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Pennsylvania rye used to be famous. Can its reputation be revived?

A whiskey and agriculture advocate is working to bring back a rye varietal that was almost lost to time. But will you taste the difference when it finally reaches your glass?

Pennsylvania Rosen rye gets milled the old fashioned way at the Thompson Neely grist mill, New Hope, PA, October 4, 2020.
Pennsylvania Rosen rye gets milled the old fashioned way at the Thompson Neely grist mill, New Hope, PA, October 4, 2020.Read moreBEVERLY SCHAEFER/ For the Inquirer

Before there were Philly cheesesteaks, there was Pennsylvania rye.

In the 19th century, the strong, spicy whiskey developed a reputation that stretched coast to coast, as synonymous with the Keystone State as Kentucky and bourbon or California and wine.

The rye industry was established here in the 1700s by German and Scotch-Irish farmers who converted the bulky grain into durable, lucrative liquid. By 1810, the state’s many distillers were shipping out millions of gallons a year to the rest of the country. And as late as 1937, brands like Rittenhouse were still touting “that same Pennsylvania ‘rye-ier rye’ flavor.”

That renown was watered down by the 1960s, dissolved by Prohibition, two world wars, and the changing American palate. As vodka ascended, rye receded: Formulas changed to accommodate a preference for lighter tastes, standards for aging fell by the wayside, brands consolidated and evaporated. Eventually, production of Old Overholt — the oldest continuously operating Pennsylvania maker — moved to Kentucky, where it remains.

Rye has made a comeback in recent decades: It’s widely available and, for many bartenders, the go-to spirit for Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. But its Pennsylvania roots are often little more than a footnote.

A network of farmers, distillers, and one particularly determined agriculture advocate/whiskey buff are working to change that. And they’re starting with the grain.

‘That was good rye’

“Whiskey is completely dependent upon the grain it’s made from,” says Laura Fields, founder of the Delaware Valley Fields Foundation, a Bucks County-based nonprofit that champions farmers and their work.

Fields was inspired to launch her nonprofit by her mother, who runs the hands-on Flint Hill Farm Educational Center in Lehigh County. Flint Hill teaches students and families about sustainability and sourcing. During lessons, Fields noticed kids were enthusiastic, but parents would lose interest.

“How do you hook the adults?” she wondered. Her answer was whiskey.

Fields started the American Whiskey Convention in 2016. The annual event brings together tasting experts, farmers, maltsters, millers, distillers, and drinkers. Among them was Dick Stoll, a venerated yet low-profile distiller who learned the trade at the old Michter’s distillery in Lebanon County, where he made A.H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon, one of the most coveted American whiskeys of our times.

When Michter’s closed in 1990, Stoll — who died last year at 86 — went into construction and maintenance. He didn’t return to distilling until 2014, when he co-founded Stoll & Wolfe Distillery in Lititz. Upon his return to the industry, he lamented that he couldn’t find Rosen rye, the varietal he had used at Michter’s. “‘That was good rye,’” Fields remembers him musing.

“It became my passion,” she says.

Searching for Rosen

Fields began searching for Rosen rye, a strain brought to the U.S. by a Russian student around 1908. It was first planted in Michigan. Rye cross-pollinates easily, so in its early days, Rosen was grown in isolation on South Manitou Island in Lake Michigan. It proved to be an exceptionally high-yielding variety, producing large, plump grains that fetched a higher price than common rye. By 1919 it was gaining traction in Pennsylvania.

But just as rye whiskey petered out after Prohibition, so too did rye itself. In Pennsylvania, it’s become mostly a cover crop — grown more for its ability improve soil conditions than for its harvest. Today, most of the rye the U.S. consumes comes from Canada and Europe.

If Pennsylvania rye was scarce, Rosen was practically extinct. “Nobody had it,” Fields said. Then she heard about Greg Roth.

Roth, a now-retired professor of agronomy at Penn State, had dedicated his career to studying grains and how they grow in our climate. Toward the end of his tenure at the university he began exploring mostly forgotten types like spelt, emmer, and hard winter wheat — prompted by rising consumer interest in local, organic ingredients for baking, distilling, and brewing. A few varieties of rye were included in that effort.

Roth acquired 24 seeds of Rosen from the USDA seed bank in 2014 at the suggestion of Dad’s Hat Rye co-founder Herman Mihalich, who was also interested in it. Over two years of planting, Roth and his team propagated that seed packet into 10 pounds. They studied it for characteristics like yield and maturity, but not so much for the quality Fields was after: flavor.

Fields contacted Roth in 2016, just as he was about to wind down the Rosen project, having made his assessments. Not so fast, she said.

Fields used proceeds from the whiskey convention to subsidize the continued growth of Rosen at Penn State for the next four years. She wanted to make rye, but her larger aim was for Rosen to be a valuable crop for farmers again.

Each year, the seeds were resown. By 2019, there was enough Rosen to spare for a batch of whiskey. It went to Stoll & Wolfe.

Erik Wolfe, Stoll’s partner and protege in the distillery, remembers handing Stoll a measuring flask of freshly distilled Rosen rye “to not only judge the proof, but get his approval.”

“The moment between handing it to him and him taking the sip was one of the longest moments in my life,” Wolfe says. “Just seeing that ear-to-ear smile ... it was a huge relief.”

Then he thought: “‘Oh man, we can’t mess this up.’”

Heirloom pains

What’s there to mess up? To some degree, Stoll & Wolfe’s Rosen rye will decide: Is this particular grain worth all the fuss?

For Fields, the answer is yes. Rosen will preserve Pennsylvania farmland and restore a storied crop and its byproducts to a place of honor. As a heritage grain, it will command a higher price. She hopes distilleries using Rosen and other heirloom grains, such as Bloody Butcher corn, bring attention and prosperity to the small farmers taking the trouble to grow them.

And they are more trouble. Robert McDonald owns Dancing Star Farms in Bedford County, where he grows Bloody Butcher corn and other non-GMO heirloom varietals. They’re harder to grow and to harvest, he says. That’s especially true of rye, which has a tendency to grow tall and fall over.

McDonald planted two acres of Rosen on his farm in 2019, harvesting 4,000 pounds in 2020. He plans to get it state-certified so he can sell Rosen seeds to other farmers — maybe as soon as this year. How much he’ll grow in the future depends entirely on the demand, he says, but he’s seen success with the heirloom corn.

It was only a decade ago that McDonald gave his dairy farm over to grain, going “from milk to moonshine,” he says. “Every year [demand] grows. I started out with heirloom corn growing 10 acres. Now I’m up to 150, 175.” It yields up to a third less than mainstream corn, but his customers — farms, distilleries, malthouses from all over the country — pay about four times more.

» READ MORE: Why Pa.'s new Bloody Butcher bourbon is so bloody good

But there’s no guarantee Rosen will secure the same foothold in the market that other heirloom grains have. Mark Fischer owns Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, a revered supplier for local bakers. “We started doing Bloody Butcher corn years and years ago, and it took three years before chefs would try it,” he says. Once they got behind it, it caught on. Bloody Butcher owes its success to Castle Valley’s “dogged determination,” as well as the corn’s eye-catching ruby hue. The corn markets itself, he says.

Other varieties have fizzled, though. “We couldn’t do our Wapsie Valley or our Silver King corn. They’re great varieties, but ... I just can’t sell enough of it to make it worth the farmer growing,” Fischer says.

“It’s really difficult to recommend to a farmer to grow something that doesn’t meet certain agronomic checkboxes,” says Mark Brault at Deer Creek Malthouse in Glen Mills, which specializes in grains for brewing and distilling. Disease-resistance and yield matter in a concrete way that flavor might not because “these things compound downstream in the value chain,” he says: “The maltster then has to pay a little bit more, and then the grower and the distiller need to pay a little bit more, or the miller or whoever it is.” A grain that doesn’t flourish easily can’t necessarily justify its expense.

Brault has been working with Pennsylvania farmers since 2012 to grow grains that Deer Creek malts for use in food and beverage. They planted several varieties at first, then worked with agronomists to make decisions about what to stick with. It’s a pragmatic approach, determined by what grows well locally.

Greg Roth found that Rosen was lower-yielding, taller, and more prone to falling than other rye varietals. Reports like those make Brault hesitant to recommend Rosen to farmers. “I’m holding judgment until someone really shows me some meaningful data, both on the farming side, the economics, as well as on the flavor side.”

‘Candy-coated rye’

To revive Rosen, Fields has to give distillers a reason to buy it over cheaper or even easier-to-grow rye. Her strategy boils down to flavor. “What I’m trying to prove to them is: It ain’t gonna taste as good. The stuff that I have is miles better, your whiskey’s gonna taste better, you’re gonna get more customers, you’re gonna be able to differentiate yourself in a group.”

So will Rosen drinkers be able to discern the difference when the rye’s swirling around in a snifter? We’re a ways off from having an answer — and even then, it will be debatable, determined by individual palates and customer interest.

When asked what difference Rosen will make in Stoll & Wolfe’s rye, Wolfe hedges: “We won’t really know until we’ve got a few years where we’ve been able to harvest that [grain], distill it out, and let it age out as well,” he says. “The things that we can tell initially are yield ... and also even the aromas and flavors. And from what we have seen initially, it’s no coincidence that they used to use those varietals.”

When Lisa Wicker, head distiller at Brooklyn’s Widow Jane, tried Stoll & Wolfe’s first batch of Rosen, she said it tasted like candy-coated rye.

Wicker has made bourbons with Bloody Butcher, Wapsie Valley, and Blue Hopi corn. She likens heritage grains to heirloom tomatoes: Each fruit has distinct traits that aren’t necessarily shared by their cousins, and some are better suited for certain applications.

“Heirloom corns don’t all make the best whiskey, but overall they all make the best whiskey,” she says.

To Wicker and a growing contingent of grain-to-glass distillers, resuscitating these old grains brings back an old way of farming and distilling, when flavor was part of the equation from the start.

Brault and others question whether one can ascribe so much of a spirit’s flavor to grain variety. Many variables influence whiskey, from the condition of the grain to the barrel it goes into, he says. “How do you then attribute that directly to the grain when there’s a whole bunch of stuff that happened in between that wasn’t controlled?” he asks.

» READ MORE: Heirloom corn harvests produce restaurants' grits, tortillas, and Pennsylvania polenta

Mihalich, of Dad’s Hat, hopes to make a small batch of Rosen rye next year if his Bucks County rye supplier, Meadow Brook Farms, grows enough. (His farmer received some from Doylestown’s Delaware Valley University in years past.) He plans to tap connections in the flavor and fragrance industry for deeper analysis of Rosen. “If it’s really that good,” Mihalich says, Dad’s Hat might prioritize Rosen’s growth over other rye varietals. For now, he’s focused on Pennsylvania-grown rye in general, no matter the type.

“There’s a lot of different dimensions to what contributes to the final product,” he adds. “Trying to wiggle out exactly which [variable] is creating which [flavor] is going to take a fair amount of time and a fair amount of sophistication.”

Grain matters

Far North Spirits, a Minnesota distillery 25 miles south of the Canadian border, has conducted an academic study on this. The “estate distillery,” meaning it grows its own grains, won a grant in 2015 from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to study 14 varieties of rye, a mix of heirlooms and hybrids. The ryes were grown in three nearby fields, then milled, mashed, fermented, and distilled by Far North using the same techniques. The distillates were assessed for flavor and other factors, as were the ryes. The results of the six-year study will be published this winter.

“I wanted to get a bead on whether or not just simply the variety of rye itself would affect flavor,” says Far North co-owner Mike Swanson. “And I found that it did. And it was significant enough that I can confidently attribute those differences in flavor to just the variety of rye.”

Barrel-aging wasn’t part of Far North’s study because of the many variables it introduces — coopering technique, type of wood, toasting are just a few — but they did age each distillate for 18 months. Swanson found some terrible white (unaged) whiskeys tasted wonderful after aging, so much so that the transformation brought him around on some high-maintenance varietals. In such cases, flavor made him conclude: “I guess I’ll learn to love [growing] it.”

Swanson hopes this work can shift the conversation around whiskey, long dominated by proof and aging, toward ingredients and place. “One of the most important things that craft distillers can offer the marketplace is to present regional styles of spirits, old techniques that have been resurrected, and also elevate the importance of the raw materials in the process. And I think we can certainly do that.”

Waiting for whiskey

The receipts on Rosen will come, albeit slowly. In 2020 Fields gave milled and malted grain to Stoll & Wolfe, Liberty Pole Spirits in Western Pennsylvania, and Quantum Spirits outside of Pittsburgh, as well as Olde Bedford Brewing Co. in Bedford County. (For Philadelphians, the best chance of tasting it might come with the next American Whiskey Convention, at the Independence Seaport Museum sometime later this year.)

“It’s never failed to stand out in the crowd with the distillers that have used it so far,” Fields says.

There’s also no price tag on Rosen yet. For now, the seed that’s been sown in Pennsylvania soil has been donated by her nonprofit. Last year, 20 acres’ worth went to Dancing Star Farms, Delaware Valley University, and the Kline family farm in Lancaster County. Each grower signs a contract agreeing to follow a prescribed crop-management plan developed by Roth and his team at Penn State.

“I want to maintain the integrity of the seed and the integrity of the flavor profile and also make sure that we’re doing that properly,” Fields says.

She thinks it will catch on with distillers soon. Once that happens, she hopes, the farmers will come. But she’s comfortable knowing this project — like farming and whiskey — will take time.

“I genuinely believe that this is going to be a really good thing for Pennsylvania.”