Distillation and Distilleries Among the “Dutch”

The term Dutch here means Pennsylvania German, a term generally used to denote the peoples of the Rhine Palatinate and northern Switzerland who emigrated to William Penn’s Pennsylvania from about 1717. They were fleeing religious persecution and the instability of war and famine.

Our title is taken from a 1963 article of that name, see pp 39 et seq, by Richard H. Shaner, a specialist on Pennsylvania folklore. It was published in a quarterly magazine, “Pennsylvania Folklore”. He described the distilling tradition of this large ethnic group in Pennsylvania.

Initially they settled mostly in the central part of Pennsylvania, as the best land in the southeastern corner was already peopled by settlers of English and Welsh ancestry, the first to come under Penn’s tutelage. The southwest of the state, taking in counties such as Westmoreland, Somerset, Greene, Fayette, Washington, is associated traditionally with the Scots-Irish although that is a generalization.

The historical reality was more complex, as explained in Leland Baldwin’s 1939 book Whiskey Rebels. His opening chapters explain that the Monongahela region was settled by a mix of Scots-Irish, English, and Welsh with some admixture of German, Dutch, and Swedish.

Shaner’s account is not an academic one but local history in the best sense as he lived in Kutztown in Berks County, a centre for this community, and relied on local records and memories of descendants for his information. The account gains authenticity from this and in any case offers a fine picture of a once-vital tradition, distilling in the original, largely self-sustaining rural communities.

The economic arrangements described were not unique to the “Dutch” of course, they had their counterpart elsewhere in the state and in Upper Canada, but what is distinct about Shaner’s account is the focus on the discrete “Dutch” community.

While he does not state in so many words that these settlers brought distilling skills from Europe, the inference is irresistible, so seemingly hermetic is the world he describes. See also the other articles in the link given, which round the picture.

All the families mentioned are of “Dutch” origin and spoke and lived in German for generations. Indeed the language still continues in Pennsylvanian Mennonite and Amish country – and for that matter in Ontario whence some of those people emigrated after the Revolution.

In this account of distilling of rye and fruits for whiskey and fruit spirits, the people profiled seem mostly uninfluenced by other cultural practices. It seems unlikely to me they could have learned distilling from the Scots-Irish or Scots settlers. First, there weren’t that many in eastern Pennsylvania especially when the “Dutch” country was first settled. Those British immigrants are more associated with towns in the Cumberland Valley such as Carlisle and McConnellsburg and the counties I mentioned further southwest.

Added to this, we know that korn, often made from rye or with this grain forming part of the mash, is an old German spirit. Today it is associated more with northern Germany, and fruit spirits with the south, but the modern commercial industry doesn’t necessarily resemble farming practices of the early 18th century.

There were large numbers of German distillers in the early days of settlement in central and eastern Pennsylvania, taking in famously Michter’s/Bomberger founded by the Shenk family in the 1750s. They are documented in histories of the counties in question, and other sources, many of which I have reviewed. I think these Palatinate and Swiss settlers must have brought rye distilling with them.

The Ulster Scots and plain (unqualified) Scots unquestionably brought a strong distilling tradition to the areas they settled. But their use of rye may well derive from this other, “Dutch” distilling tradition.

I am trying to emphasize that when people speak of the Monongahela whiskey tradition that sparked the bourbon heritage, that is only part of the story. Distilling in the east of the state preceded it.

Distillation from cereals – the sources often are unclear – seems to have been engaged in fitfully from the mid-1600s, by the Dutch in Manhattan, perhaps also by some English settlers, but as a folkway and later a commercial industry the Palatinate and Ulster Scots/Scots influences are the main factors.

This has to be true, as if whiskey distilling had been significant before these communities made their mark, whiskey, not rum, would have been the prime Colonial drink.

Perhaps the Scots-Irish would have distilled with any available grain, but the fact that rye was and to this day is distilled for spirit in Germany suggests to me the traditions merged in regard to a prime grain used in America for whiskey.

The luminous serving tray above is from the I.B. Stein distillery of Kutzdown, PA, mentioned in Shaner’s account. It subsisted almost 100 years, expiring with Prohibition and never to return. The whiskey in the ad clearly was red and indeed Shaner confirms it was aged, between three and eight years. This would have represented the whiskey as it was before WW I, but almost 200 years earlier it was probably more typically a white spirit, as most German korn is today.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from this collectibles auction websiteAll intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



2 thoughts on “Distillation and Distilleries Among the “Dutch””

  1. When my group performs our distilling reenactments at festivals in Southern Indiana and I am explain the local German Distilling heritage I use the old saying: The English came and built churches, the Germans came and built barns, and the Scots Irish came and built still houses. Afterwords I add; “Which is mostly true except that the Germans were really building nicer, larger, rounder still houses cause it’s harder to find a corner to pee in”! The Amish always get a kick out of it.

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