Pittsburgh’s Whiskey Scene
Rebels and visionaries lead Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s white-hot whiskey scene.
Story by Jill Gleeson
The most-awarded craft whiskey distillery in the U.S. is located near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh’s booze boom—specifically, its whiskey scene—is legit. In late February, Meredith Meyer Grelli of Wigle Whiskey, the nation’s most awarded craft distillery, received her second-consecutive James Beard nomination for “Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer.” As Grelli says with a grin, “This year Wigle was one of five distilleries in the U.S. to receive the semi-finalist award. We are completely honored and delighted! And now we get back to work!”
For Grelli, who owns and operates Wigle with her husband and parents, that work includes producing nearly 40 different types of alcohol, including vodka, gin, absinthe, bitters, and rye whiskey. There’s also overseeing Wigle’s four stores and assorted tastings, classes and other events. In May, the Wigle team will be opening a new shop in the Pittsburgh International Airport.
As if this all weren’t enough to keep Grelli hopping, she’s spearheading the drive to found a new tourist trail in Pennsylvania inspired by Kentucky’s bourbon trail. The plan is to pay homage to a little known event in Keystone State history called The Whiskey Rebellion and celebrate the region’s rich whiskey-making heritage.
“I think it’ll start in D.C. at the George Washington distillery at Mount Vernon, because that was actually one of America’s first working distilleries,” explains Tim Russell, proprietor of Pittsburgh’s award-winning Maggie’s Farm Rum and a member of the trail’s advisory board. “It’ll stretch across Pennsylvania and hit Pittsburgh-area distilleries. It’s also going to include restaurants, bars, hotels and museums, so people can go and relax and get a bit of history as well.”
Slated to open this summer, The Whiskey Rebellion Trail will explore the country’s first serious challenge to federal authority, which in 1791 began in Pittsburgh—then the epicenter of American whiskey production. Furious over a new excise tax on spirits, Philip Wigle punched a tax collector, inadvertently encouraging thousands of other western Pennsylvania farmer/distillers to take up arms against the government. The Whiskey Rebellion lasted until 1794, when Washington dispatched troops led by Alexander Hamilton to the area. Wigle, sentenced to hang for his role in the insurrection, was eventually pardoned by Washington.
By 1808 whiskey-making in the greater Pittsburgh area was back on track. As the Wigle Whiskey website proudly notes, “Allegheny County was producing half a barrel of whiskey for every man, woman and child in America. The gold standard of American whiskey was a spicy, earthy whiskey called Monongahela Rye.”
This history makes producing whiskey in Pittsburgh pretty much a no-brainer for Grelli, although thanks to Pennsylvania’s Byzantine liquor laws she had to petition the state in order to be allowed to sell spirits to consumers at the distillery before it could open. “Whiskey really was our economy before steel,” she says, “so it’s very much a part of the fabric of our region. But beyond that, we are a large producer of rye and wheat and the other grains needed to make whiskey. Wigle is now the largest consumer of organic grain in Pennsylvania, so the agricultural piece is not insignificant. I think, too, our manufacturing history helps. We have these beautiful old facilities that have housed and can continue to house beverage manufacturing.”
According to Russell there are now more than 80 distilleries in Pennsylvania, and the greater Pittsburgh area is home to plenty of fine spirit producers. Liberty Pole Spirits, is located in the town of Washington, where many of the Whiskey Rebellion protesters lived. Owners Jim and Ellen Hough offer tastings and tours at Liberty Pole, so named, as Jim Hough explains, “for the symbol of protest against the federal excise tax on whiskey. We also have a picture of Alexander Hamilton hanging upside down above our bar. But we always tell people that even though we honor those rebels, we still dutifully pay our taxes every quarter.”
The Whiskey Rebellion protesters are commemorated in Washington in other ways. The David Bradford House, former home of the leader of the insurgency, is a National Historical Landmark and museum open to the public. And each July, the town’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival—to be held July 11-14 this year—fetes the area’s unique heritage with historical reenactments, exhibitions and demonstrations, as well as period music, food, art and plenty of family fun. The whole shindig more or less gets kicked off a month earlier with the Liberty Pole Erection Ceremony, when the titular post is paraded from the Bradford House down Main Street to Liberty Pole Spirits, where it stands proudly for the rest of the summer.
While whiskey may not ever be as crucial as it once was to western Pennsylvania’s biggest city, Grelli is grateful for the way Pittsburghers have embraced Wigle and other distillers in the region. “There is this quality to Pittsburgh that is particular to cities that have brought themselves back up by their bootstraps,” she says. “I think we especially are devoted to businesses that are reflective of the community and produce products here. As a region we’ve been down on our luck before, and so we do not take it for granted when our own people try to create something here. We value that, we support that, and I think that’s something that is unique to Pittsburgh.”
Plan A Trip
Wigle Distillery & Tasting Room
2401 Smallman Street
The distillery, located in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, offers popular tours on Saturday.
Maggie’s Farm Rum
3212 A Smallman
Liberty Pole Spirits
68 West Maiden Street
David Bradford House
175 S. Main Street
Whiskey Rebellion Festival
July 11-14, 2019
Held Downtown Washington, Pennsylvania