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,...

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...

Why Do Copper Pot Stills Look So Different?

Why do copper pot stills always look so different? Every still produces a different whiskey. Alembic stills (the ones that look like copper cauldrons with elephant trunks…) have been around since the Egyptians were using them to make perfume! The mixture of water and grain that has been fermented to create distiller’s beer is loaded into the base (cauldron) and heated to separate the alcohol from the solution through evaporation. It’s pretty simple, actually. The boiling point of alcohol is lower than water and the rest of the mixture so that will evaporate first. The mash (fermented grains) go in at about 8-10% alcohol and come out after the first run through the still at 25-30% alcohol. That 25-30% alcohol solution that comes out of the first run is...

Is Distilling Illegal? Yes.

Is Distilling Illegal? Yes.

Is distilling legal if you’re just making it for personal consumption? NO. It is very much ILLEGAL. I get these questions a lot. Why would they sell stills smaller than a gallon if they weren’t legal? It’s okay if I’m just making it for myself, right? But I’m not selling it, so it’s okay right? NO, IT IS NOT. Here’s the legal info- “You may not produce spirits for beverage purposes without paying taxes and without prior approval of paperwork to operate a distilled spirits plant. [See 26 U.S.C. 5601 & 5602 for some of the criminal penalties. You should also review our Home Distilling page.] There are numerous requirements that must be met that also make it impractical to produce spirits for personal or beverage...

Needs More Beautiful Copper…

Copper is beautiful. It seems to glow in the sunlight and somehow evokes warmth and well-being in us. Perhaps that’s why I always want to hug a still when I see one…or perhaps it’s the whiskey… In 1999, when Charlie Downs and Craig Beam moved Heaven Hill operations to the Bernheim distillery in Louisville (after the devastating fire at their Bardstown distillery in 1996), they discovered that the six story column stills on the new site would need some tweaking to produce the whiskey they wanted. Not only did they have to drill out bigger holes to let the beer flow properly, but found they needed more copper. Copper is essential in creating good whiskey because it reacts with and removes dimethyl trisulfide and other sulfur containing...