By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D. • Photos by Danielle Debley
America was founded on whiskey, built with its revenue, and constructed upon its infrastructure—and it all began in Pennsylvania. At one time, Pennsylvania housed the country’s densest cluster of homespun and commercial whiskey producers.
Eastern European farmers settled in Pennsylvania in the 17th century. They planted their rye seeds in Pennsylvania’s rocky soils, distilled any surplus grain into whiskey, and became rye whiskey drinkers. It was patriotic, after the British began to tax rum, to drink the whiskey that you could make with your own crops on your own land. Rather than let crops go to waste, farmers could preserve their rye yield and turn it into a tradable commodity. Whiskey was traded like currency by the gallon or barrel and prized when it was excellent, that is, until 1919 when Prohibition wiped out the state’s industry almost overnight.
One hundred years later, craft distilleries in the Harrisburg region are helping to restore Pennsylvania to its once-prominent place in the national distilling industry. Mix a burgeoning industry with the artisanal trend, and garnish with the state’s craft distillery reforms that now allow distillers to offer tours, samples and onsite sales, and you’ve got a whole new way to imbibe.
What is a craft distillery? The American Craft Spirits Association defines craft distillers as those that produce no more than 750,000 gallons per year and are not controlled by a large supplier.
A distillery is basically an alcohol factory. But the romance of that business and the eclectic nature of the distillery experience make tours attractive trips for spirits fans, whether they’re well versed in the chemistry of distilling or just learning the difference between rye and bourbon. Taking a tour is about more than just smelling vats of fermenting grain and taking a sip at the tasting bar. A good tour can make fans into customers for life. When you visit a distillery and buy a bottle, it gives you a way to talk about it when you get home. It gives you a story.
A whiskey resurgence is afoot thanks to Pennsylvania’s new laws, passed in 2011, which opened up the craft to would-be distillers who now proudly produce and sell small-batch spirits.
Currently, there are 85 craft distillers in the state.
While Americans spend over a billion dollars annually at local farmer’s markets, they spent $36 billion on spirits in 2016, a quarter of which was on whiskey alone. National authorities say the popularity of craft distillers will continue because retailers and wholesalers have seen what craft brewers have been able to do during the last decade. Add cideries to the mix and you have a rebirth of an industry given a new shot due to those whose passion for what was popular in the past cannot be denied.