“We once had thousands of stills producing regional varieties of spirits across the country,” says Meredith Grelli, who, with her husband, Alex, founded Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh in 2012. “If you went even further back, preindustrial, you would have seen tens of thousands of distilleries.”
But then came the lumbering, shaggy beast of Prohibition, shuttering small stills from coast to coast. When Repeal bested the beast, 13 years later, a smaller group of well-funded major distillers moved in and dominated the market. “We really never recovered from Prohibition, and as a result we’ve been living in this really boring spirit landscape—the most boring spirits landscape in American history,” Grelli says. “We lost a lot of that of regional character.”
She and a handful of others are working to bring back a wider spectrum of regional character to liquor store shelves. But that variety has been lost for so long that the first step is to explore and define it. Wigle Whiskey, along with High Wire Distilling, have each launched a series of experiments to learn how micro-locales might affect the taste of rye (Wigle) and bourbon (High Wire). The owners of the two distilleries—along with Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills and a pioneer in reviving heirloom grains—talked about their research this past August at BevCon, a gathering of independent spirits, wine and beer producers, along with restaurateurs and bartenders, held in Charleston.
“These studies are not complete,” admits Scott Blackwell, who owns and runs High Wire with his wife, Ann Marshall. “We’re just starting to scratch the surface.”
But some of the early results are intriguing and encouraging. The Grellis, for their part, have been intent on bringing back Pennsylvania rye, a spirit category that was once as prevalent as Kentucky bourbon today. It’s a category that brims with nostalgia—old bottles and ads on eBay, references to “Old Monongahela”—but how it tasted and how it was actually made remains something of a mystery.
To find out if rye grown in western Pennsylvania varied in a significant way from rye grown elsewhere, the Grellis acquired rye from four geographically distinct areas: Vermont, Minnesota and Canada, as well as from their regular supplier at a farm outside Pittsburgh. They sent out the grain for analysis prior to fermentation—analyzing each for starch, calcium, protein, ash and other compounds. Each batch was then distilled separately, using identical yeast and mash bill—80 percent rye and 20 percent malted barley—and following the same protocols, such as fermentation temperatures. The four new-make whiskies were then sent out for analysis, and again after a year of aging in oak. (The Grellis also plan to have the spirit analyzed after two years.)
The four raw grains showed only minor variations—starch between 60 and 64 percent, protein between 11.1 and 15 percent. But once the grains were fermented and run through the still, a gap in flavor compounds was far more notable. The isobutanol levels were a modest 77 grams per 100 liters in the Vermont rye, but more than three times that (250 grams) in the Pennsylvania rye.
How might that translate into taste? Isobutanol is a precursor that often yields densely fruity notes, but Alex Grelli also speculates that the distinctive rye notes—there’s a finish to the Pennsylvania rye whiskey that strongly suggests a hearty rye bread—may also be due in part to those higher amounts of isobutanol. In contrast, the Vermont rye produced brighter, almost berry-like notes.
As to why this would vary so sharply simply because of geography, the Grellis note that Pennsylvania is, in truth, a lousy state in which to grow rye, with soil that’s often inhospitable. “We’re pretty terrible at growing rye,” Meredith says, “with fecundity among the lowest in the nation.” While bad for crop yields, poor growing conditions may benefit flavor. “Maybe we somewhat impact the rye by growing it in these very tough conditions,” she says, “and that has this impact on flavor that helps to make this regional identity.” Alex Grelli notes an analogy: “In the wine world, when you stress the grapes you increase the flavor,” he says. “We’re trying to port that on to the whiskey culture.”
They hope that the sharp, rye-bread taste of Pennsylvania rye will emerge as something distinctive, and will be sought-after among consumers around the nation. “What we wanted to do when we started this craft distillery was more than anything bring back this taste of place that had historically been so rich in western Pennsylvania,” she says. “And we think that’s the promise of craft distilling—that we could again have a nation of thousands of distilleries, each producing really interesting region-specific spirit.”
Blackwell and Marshall at High Wire are taking much the same approach in experimenting with corn-based whiskey. After starting their distillery, a friend suggested they try distilling sorghum, which was eye-opening. “This was unlike anything we’d experienced before,” Marshall says of the flavorful spirit that emerged. “We wondered, what else is out there like this? What else has this pop and isn’t an industrialized ingredient?”
That search led them to a variety of heritage corn called Jimmy Red. While it had been gaining some popularity in grits, cornmeal and other dishes served up by southern chefs including Sean Brock, it’s been largely overlooked by whiskey makers.
Glenn Roberts put them on that track. Roberts recalled decades ago trying moonshine made by African Americans in Charleston, where it was used for trading for other liquors. “And it was stellar,” he said. He found out that the corn they were using “came out of Appalachia by way of Georgia,” which got him thinking about other uncommon varietals of corn, which in turn led him to Jimmy Red.
Blackwell was intrigued, and he planted two and a half acres at the Clemson University research center, then distilled it after harvest. “I remember that first taste coming off, and we saw those little pearls of oil in the alcohol. Ann said it smelled like banana Laffy Taffy. It did not smell like corn. And that was what was interesting to me.”
Intrigued by the Wigle Whiskey experiments, Blackwell started working with farmers at four different locations around South Carolina to grow Jimmy Red corn to see how that might affect taste. Some are in the lowlands near the coast, and others farther inland, closer to the Piedmont region.
Their early results also show relatively wide swings in isobutanol concentrations, along with a few other surprises. Blackwell and Marshall found one of the distillates had a sort of briny quality, and surprisingly, it was one grown farthest from the coast. Blackwell speculates that this might be due to the higher sea which rose much farther inland eons ago, when it left deposits far from the modern coastline. (This also explains why the Sand Hills area abuts the Piedmont, which is miles from the ocean.)
Blackwell says that consumers have become more sophisticated about the impact of barrel aging on flavor, and many increasingly can speak knowledgeably about yeast. “But we don’t talk much about grain. We don’t go very deep. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg.”
“This is the cutting edge,” agrees Roberts. “What Scott and Ann and Alex and Meredith are doing—and it’s just beginning. We haven’t thought this way.”
And both distilleries are optimistic that interest among consumers will grow. “We can’t keep up with their curiosity at this point,” says Meredith. “Now we’ve got a much more curious consumer.”
In five or ten years, “we’ll be talking what kind of grain, what kind of hops,” Blackwell adds. “These conversations are going to pick up.”