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Pittsburgh's Distillers Launch A Spirited Comeback

Long before Kentucky was bourbon country, whiskey’s home was southwestern Pennsylvania. Even the federal militia that suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion couldn’t dry up Old Monongahela; it took Prohibition to do that. Now a new generation of distillers is still-crazy, after all these years.




photos by cory morton

 

At Wigle Whiskey on a Saturday morning, the hubbub of shoppers, music and clinking glasses in the main showroom and bar is loud enough to drown out the tour guides on the distillery floor. Bartender and weekend volunteer Cat Cannon must raise her voice to explain that the name of the Strip District-based maker of organic upscale liquors is pronounced “wiggle.” 

It’s almost certainly not how Philip Wigle, the 18th-century Whiskey Rebellion rabble-rouser and brand namesake, would have said it. “But we like to support the great Pittsburgh tradition of mispronouncing foreign things,” Cannon explains.

The tour group gets a good laugh. But Wigle can’t be taken lightly. Winner of the Best Rye, Best Wheat Whiskey and Best Ginever medals in the past two years of American Craft Spirits Association awards, Wigle, at 5 years old, is among the most decorated of a dramatic upsurge of licensed Pennsylvania distilleries. Eight blocks down Smallman Street is another, Allegheny Distilling, which scored overall Best in Show — and won several other awards — with its Maggie’s Farm rum after only three years in business. Even the oldest local producer of fine bottled spirits — Glenshaw’s Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, whose Boyd & Blair vodka wins frequent plaudits — hasn’t reached its 10th birthday. 
 


Less than two decades ago, in 2000, the commonwealth had exactly one licensed distillery: Jacquin’s, the Philadelphia maker of bottom-shelf cordials. Pennsylvania’s tally of licensed distilleries now is approaching 70. Nearly all of the growth has come since 2011, when sustained lobbying persuaded lawmakers in Harrisburg to create a new category of “limited distillery,” authorizing licensees to produce up to 100,000 gallons annually for sale on the premises and at limited other locations.

The state boom is part of a national trend for artisanal alcohol distilled in batches, not industrial vats. It mirrors what happened with microbrews, says Lew Bryson, acclaimed beer and whiskey writer and author of the 2014 book Tasting Whiskey. 

“I think people today seem to be reaching for authenticity,” says Bryson, who lives in suburban Philadelphia. “You see it with ‘locavores’ too, with people wanting heritage brands. They don’t want things that have been made for a supermarket.”

The trend could have a significant impact in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State, not Kentucky, is the ancestral home of American whiskey. In the Colonial days, when good old boys drank whiskey, it was rye.

Federal militia quashed the Whiskey Rebellion, the local uprising against a new tax on stills that was introduced to pay off Revolutionary War debt. But that didn’t stop local rye distilling, which consolidated and thrived. In Moby Dick, published in 1851, a whaler fantasizes about the party he and his mates could have if only “unspeakable Old Monongahela” were to spout from their harpoon strike instead of blood. 
 


By the turn of the century, Pennsylvania had some 5,000 distilleries, according to Sam Komlenic. A whiskey historian and collector and copy editor for Whisky Advocate magazine in his spare time, he travels the state from his home near State College, poring through fire insurance surveys and township tax rolls going back two centuries to build a database of the state’s distillery history.

“There is a sandalwood note to old Monongahela whiskey,”  says Komlenic, who has tasted his fair share of pre-Prohibition bottles. “It’s deeper. It’s a very rich, viscous whiskey, very spicy, but the the barrel evens the spiciness out with a vanilla-and-coffee kind of sweetness, rather than corn. It’s luscious stuff.”

He’s not alone in his appraisal. Whisky Advocate named Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye its Craft Whiskey of the Year in 2016. The recipe reaches back to the same old Monongahela style that Mountain Laurel Spirits founder Herman Mihalich recalls his grandpa pouring for the mill workers back at his family bar in Monessen in the 1970s.

A cocktail-culture renaissance has led bartenders back to rye, after decades in obscurity. Bourbon, made from corn, is sweeter and milder, but venerable cocktails such as the Manhattan and Sazerac were built upon rye’s peppery, grassy zing.

“It’s a more correct expression of a Manhattan to make it with rye, and it’s definitely a more correct expression of what a Manhattan in Pittsburgh should be,” says Michael R. Anderson, bartender for Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group. Several Pennsylvania libations can be found at its upscale whiskey bar Butcher and the Rye, and its new Pork & Beans restaurant features the “Pennsyltucky,” a Wigle-and-a-local-beer boilermaker. “Our identity was forged in rye whiskey,” Anderson says. “Bourbon’s great, but this is rye country.”

Before he came to Pittsburgh two years ago, Anderson lived and worked in Louisville for a decade. There in the heart of Kentucky bourbon country, “I witnessed the bourbon tourism industry explode before my eyes,” he says. Vacationers began to think of local distillery tours and samplings as a fun, less expensive alternative to visiting vineyards in Napa Valley. Pennsylvania, Anderson says, now could incorporate our past and current spirits history into a multifaceted tourism appeal.

One place with such ambitions is West Overton Village and Museums. Forty miles east of Pittsburgh, the preserved historical site is the birthplace of coke and steel baron Henry Clay Frick. His mother was an Overholt, from one of the Mennonite families who founded the village in 1800 and opened the first major commercial rye distillery there soon after. West Overton already is an official stop on the Distilled Spirits Council’s American Whiskey Trail. Now an old barn on the property is being turned into a distillery, a project to which Komlenic is lending his advice and expertise. 

The museum’s managing director, Jessica Kadie-Barclay, says a distillery can bring more tourists and enrich their visits because seeing, smelling, and tasting Monongahela rye in its natural habitat adds a powerful context to the museum’s story. Overholt whiskey, after all, helped to fund the family’s next venture, coke ovens, which is how Frick built his fortune. “It sounds funny to say, but it’s educational in spirit,” says Kadie-Barclay.

Bryson, who will make his first trip to West Overton this month as the featured guest for a whiskey-tasting event, says the tourism hook is a compelling one. “It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot recently ... Why has whiskey made such a resurgence? And I think a lot of it is because of the story,” he says. “Once you learn even a little thing about whiskey, you learn that behind every bottle is another story. And I think we have a really good story in Pennsylvania.”
 


Local farmers could be other beneficiaries if the distillery boom continues. The Delaware Valley Fields Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is younger than many of the new distilleries, will hold its second annual American Whiskey Convention in Philadelphia next month. Proceeds support “SeedSpark,” a cooperative effort with the Penn State Agricultural Extension to develop better strains of rye that farmers can sell profitably to distillers — rather than the cheap winter-cover crop some still use to keep their soil from eroding before plowing it under in spring to plant corn or soy.

Foundation CEO Laura Fields has spent the last year visiting distillers around the state to build support for the effort and foster links between them and local farmers. She has a farming background, and she was working at her mother’s educational dairy farm in eastern Pennsylvania before launching the organization in 2015. “Personally I love whiskey, and I find that whiskey that is made with local ingredients and with finer, high-quality grains makes a difference,” she says. “Anyone in Scotland can tell you that,” adding that this is something we are just beginning to appreciate in the United States.

Nigel Tudor has been growing and harvesting certified organic rye, wheat and other grains since 2009 at the family’s Weatherbury Farm in Washington County. Last year Tudor figures he sold 20 tons of rye alone to make Wigle. “If you are going to have an authentic rye whiskey from this region, it should be with grain from that region,” he says. He says local farmers need help from Harrisburg to compete against cheaper imports from as far away as Ukraine.

The more Pennsylvania whiskey — and Pennsylvania rum, vodka, gin and wine, for that matter — the better for Christian Simmons. Spurred by the same climate of legal reform that has brought beer and wine to supermarkets, Simmons is renovating a Strip District storefront to reopen as Pennsylvania Libations, a so-called limited state store. He will sell Pennsylvania-produced wines and spirits only, and he expects to have 220 products on his shelves, many from small operations with little or no advertising or off-site sales.

“A lot of these facilities are like two, going on three years old,” says Simmons, who started out as a microbrewer before moving to more potent potables. “So those that had the capital were able to put down barrels, and now they’re popping out product and it’s just amazing. It just makes me wonder how good it’s going to be five or 10 years from now.”
For those not inclined to wait that long, a visit to one of the craft distilleries in the area — micros include Mingo Creek Craft Distillers in Washington, Pa., Disobedient Spirits in Homer City, and McLaughlin Distillery in Sewickley Hills — presents an opportunity for a sip or two now, enough to choose a Pennsylvania bottle to bring home for later.  
 

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