What is Rye Whiskey & Why Is It So Different Today?

Rye whiskey is very popular these days. We can clearly see the growth in market share. People talk about how unique it is, but then the occasional article surfaces that talks about how blind tastings show that no one can tell the difference between rye and bourbon. If it’s supposed to be so unique and different, why then is it so similar? What is rye whiskey anyway? This seems like an easy enough question to answer, right? There are plenty of articles out there telling us what rye whiskey is. They explain what the US defines as rye whiskey, what it’s made from, what it tastes like, why it’s what you should buying right now…but I’m here to tell you…you’re not getting the full story. What rye whiskey is today is a far cry from what pure rye whiskey used to...

Is Rye Whiskey Really that Hard to Make?

After the last blog post, I was reminded by a fellow enthusiast that I should have included that “rye whiskey is hard to make”. It gave me pause so I figured I better address it. I did not include that rye grain mashes can be difficult to work with because I do not believe that it was a contributing factor behind rye whiskey not surviving Prohibition. The first reason among the 8 I provided was that rye was expensive, both to grow and to purchase, but I did not make mention of how difficult it may be to work with in the distillery. After all, these difficulties are not likely something that an experienced distiller in the early 20th century would have been affected by. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you are an experienced Formula One racecar driver,...

The Creation of Concentration Warehouses and Their Impact on the American Whiskey Trade

To all those dusty Prohibition-era bottle collectors out there…The labels on those pint bottles from the early 20th century tell a story that is not often told (or explained). While they may seem rather straight forward by listing the companies responsible for distilling and bottling the whiskey (often those companies listed are different), they actually read more like “in memoriams” for all those American distilleries forced out of business by Prohibition. Beautifully designed labels with old timey brands list defunct distilling companies that would otherwise have gone on making whiskey uninterrupted had it not been for the ratification of the 18th amendment.* Even the distillery names that we do recognize can be confusing because a Kentucky whiskey label might...

The Whiskey Trust

When it comes to the history of American whiskey, there is no more important topic than that of the Whiskey Trust. In fact, American whiskey history should probably be divided into 2 eras: Pre-Whiskey Trust and Post-Whiskey Trust. Even the staggering effects on the whiskey trade caused by Prohibition would not have been as impactful without the machinations of the Whiskey Trust. The story of the Whiskey Trust, as described by whiskey historians, often stops in 1895 when the company was dissolved, but it does not end there. Each iteration of the Whiskey Trust became more influential and impactful than the last. Its legacy lives on with us today and is reflected in the state of modern America’s whiskey industry. The concept of a “whiskey trust” began to congeal...

Why Are the Insides of Whiskey Barrels Charred?

Occum’s razor basically states that “the simplest explanation is most likely the right one”. While that may not always be the case, when we address the questions “When did whiskey begin being aged in charred barrels” and “What is the history that led to coopers adopting this technique for whiskey making”, I think we often miss the obvious answers because they’re not clever. The idea that a cow could light a barn on fire and accidentally char the inside of Kentucky’s first distiller, Elijah Craig’s whiskey barrels is…romantic. A complete load of nonsense, but romantic. Leaving aside the fact that Elijah Craig was NOT Kentucky’s first distiller or that bourbon most certainly was NOT the first whiskey to be aged in charred oak…well, let’s just disregard that...

Pre-Prohibition Distillers of Pennsylvania

I have spent the last few years researching and cataloging information on nearly 200 distilleries that produced rye whiskey across Pennsylvania before 1920. The information about Pennsylvania’s distilling history along with the traditions that established Pennsylvania as the leader in American rye whiskey production has been lost to generations of Pennsylvanians, not to mention the many new whiskey drinkers just learning about our country’s distilling heritage. I am making my best effort to reopen the history book of Pennsylvania rye whiskey and bring these distilleries back into the conversation. Bourbon is a whiskey that began its introduction to American drinkers in the early 1800s, joining the rye whiskey that had already been sitting comfortably...

Does Terroir Influence Whiskey?

Does Terroir Influence Whiskey?

When a wine maker talks about what sets his/her wine apart from others, you can be sure terroir will be a part of their explanation. Terroir is “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.” So, the same grape varietal grown in southern France, when it is grown in the Napa Valley, will taste very different. The influence of the local vegetation, pollen, decomposed matter and mineral composition in the soil, morning dews, how many hours of sun and shade a location has, seasonal rainfall, among many other things, all affect the grape harvest every year.  The effect of the environment on the grapes will, of course, affect the flavor and scent of the wine that’s made from them. ...

Let’s Talk Bourbon and Tulips…

Let’s Talk Bourbon and Tulips…

Let’s talk bourbon and tulips. I popped into the Philadelphia Art Museum recently to browse an exhibition and found myself wandering the European Art wing.  One of the historically reconstructed rooms is originally from the Netherlands (built in the early 17th century), a part of a brewery compound on the River Spaarne in Haarlem. On the antique table in the middle of the room was a strange looking white, porcelain vase with blue, painted decorations.  At the bottom of the vase, in script, it says “Irrational Exuberance.” It took me a minute to realize that this was a tulip vase and the reference was to the Netherlands’ tulip mania in the 1630s. This vase is a perfect addition to this reconstructed room because Haarlem (the town where this room is from) was the...