The people who 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; they warred with the native peoples they were displacing; and their lives depended upon scratching out an existence from the untamed land. Most of the settlers were farmers and grew grain. After the harvest, they used their leftover grain to make whiskey. It was not only a desired liquor, but it was also a means of currency. 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 today’s Settlers Cabin Park. They farmed their land, and with the leftover grain they distilled whiskey.
The Whiskey Rebellion
The newly formed United States was deeply in debt after the war. At the urging of Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, President George Washington approved an excise tax on liquor to raise revenue for the new country in 1791. 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. In the summer of 1794, nearly 400 rebels burned the Bower Hill mansion of tax collector John Neville.
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 in the fall ow 1794, the rebels had dispersed. Even so, Washington’s Army arrested 150 protesters, including the Walker brothers. They were transported to Philadelphia to face charges. Gabriel and Isaac were released in 1795.
Two other men were convicted and sentenced to hang. One of which was Philip Wigle. Washington eventually pardoned them, but The Whiskey Rebellion had already changed the country forever. Our country’s two-party system grew out of these protests. Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, repealed the tax when elected, in opposition to the Federalists, who asserted that the Federal government had overriding jurisdiction in all matters.
The Bourbon Trade
Some believe that imposing taxes on the distillers in Pennsylvania caused many of them to flee to Canada and Kentucky, launching the whiskey industry there. However, whiskey was already being produced in those regions before the 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 to grow corn. This gave birth to the bourbon trade. Bourbon is primarily corn based and aged in new, charred, white oak barrels. This is in contrast to the white whiskey distilled in Pennsylvania, which was not aged.
Pittsburgh’s Whiskey Renaissance
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, Frick’s grandfather, Abraham Overholt, settled a group of German immigrants in the area now known as West Overton, Pennsylvania, in Westmoreland County. Overholt began to distill whiskey, a very prosperous endeavor.
Prohibition was passed just before Henry Clay Frick died in 1919. This law virtually ended whiskey trade in the area, making Frick the last family member to own A. Overholt & Co. Frick’s daughter, Helen Clay Frick, used the considerable wealth she inherited to preserve many of the distillery buildings there. Today, visitors can visit West Overton to learn what it was like to distill whiskey in the 1800s.
Until recently, the whiskey distilling business had remained dry in Pittsburgh. However, several enterprising individuals have reinvoked our distilling history. The first whiskey distillery in Pittsburgh since Prohibition resurrected the memory of Peter Wigle when Wigle Whiskey was established in 2012. The Meyer-Grelli family opened Wigle Whiskey in the Strip District, offering rye and wheat whiskies, as well as 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.