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A Local Whiskey Primer

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Regional distillers embrace their whiskey heritage—with some new twists.

Photograph courtesy of Manatawny Still Works

From the earliest days of the United States, Pennsylvania has held a special place in the whiskey annals. Distillers in the western part of the state used rye whiskey as a source for protesting taxation in the aptly named Whiskey Rebellion, which lasted from 1791 to 1794. That move would cement the state’s place in both distilling and constitutional history, which remains rich today.

For all its early fame, the whiskey industry saw production dramatically shrink in Pennsylvania in the 20th century. Now it’s on the rebound, especially in Chester County, as distillers again favor spirits made from fermented grain mash. “For the past six years, we’ve been a whiskey-focused distillery,” says Max Pfeffer, head distiller at Manatawny Still Works in Pottstown. “We’re not trying to compete with the mass-produced brands—we’re making aged craft whiskies.”

In Elverson, Brandywine Branch has taken a different approach, positioning itself as a more traditional distiller of three bourbons and one rye under the flagship Resurgent brand. Even craft beer giant Dogfish Head in Delaware has gotten into the experimental craft whiskey game.

The rapid local growth is the result of gradually loosening state restrictions, which now allow Pennsylvania distillers to sell both in state stores and directly to consumers. More than 70 such distillers have cropped up across the Keystone State, with a large concentration in the southeastern region. Delaware, too, is seeing some growth, with three distillers setting up shop in the central part of the state.

The renaissance isn’t limited to whiskey. Most local distilleries produce several types of spirits, including gin, vodka and rum. Types of whiskey vary greatly, with some aged in traditional oak casks and others in former rum casks or beer barrels. Some aren’t barrel aged at all, while some distillers add flavors like honey.

Regardless of the aging process and flavor profile, all whiskey is made from grains—chiefly rye, corn and wheat. That’s thanks to the early predominance of these crops, which were used to make bread and porridge and as feed for cattle and horses. In Pennsylvania, rye was the preferred choice. That preference was shared throughout the country. Local distillers shipped some 6.5 million gallons of Monongahela rye as late as 1810, which was nearly triple the amount made by Kentucky bourbon producers.

Not surprisingly, new taxes in the late 18th century hit distillers hard. When the Whiskey Rebellion began, it proved the first test of the central powers of the young new government, eventually forcing President George Washington to lead a force of 13,000 militia from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to put down the uprising. The Whiskey Rebellion wouldn’t be the only struggle the industry would face. Prohibition all but quashed the already declining practice in the 1900s. In its wake, bourbon picked up, but it would take nearly 80 years before Pennsylvania distilling made a comeback in the early 2000s.

Led by Andrew Auwerda, founder of Philadelphia Distilling, it’s been a strong resurgence. “Our whiskies use a variety of grains—malt, wheat, oats and rye,” Manatawny’s Pfeffer says. “We get our rye from Pennsylvania, our oats and wheat from elsewhere in America, and our two-row barley from Canada.”

In its usual fashion, Dogfish Head favors non-traditional spirits production. It officially began distilling in 2015. “We look at whiskey similar to the way we do beer, listening to what our consumers are telling us,” says distiller James Montero. “We make whiskey, but it isn’t bourbon.”

Dogfish Head’s Alternate Takes Vol. 1 is an experimental whiskey finished in rum casks. “It’s more delicate and nuanced than a typical American-style whiskey,” Montero says.

However it’s made, distilling is an arduous process that takes years—especially for aged spirits. But as history and most whiskey lovers will agree, it’s well worth the wait.