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5 Pittsburgh Craft Distilleries Earning a Place on the Shelf

Uncovering the hidden gems of western Pennsylvania’s craft spirit world.



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Photo by Laura petrilla
 

With the American Craft Spirits Association bringing its annual convention and awards competition to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on March 5 and 6, local craft distillers are in the spotlight. Standouts Wigle Whiskey and Boyd & Blair have rightfully earned a place on the shelf; here are some others you may not be as familiar with. Each of these distilleries offers tastings as well as cocktails — and you can buy bottles to take home during your visit. Some products also are available at Pennsylvania Libations, 2103 Penn Ave., Strip District, or at local restaurants and bars.
 


photos by chuck beard
 

Tim Russell will tell you he was personally more of a whiskey man five years ago when he cashed in his 401(k) to start making Maggie’s Farm Rum.  But the former project manager for a Uniontown defense contractor figured that craft rum was an underappreciated and untapped market.  

Molasses, a byproduct of refining sugar, is the traditional base of rum. Russell instead uses turbinado sugar, which is costlier but easier to work with and gives his rums a grassier, less earthy character. The spiced rum uses no extracts, favoring hand-ground vanilla beans, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, cardamom and star anise, along with fresh orange zest. The limited release Single Barrel and Queen’s Share distillings have scooped up gold medals and best-in-show awards at several prestigious competitions.
 

Russell’s distillery is in a low-slung, nondescript blue building on the outskirts of the Strip. Inside, the cocktail bar (a Pittsburgh Magazine 2017 Best Bar) gives a full view of the workshop and its attractive Spanish copper still. Tim’s wife, Layla, manages the bar, which features selections that show off Maggie’s Farm’s newest offerings, coffee liqueur and falernum. The former is a 40-proof concoction that uses cold-brewed beans from Papua New Guinea roasted at Commonplace Coffee. Falernum, a Caribbean product that’s a staple in tiki drinks, is a sweetened rum base with fresh ginger root, cloves and lime zest.

Bottle to Buy: Spiced Rum
This will redefine what you think spiced rum can be, with clean, bright flavors from fresh-ground spices that would be a shame to mask with cola. It has nothing of the syrupy character of much mass-produced spiced rum, partly because it is not back-sweetened after distillation.  ($30)
 


 

Making whiskey is a mom-and-pop business for Jim and Ellen Hough and their adult sons, Rob and Kevin, who stepped away from their engineering jobs to be full-time distillers.  Jim started things in a 10-gallon backporch still kept in the production room to show visitors. Ellen, a history buff, has outfitted Liberty Pole’s tasting rooms to recall the Whiskey Rebellion, with touches such as an upside-down portrait of then-Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and an actual liberty pole, an Early American decorative statement that stood for defiance against tyranny.
 

Ellen is a self-described “dirt-eater,” a fan of the smoky, briny single malt scotches from the island of Islay. She persuaded Jim to try to marry some of the complex flavors she enjoys with the typically sweeter bourbon. The resulting peated bourbon was a bigger success than they expected, winning a gold medal at the 2017 American Craft Spirits Awards. They know when to take it easy, too — their standard bourbon is a softer style with wheat in the mash. Their latest product, bourbon cream liqueur, can be enjoyed on its own or do wonders for a mug of coffee or cocoa.

Rye, wheat and corn all are locally sourced and milled onsite. The growing number of aging barrels in the cellar, where the original 5-gallon containers now are crowded out by 10-, 15-, and 30-gallon barrels, indicates that the Hough family business has a promising future.
 

Bottle to Buy: Peated Bourbon
Combining two flavors from the opposite end of the whiskey liquor spectrum makes for a surprising first sip that, especially for fans of smoky flavors, gives way to a “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” moment of revelation.  ($57)
 

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