whiskey distillers around these parts. Laura started the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation to educate people about the issues facing small farmers, and she’s the force behind the American Whiskey Convention. Laura has been researching Pennsylvania whiskey distilling for years. She says the “northern central part of the state was exposed to the disastrous effects of alcohol quite early on.” Hunters and trappers of the time interacted with Native Americans frequently and did not care about the effects of the whiskey on the native population. Locals saw the effects of over-indulgence first hand, which primed them for the temperance movements that spread in the latter part of the 1800s. Another issue involved the lack of railroads to haul grain in and whiskey out. Laura points out that there were sizable distilleries in Centre, Montour, and Lycoming counties in the 1800s, though those were affected by the demise of the logging industry and, later, Prohibition. Laura adds, “Too many people believe that rye was simply a precursor to bourbon, but that is far from the truth. Rye was different in almost every way a whiskey could be different. It’s like comparing single malt scotch to a single grain whisky. There’s a lot more implied in the name than just what it’s made from.”
Laura’s mention of the temperance movement brought to mind George Washington Sears, Wellsboro’s famous outdoor writer, better known as Nessmuk. Also a poet, Sears wrote a song called “Wellsboro as a Temperance Town” in which he claims that “The bar-rooms are like the dhry [sic] sand of Sahara.” In another poem, “Lotos Eating,” he sings the praises of rye, what he calls “the liquid cereal.” It must have been hard for Nessmuk, nicknamed Bacchus, to survive the temperance movement. No wonder he argued that living in town was roughing it. The fact that he and I both like the outdoors, writing, and rye, however, brings me a stronger sense of belonging.
Burning Ring of Fire
The weekend after the Pittsburgh trip, the Co-Op convened around a fire behind my house to taste some ryes. (My whiskey is your whiskey.) Snow covered the ground, and the Whiskey Rebellion flag hung from the shed. Venison chili simmered in the crock pot. Stoll & Wolfe White Rye Whiskey and Rye Whiskey, Liberty Pole Bassett Town Whiskey and Rye Whiskey, Wigle Rye Whiskey and Deep Cut Rye Whiskey, Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey, and MLH Distillery’s Monongahela Rye Whiskey represented the Commonwealth; New York was represented by McKenzie White Dog, McKenzie Rye Whiskey, and Hudson Valley Do the Rye Thing. We started with Liberty Pole Bassett Town and then moved to its rye. We did the same with Stoll & Wolfe—unaged rye to aged rye. We appreciated how the aging added complexity to the whiskey, though Tom said he preferred the unaged to the aged. (I have a warm spot for the unaged rye myself.) Dan threw more wood on the fire, his glove catching on fire at one point. (Maybe.) We talked for the umpteenth time about which hill in Tioga County is most difficult to climb on a bike. (For my money, Tiadaghton from the Pine Creek Rail Trail.) Firelight glinted in our whiskey glasses.
The next day, I walked down to the fire ring and felt the heat coming off the coals. Thought about the flames from the fire and the heat from the whiskey the night before. I appreciate how I bond with my friends and the land over rye whiskey. I appreciate how I forget about work invading my every waking moment, about being too busy, about Facebook and Twitter, about whether I’ll ever be able to retire. I travel back to my early twenties don’t-give-a-damn attitude, hard to capture in my mid-fifties, but which I like to visit from time to time. Don’t get me wrong, though. I like my older self better. I’m a little more complex, maybe more spicy, a little angry. Like a good rye.
I’m proud of my Southern roots and appreciate a rebel spirit, but the Whiskey Rebellion flag hanging on the shed represents a rebellion that, unlike the Civil War, I can embrace without conflict. It’s one thing to tar and feather a few tax collectors and then take to the hills to avoid paying taxes on homegrown hooch. It’s another to fight to preserve slavery. I like rebellions involving whiskey.
I’ve got some distilleries yet to visit. Keir Family Distillery in Warren Center started selling rye in December (woo-hoo!), and Barrelhouse 6 in Hammondsport tempts me with its Brothers’ 1910 Empire Rye. I’ll keep imbibing my Northern home one splash at a time.