Pennsylvania's Lost Legacy in Rye Whiskey

Pennsylvania's Lost Legacy in Rye Whiskey

February 9, 2023 –––––– Sam Komlenic, , , ,

Pennsylvania is the cradle of American whiskey making, ruling the American landscape in the 19th century with many hundreds of distilleries. Like Kentucky, the Keystone State had a mix of large and small producers, many of them started by farmer-distillers. But unlike Kentucky, very few of them were making bourbon. Rye was king in Pennsylvania, especially in the Monongahela (muh-non-ga-HEY-luh) River valley in the southwestern part of the state.

Revolutionary War veteran John Large started distilling rye whiskey on the Monongahela (Mon) tributary of Peters Creek in 1796—and brought in his son Jonathan as well. Jonathan was succeeded by his son Henry, and the Large family distillery became renowned for its high-quality rye, eventually winning 10 gold medals at expositions from Paris in 1900 to Rio de Janeiro in 1923. Large also had the distinction of being the last distillery to operate in the Mon Valley, closing around 1956.

Thomas Bell founded a distillery at Freeport in western Pennsylvania’s Armstrong County in 1846. It was taken over by German immigrant and local liquor dealer Asher Guckenheimer in 1857 and was expanded several times, eventually producing enough whiskey to bottle 90 barrels per day, not including wholesale (bulk) business, and employed in-house maltings as late as 1908. A major player in the whiskey business, A. Guckenheimer & Bros. closed its doors for good in 1918, but the name lives on as a bottom-shelf blend, now owned by Heaven Hill.

John Gibson, a 19th-century Philadelphia liquor merchant, was having so much trouble sourcing enough quality Monongahela rye whiskey that he built his own distillery on the east bank of the river in 1856, creating what was then the largest rye whiskey distillery in the world. Gibson’s was a distillery built for the ages, made of limestone blocks 2 ½ feet thick, as were his heated warehouses. Run by his son Henry and partners Andrew Moore and Joseph Sinnott after John’s death, the enterprise lasted until 1919, when the property was sold to the Pittsburgh Steel Corporation (later U.S. Steel). Those monumental limestone buildings were dismantled and the blocks sold for one dollar per wagon load. (Those same stones were used to build the Episcopal Church in nearby Monessen, which still stands.) After Prohibition the Gibson trademark was owned by Schenley and distilled at their nearby distillery, but became a Canadian brand in the 1970s, and still is today.

Westmoreland County’s second-largest distillery after Gibson’s was S. Dillinger and Sons. Samuel Dillinger (pronounced with a hard ‘g,’ ‘Dilling-grr’) established the enterprise in 1834. His first distillery was destroyed by fire in 1881 and rebuilt near the new railroad spur in Ruffs Dale that same year, eventually encompassing seven heated warehouses with a total capacity of 55,000 barrels. Shuttered at Prohibition, it was acquired by the sons of Morris Rosenbloom, a Pittsburgh-area liquor dealer, and completely rebuilt near Repeal. The facility comprised two distinct distilleries—one containing a large fermenting house, a beer still, and rectifying column, and the other a smaller fermenting house feeding two massive direct coal-fired copper pot stills. The spirit still held more than 4,000 gallons and stood over 18 feet tall. The last whiskey dripped off the stills here in 1947, though the warehouses were used by Seagram to age whiskey until the early 1960s.

Vintage postcards of southwestern Pennsylvania rye whiskey distilleries circa early 20th century (left to right): Guckenheimer, Gibson, Dillinger, Finch, and Finch. POSTCARDS COURTESY OF SAM KOMLENIC Vintage postcards of southwestern Pennsylvania rye whiskey distilleries circa early 20th century (left to right): Guckenheimer, Gibson, Dillinger, Finch, and Finch. POSTCARDS COURTESY OF SAM KOMLENIC

Thomas Moore began distilling in Possum Hollow on the Youghiogheny (yock-uh-GAYnee) River, a tributary of the Monongahela, in 1842, and quickly gained a reputation for making excellent whiskey. He relocated to Pittsburgh’s South Side in 1860, and remained there for 10 years before building a distillery in McKeesport, where his Old Possum Hollow brand prospered until Prohibition. The company was known as Thos. Moore, and his whiskey’s renown soon carried it to New York City, where barrels of Old Possum Hollow rye were stored in legendary bartender Jerry Thomas’s cellars and dispensed to his valued clientele.

Joseph S. Finch took over Moore’s South Side distillery and distilled the Golden Wedding brand there. Finch’s fame also spread quickly, and Golden Wedding became a breakout hit. After briefly moving to another site in the city, Golden Wedding settled into the Schenley stable post-Repeal. The Schenley plant north of Pittsburgh was named the Joseph S. Finch Distillery for many years afterward. Like Gibson’s, Golden Wedding moved to Canada later in the 20th century.

Only two Pennsylvania-born legacy rye whiskeys still ply the trade. One is Rittenhouse, which once belonged to the giant Continental Distilling Co. of Philadelphia. The other is the legendary Old Overholt, said to be the longest-tenured whiskey brand in the U.S. The Oberholtzer family began distilling in western Pennsylvania after making the trek by wagon from Bucks County in the east. It wasn’t until Abraham Overholt (the spelling was anglicized) took the reins of the operation in 1810 that things really heated up.

Starting in a small log stillhouse, Abraham’s distillery was expanded numerous times over the decades and eventually encompassed two separate operations, the older of which, at West Overton, was shut down at Prohibition, never to reopen. After Repeal, the massive and more modern Broad Ford plant was restarted and churned out Monongahela rye whiskey from an 11-foot diameter three-chamber still until it too went silent in 1951. Like Dillinger, the warehouses were used by Seagram for another decade or so before being abandoned. Though now distilled in Kentucky to a different recipe, Old Overholt is in the midst of a rebirth more than two centuries later.

No decent tale of Pennsylvania rye whiskey distilling would be complete without mention of Michter’s, the Commonwealth’s last legacy distillery, which closed in 1990. Though their primary product was a sour mash, their last master distiller, Dick Stoll, made plenty of rye whiskey too, including a 20 year old that was destined for the lucrative Japanese market, as well as Wild Turkey rye for many years. I once asked Jimmy Russell why he had his rye whiskey distilled at Michter’s, and he told me that even in the 1980s, “people expected rye whiskey to come from Pennsylvania.”

The state’s craft distillers have done amazing work in the last decade or so in reviving Pennsylvania’s (and America’s) true native spirit to its former prominence, and they are building on a rye whiskey legacy unlike any other.