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Pittsburgh’s Whiskey Heritage

The people who came to this area and settled Western Pennsylvania were a resourceful lot, making use of everything at their disposal and wasting nothing.  Those characteristics are still present in residents here today.

The first settlers in this area faced a savage wilderness.  They were isolated; Indians were often hostile; and their lives depended upon scratching out an existence from the untamed land.  Most of the settlers were farmers and grew grain on their land.  After the harvest, and if the farmers had enough grain to supply their family and animals, wasting nothing, they used their leftover grain to make whiskey.  For the settlers, whiskey was not only a desired liquor, but it was also a means of currency.  Because there was no paper money on the frontier, farmers bartered with the whiskey for services and goods.

Some of the first settlers in the area were the Walker brothers.  In 1772, Gabriel and Isaac Walker migrated from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and purchased land near Scott’s Run and Robinson Run, near today’s Settlers Cabin Park.  They farmed their land, and with the leftover grain, like many other farmers who would settled in the area, they distilled whiskey.

The brothers served in the Revolutionary War, married, and had children, weathering Indian attacks, one of which resulted in the scalping and killing of two of Gabriel’s children.  The Walker brothers would come close to losing their lives as well, not from an Indian attack, however, but from an attack by the federal government.

After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States was deeply in debt.  At the urging of his Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, in 1791, approved an excise tax on liquor to raise revenue for the new country.  At that time, Pittsburgh was the whiskey distilling capital of the country, with more than 4,000 stills in operation within the region.  As one local distiller noted, Pittsburgh was Kentucky before Kentucky was.

Distillers were outraged by the tax and revolted.  Farmer-distillers in Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania burned tax collectors in effigy, engaged in skirmishes, and launched attacks.  The distillers in Pittsburgh were particularly outraged, and in the summer of 1794, nearly 400 rebels burned the Bower Hill mansion of tax collector John Neville, who had served as an officer in the Revolutionary War.

Washington knew he needed to assert his authority and called up a militia of 13,000 men to quell the rebellion.  By the time the militia arrived in Western Pennsylvania, the rebels had dispersed, but 150 of them were arrested, among them the Walker brothers.  In the fall of 1794, Gabriel and Isaac Walker were arrested by Washington’s Army and were transported to Philadelphia to face charges.  They were ultimately released in 1795.

Two men were convicted and sentenced to hang—one of them being Philip Wigle.  Washington eventually pardoned them, but not before The Whiskey Rebellion would change the country forever.  Out of the protests grew our country’s two-party system as Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, repealed the tax when elected, in opposition to the Federalists, who asserted that the Federal government had overriding jurisdiction in all matters.

Some believe that by imposing taxes on the distillers in Pennsylvania it caused many of them to flee to Canada and Kentucky, launching the whiskey industry there, but most historians believe that is false as those regions were already producing whiskey before The Whiskey Rebellion erupted.  To appease the rebels and ensure order, Presidents Washington and then Jefferson offered settlers 60 acres of land in Kentucky if they moved there and grew corn, giving birth to the bourbon trade, which is primarily corn based and aged in new, charred, white oak barrels as opposed to the white whiskey distilled in Pennsylvania, which was not aged.

As the country grew, so did its thirst for whiskey.  Distilleries popped up all over the country.  Even industrialist Henry Clay Frick benefitted from the whiskey trade.  In the early 1800s, German immigrants led by Abraham Overholt settled in what would be known as West Overton, Pennsylvania, in Westmoreland County.  There Overholt began to distill his whiskey, Old Overholt, making him very prosperous.  His grandson, industrialist Henry Clay Frick, was born in West Overton, and Frick’s daughter, Helen Clay Frick, used the considerable wealth she inherited to preserve many of the distillery buildings in West Overton.  Today, visitors can visit West Overton to learn what it was like to distill whiskey in the 1800s.

Coincidentally, Henry Clay Frick died in 1919, the year Prohibition was passed, virtually ending the whiskey trade in the area, and making Frick the last family member to own A. Overholt & Co.

Until recently, the whiskey distilling business had remained dry in Pittsburgh.  But like those first settlers who didn’t waste their excess grain but were resourceful and turned it into whiskey, several enterprising individuals have recycled our distilling history and have started to make whiskey again in Pittsburgh.  They have even resurrected the memory of Peter Wigle, the whiskey rebel insurrectionist who Washington pardoned, by naming the first whiskey distillery since Prohibition after him, establishing Wigle Whiskey.

The Meyer-Grelli family opened Wigle Whiskey in 2012 in the Strip District, offering rye and wheat whiskies, honey rum, bitters, and gin.  Wigle Whiskey produces the white whiskey, as did its namesake more than 200 years ago.  With the opening of Wigle Whiskey and another newcomer, Stay Tuned Distillery in Munhall, Pittsburgh is experiencing a “Whiskey Renaissance.”  Wigle has grown in a few short years from five to 30 employees and has recently opened a Barrelhouse and Whiskey Garden on Pittsburgh’s North Side.  There visitors can tour the barrelhouse and enjoy Wigle libations and snacks in the garden.  To commemorate the Whiskey Garden’s opening, Wigel hosted a barrel roll across the David McCullough Bridge.

Reflecting the renewed interest in whiskey, in the last decade, Fine Wine & Good Spirits has sponsored the Pittsburgh Whiskey & Fine Spirits Festival.  With the return of whiskey to Pittsburgh, perhaps in the future, the area will once again rise to prominence as a whiskey producing capital.

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