The Empty Glass Resistance

By Millennials for Everyone

A Brief Boozy History: The Whiskey Rebellion

Pittsburgh: Where the Rivers and the Whiskey Flow

By Devin Shellhammer

            When we think of whiskey in America, most of us immediately think of Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky is the epitome of American Whiskey, Bourbon Country. But where was the whiskey capital of America before Kentucky? The answer is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

            Pittsburgh is known today as the Steel City, the City of Bridges, the City of Champions, the home of Primanti Brothers (the best sandwich this foodie has had to date), and so much more, but we don’t really stop to think about what it was before. Yes, the industrial aspect of Pittsburgh has remained prevalent for years, but there is so much more history to this beautiful city, especially when it comes to the spirit that brings us together.

            Let’s take things back to the 1700s. The Walker brothers, Gabriel and Isaac, were some of the first settlers in Western Pennsylvania. The brothers distilled whiskey, served in the Revolutionary War, and eventually got married and started families. They were living the life that so many other farmer-distillers in Western PA were living. Settlers were very frugal and wasted very little. After the harvest, whatever grain was left over once the family and animals had ample supply was turned into whiskey. Distillers also used their whiskey as a form of currency to barter with since the area did not have paper money.

            In Washington D.C., George Washington knew the country was in great debt. In an attempt to counter the debt, he excised a tax on liquor in 1791. This enraged distillers in the north, and they began to rebel. With more than 4,000 stills in operation between Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, distillers would have been paying an astronomical amount in taxes on their production.

            Distillers rebelled against this tax by burning effigies of tax collectors and acting out against tax collectors. In 1791, a tax collector was tarred and feathered. The tax went uncollected for 1791 and 1792 due to violent intimidation towards tax collectors by distillers. In 1794, a group of distillers from Pennsylvania took things so far as to burn the mansion of John Neville, a tax collector in the state.

After this act of violence, President Washington sent in a militia of 13,000 men to put out the fire of the Whiskey Rebellion. By the time the men got there, most of the distillers had already dispersed, but approximately 150 were still there and were arrested, the Walker brothers among them. These men were sent to Philadelphia for sentencing. Two men, Philip Wigle and John Mitchell, were sentenced to hang for their crimes of treason. Wigle and Mitchell were ultimately pardoned by Washington, and the men were released in 1795.

            After the Whiskey Rebellion, President Washington, and Jefferson after him, offered 60 acres of land if settlers moved to Kentucky to grow corn. The mass amounts of corn being grown led to the birth of bourbon. This was ultimately when Kentucky became the bourbon epicenter of the country. This is also when whiskey started to be aged in barrels. Aging the whiskey in barrels gave it a sweeter flavor with hints of caramel and vanilla from the oak. This was vastly different from the whiskey produced in Pittsburgh, which was white whiskey, not aged in oak barrels. The whiskey was called Monongahela Rye, a spicy and earthy rye whiskey. This whiskey was considered to be one of the best in the country at the time.

            Whiskey production continued in Pennsylvania into the 1800s, despite the growth of bourbon in Kentucky. By 1808, Allegheny County alone was producing one half barrel of whiskey for every person in America.

            Philip Wigle sparked a rebirth of whiskey in the Pittsburgh area. In 2012, a craft distillery opened its doors to the public in the Strip District of Pittsburgh. Wigle produces an innovative line of craft whiskeys, gins, honey spirits, and craft bitters. It is also the first and only whiskey distillery in Pittsburgh since the end of Prohibition. The craft distillery uses copper stills and local ingredients, much like its namesake would have used in the 1700s.

            If you and your friends are planning a trip to Kentucky, possibly to complete the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you may want to consider a stop a few hours north as well to see the birthplace of rye whiskey, a spirit that is becoming increasingly popular in mixology. This beautiful city has such a unique and boozy history that it’s hard to pass up a day drinking it in. Cheers!

Life, Liberty Pole, and the Pursuit of Whiskey

By Devin Shellhammer

Western Pennsylvania is an area that holds an extensive amount of early American history. The Whiskey Rebellion is one of my personal favorite pieces of history that this area has seen. Whiskey was something that was used frequently in the 1700-1800s. It was safer to drink than a lot of the water in the area. Farmer/distillers would turn their leftover grain into whiskey after harvests and use the distilled spirit to trade and barter with others since paper money was scarce on what was then the frontier of America. When our first president decided to tax the production of whiskey, farmer/distillers felt angry and betrayed because this spirit played such a big part in the way they made their living and supported their families.

Whiskey is something that brings people together today. People enjoy the complex flavors with (often) complex conversations. This beautifully distilled spirit often lifts our own spirits and brings a smile to our faces. A recent trip to a Western Pennsylvania craft distillery showed me that not only does whiskey bring people together today; it has been bringing people together since the birth of our great country.

In mid-October, I took the owner of Liberty Pole Spirits in Washington, PA up on an offer to show me the distillery. I arrived with a good friend in tow, coming off of a pretty rough night myself. I didn’t let that stop me. I opened the door to the tasting room and was immediately transported in time. A long wooden table with heavy benches sat to my right. In front of me was a giant wooden clerk’s desk, beautifully polished. Behind the desk was a giant mantle with all of the Liberty Pole whiskeys lined across the top. The fireplace below was not being used to heat the colonial-era looking room, but rather being used for whiskey (a much better use if you ask me). A portrait of Alexander Hamilton is hung upside-down above the mantle, mimicking a sign of disrespect in England with portraits of the monarchy.

While looking around and taking everything in this room in, I was met by two beautiful dogs and a young man in jeans and a fall jacket, coffee cup in hand. I shook his hand and introduced myself. I learned his name was Kevin, and he was one of the distillers at Liberty Pole Spirits. Lexie and Murphy also made sure to see that I felt welcome as they brought me a squeaky toy and sat at my feet. Kevin began to tell me some of the background of the distillery and the area.

We all know the basic facts of the Whiskey Rebellion. After the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton served as the first Secretary of Treasury. In order to pay off the debt from the Revolutionary War, Hamilton suggested an excise tax on whiskey produced in the United States. This was the first tax established by our new government. Distillers often resorted to violence and threats to stop tax collectors from trying to collect the whiskey tax, but there were also a large number of individuals that showed their disagreement with the tax by raising Liberty Poles along roads and in town centers. These individuals called themselves the Mingo Creek Society, as they had all met in a meetinghouse near Mingo Creek and agreed to not pay the tax. This civil protest is the namesake for a distillery that makes whiskey as complex as the history of the area in which they made their home.

The label that goes onto all of their products shows the depiction of a woman named Spirited Jane holding a small Liberty Pole. She was the mother of a young boy named Oliver Miller that died during the Rebellion. His brother shot three warning shots into the air with their father’s gun when soldiers came onto their property. One of the bullets came back down and hit Oliver. They rode him on horseback overnight to a place where a doctor could see him. They got the bullet removed, but it must have gotten infected. The young boy passed away within a week or so. It is believed that she would have been one of the first to put up a Liberty Pole out of mourning for her son and her hatred of the whiskey tax that caused the loss of her son.

After getting some more background on the area and the distillery, Kevin gave me a tour of the distillery. As he walked me back a hallway, I could see where it opened up to a large, open area which happened to be home to a 300 gallon copper pot still and a smaller 15 gallon copper pot still. Harold (300 g) and Howard (15 g) are named after the fathers of the owners Jim and Ellen Hough, husband and wife. As I stood and admired these handsome stills, Kevin informed me that they were hand made by Trident Stills in Maine.

To my left were a set of stairs surrounded by a small brick wall. Kevin asked me if I’d like to see the barrels. He didn’t even have to ask me. Of course I wanted to see the barrels! We head down the stairs into the basement. All of their corn and malt are stored there as well. Kevin opened up a bag of heavily peated malt and told me I could pick some out, smell it, and even taste it if I wanted. I know what you’re thinking… why does an American craft distillery have heavily peated malt? I’ll get into that later. I raised the malt to my nose and immediately my nostrils were flooded with the familiar scent of smoke. I popped a piece into my mouth and chewed it like granola. The beautiful peaty flavor spread across my tastebuds and I was practically in heaven.

Jim Hough, the owner had joined us downstairs by this time as well. We moved on to the corn in the back of the room. The corn that they use is a very interesting variety. It has a blood red color to it, and the kernels are fairly large in size. It is called Bloody Butcher Corn, for obvious reasons. The corn is a very high protein corn, which means less whiskey per load of corn, but the flavors that it yields are phenomenal.

From the malt, we moved on to the barrels. They’ve got about 4 large barrel racks in a small rickhouse set up in the basement. This setup is the epitome of a small scale craft distillery. Some of the barrels have names on them, a benefit people can get by joining their Mingo Creek Society, which is kind of like an ambassador’s club. Some of the barrels are 15 gallon barrels, some of them 10. Once again, very small scale production. Smaller barrels can also mean a quicker aging process, though, which is good for a small craft distillery. Yours truly will hopefully have her name on a barrel before too long as well!

Back upstairs, I got to see some other things. I saw the small room where the family hand bottles all of their products and puts the labels on by hand. I saw a larger barrel that is used for their “white whiskey”, a duck hat that an employee likes to wear around the distillery, a pineapple hanging on the wall as the international sign of hospitality, and pizza. That’s right. Pizza. We all sat down to lunch in the tasting room around a large table. I enjoyed the pizza with a local craft beer that had been aged in one of their rye whiskey barrels.

About ten minutes into lunch, I started to feel like family. Jim and Ellen really made me feel at home. Any questions I had, they had answers that put me at rest. We started to all get to know each other better over lunch. After lunch was when we got down to business… Kevin brought out a bunch of Glencairn glasses and a bottle of every whiskey that they make. This moment was what I had been waiting almost a month for.

We started off with their Bassett Town Rye, their white rye whiskey. I’ll admit, I’m not very open-minded when it comes to white whiskeys. I’m typically not a fan. After smelling their Basset Town, which honors the original name of the area that is now Washington, I had a slight change of heart. The Bassett Town Rye has a sweetness to it on the finish that I have never experienced in a white whiskey. This whiskey spends one night in a barrel, just about the amount of time that it would take a farmer to get the whiskey to market.

 

After the Bassett Town, we tried their Rye Whiskey. Their rye still had some of the sweetness that the Bassett Town did, but there was a lot more oakiness to it from being aged longer. I really enjoy rye whiskeys, and this one strengthened that belief. Their rye is softened a bit with wheat, but still holds a lot of spiciness from the new charred oak barrels it is aged in. After being triple distilled, their rye whiskey is ready to be sipped neat or added to a cocktail to spice things up.

The Corn Whiskey was the next one we tried. This one really showcased the unique color that the Bloody Butcher corn gives the whiskey. There wasn’t a very malty flavor to the corn whiskey, as its mash blend is 80% Bloody Butcher Corn and 20% barley malt. The corn gives it a rather sweet finish that was vastly different from the rye. Trying the two back to back made it interesting with seeing the polar opposites.

Next we tried Liberty Pole’s bourbon. Their bourbon is aged in deeply charred new oak barrels and consists of a mash blend of 57% Bloody Butcher Corn, 18% wheat, and 25% barley malt. The corn and the wheat give it a sweetness, but you still have the malty flavor in there. Hints of oak and caramel are prevalent from the aging process in the barrel. Tasting their bourbon opened the door for the next whiskey, my personal favorite…

Liberty Pole Spirits makes an award winning Peated Bourbon. This whiskey honors the farmer/distillers of Scotch Irish descent that were involved in the Whiskey Rebellion. They use a heavily peated malt in their mash blend, which is 59% Bloody Butcher Corn and 41% barley malt and peated barley malt. The peated barley malt is what I tasted earlier in the day. On the nose, I could immediately smell the peat. I got it on the front of the whiskey as well. Despite being heavily peated, the corn puts up a good fight throughout the body of the whiskey. It finishes with the two peacefully coexisting, but the peat lingers for a long while.

The previous 5 whiskeys are the ones that are currently available from the distillery. I also got to try a few new things they’ve been working on, such as a single malt, a cask strength rye whiskey, a bourbon crème, and a few other ideas that Ellen had while we had lunch. I was also given a “Black Manhattan” made with their peated bourbon. This cocktail was one of the more interesting ones I’ve had, and I’d certainly drink a few more given the chance.

Liberty Pole’s Peated Bourbon took the gold medal in 2017 from the American Craft Spirits Association. Their Bourbon took home a bronze medal and their rye took a silver medal. Their Corn Whiskey also took a bronze medal in 2017 from the American Distilling Institute. For being open just over a year, this is a huge accomplishment.

I had briefly mentioned the Mingo Creek Society, but I wanted to make sure that I gave a little more information on it. It is a free membership, and members receive all kinds of benefits. They will receive a Mingo Creek Society keychain, 10% off all merchandise, invitations to exclusive pre-release parties, a holiday gift, your name on a barrel and a notification of when the whiskey from that barrel is bottled, invitations to exclusive meetings with the distillers, and 10% off dinner with Original Whiskey Rebels at the annual Liberty Pole Raising. I joined, and I’m glad I did. If you’re interested, you can sign up for free on their website. (https://www.libertypolespirits.com/new-mingo-creek-society)

After my visit to Liberty Pole and my experiences with the entire family, I will certainly be going back for some events and to get more Peated Bourbon, because I know that will become a comfort whiskey of mine. For those of you that are within a few hours of Washington, PA, I definitely recommend giving Liberty Pole Spirits a chance. The crew and the whiskeys are phenomenal and will not disappoint.

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