What else do you do with acres of maple trees but make syrup? That was the thinking of Avondale residents Kyle and Sara Dewees, who have plenty of them—thanks to Kyle’s family’s property in Bradford County. They launched Whiskey Hollow, an all-natural maple syrup company, in 2016. Nearly three years later, the business has evolved dramatically. “We like to be self-sufficient,” says Sara, who grew up on a dairy farm. “We wanted to mess around with it, and it just went from there.”
Their first year, it seemed they did everything wrong. “We were putting lines together with plumbing supplies. It was kind of crazy,” says Sara.
Undeterred, they delved ever deeper into the process, gathering knowledge online and from industry veterans. “It’s not a really competitive industry,” says Kyle. “Everyone is open about their process and how they do it.”
Even when armed with all that knowledge, making maple syrup isn’t simple—and with their trees in northern Pennsylvania, near the New York border, they’ve had to log quite a bit of mileage. When tapping season approaches, they have to constantly monitor the weather so they’re on-site when it starts. To collect sap, they drill an inch and a half into the tree and insert a tap. Trees usually have to be 10-12 inches in diameter before they can be tapped. Tubing from the taps goes to collection tanks, which send the sap to a sugarhouse, a cabin where they boil the sap to make syrup.
It’s a delicate process—one that requires an evaporator with three gravity-flow pans. “You’re boiling the water out of the sap, so you’re raising the sugar content to get it to syrup,” says Kyle.
It takes around 50 gallons of sap to create a single gallon of syrup. Before, during and after evaporation, they must continually check the sugar percentage in the sap (the brix), plus the boiling temperature of the water, which can shift with the smallest atmospheric changes. “You’re running a fine line between going too far and burning your pan,” says Sara.
Tapping usually takes place from mid-February through late March or early April. After that, the trees begin budding and what sap is left isn’t desirable. “It’s really dependent on the air temperature,” says Kyle of the process. “You want days that it gets into the 40s and are sunny, but drops below freezing at night. Once it stays above freezing all the time, the sap will actually stop.”
The tapping season is grueling work for Kyle, who heads north as soon as the weather looks ideal. He stays in Bradford County for the duration of the season. “This past year, there was a month where none of us were in the same house together,” says Sara, who stays in Avondale with their children, making the trip back and forth when she can. “There’s dedication—and then there’s just crazy.”
As hard as the work is, they both love it. “When you hear those first drips in the tanks and the lines first start running, it’s like adrenaline going—and then the first syrup that comes off,” says Kyle. “That’s why you do it.”
Now several years into the business, the couple hopes to streamline the process. Right now, they transport the syrup to Avondale using heat-packed 40-gallon stainless steel drums, hand-bottling it in their home, which has a licensed kitchen. They hope to move the entire production north, buying 140 acres last year in anticipation of that day.
They flavor some of their syrup, even aging it in 53-gallon whiskey barrels from Pottstown’s Manatawny Still Works. The flavor profile is “very smooth,” says Sara. “It kind of knocks the edge off the sweet.”
Made with all-natural ingredients, their infused syrups come in cinnamon, vanilla and rum flavors, in addition to whiskey and original. They also make fruit preserves, maple candy, applesauce and mustard.
Meanwhile, Manatawny recently released its small-batch Maple Whiskey, using barrels it gave to the couple. “We were looking for ways to collaborate with local artisans,” says Arthur Etchells, Philadelphia region manager for Manatawny. “We often describe our whiskey as having a maple sweetness—versus a bourbon, which has a corn sweetness. It’s kind of a nice undertone mellowness that’s there throughout the taste.”
Sara and Kyle have established similar relationships throughout the region. Their products can be found at Station Taproom, Northstar Orchard, worKS, Carlino’s and Kimberton Whole Foods, plus the farmer’s markets at Kennett Square and Eagleview (where they first sold their products). As the Whiskey Hollow name grows, so does the commitment. Sara also has a job working for a civil engineer, and Kyle owns a landscape and excavating business. “It’s a lot of late nights,” Sara says.
And while they’ll continue to expand Whiskey Hollow, they want to stay true to their roots. “We just want to keep it simple—to work for ourselves and be out and living off the land,” says Sara.