A Battle for American Whiskey History
We checked out the new Whiskey Rebellion trail that runs from Pittsburgh to Baltimore featuring 75 sites and celebrates the region’s rye making tradition.
A few weeks ago, under a hot noonday sun a little under an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh, a whiskey rebellion was underway in Washington, Pennsylvania.
A group of uniformed re-enactors had gathered for a boisterous confrontation on North Main Street. Spectators were asked to imagine that it was 1791. An appointed tax collector, here backed by neatly uniformed troops sent from Washington, D.C., was facing off against a ragtag mob with muskets. “Washington is prepared to bring the full weight of the government down upon you,” the tax-monger thundered, his words amplified through a TED-style mic. This was met with much theatrical muttering and shaking of fists, with the malcontents expressing general displeasure in the paying of any such tax.
The contemporary crowd lining the streets clearly had favorites. They issued forth with “huzzahs!“ when the rebels hurled insults and refused to pay. The crowd booed lustily at mention of John Neville, a wealthy local farmer who had been deputized to collect taxes. The confrontation ended without resolution; the audience was encouraged to return in 45 minutes, to watch a duel involving flintlocks.
So, I wandered off and found a modern whiskey rebellion unfolding a few blocks away, on West Maiden Street. This was a much less showy affair, taking place in a former tombstone factory. The front room had been made over to give it the feel of a fancy colonial tavern, complete with an upside-down portrait of tax man Alexander Hamilton hanging over the fireplace. But it was all modern business in the back: a new copper pot still had been recently installed to keep up with demand. Owner Jim Hough, who runs Liberty Pole Spirits with his wife, Ellen, and their two grown sons, wore a tee-shirt that read “Whiskey, because there was never a vodka rebellion.” He poured shots of his Liberty Pole Rye, which they’ve been making here for three years.
Glass by glass, the modern whiskey rebellion goes on. It’s being staged by the Houghs and a growing rebel force of others, scattered around Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
What are they rebelling against? The widespread notion that bourbon is America’s original and only whiskey. It wasn’t and isn’t, which the rebels will tell you often and loudly. Before bourbon there was rye, lots of it, and it mostly came from this region. The spirit was so distinctive that for decades whiskey from these parts was called simply “Monongahela,” after a local river.
“Monongahela was born out of our earlier settlement patterns, with the Germans and the Scotch-Irish,” said Meredith Grelli, co-founder of Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh. “The rest of the state then expanded on that tradition.”
This quiet whiskey rebellion may grow a little louder. This summer, the new rebels joined with the original rebels of 1791 to create the Whiskey Rebellion Trail, which incorporates dozens of stops related to the history of the insurrection, and the modern rebirth of rye (and other craft spirits).
The idea for the trail first surfaced three years ago, when Grelli hosted a meeting of distillers, journalists, and historians in Pittsburgh to talk about this idea. What emerged over months of conversation was a constellation of sites that run from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and southward to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The trail roughly follows the route of George Washington, who led troops to western Pennsylvania to put down the rebellion. The new trail was announced to the public in July.
A total of 75 sites are currently featured along the trail (another 50 are slated to be added next year). Grelli, who was founder and now president of the trail, says that most visitors at the outset likely will visit a handful of sites within one region rather than attempt to complete the entire trail. It’s set up that visitors can focus on history or distilling, or a combination of the two.
So far, the sites along the trail are mostly distilleries or museums (hotel, bars, and restaurants will be added in coming years). And the trail is divided into regions that essentially reflect chapters in the story of the Whiskey Rebellion: “The Order” (Greater Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital), “The March” (Central Pennsylvania), “The Rebellion” (Greater Pittsburgh), and “The Finale” (Washington, D.C., and Baltimore).
Regional passes can be purchased for a day, a weekend, or an entire season. Prices vary, as does what’s included, but generally pass holders get free admission to museums and historic homes, and a tour, cocktail, tasting flight, or discount at distilleries. (Visit the Trail's website for more information and to buy passes.)
Those attracted to history can learn more about the rebellion at sites, including the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, West Overton Village in south-central Pennsylvania (where Old Overholt Whiskey was born), George Washington’s Mount Vernon south of Washington, D.C. and the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
On a recent four-day trip for journalists, I visited several of the museums and 14 participating distilleries. These represented history in the making, with start-up distillers bucking the market lock of the big-brand distilleries. Among them: Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh, Green Hat and Republic Restoratives in Washington, D.C., Sagamore Spirit in Baltimore, and Philadelphia Distilling.
All along the new trail, it felt as if there was a somewhat blurry boundary between the past and the present. While the rise of small distilleries is new, the precedent is not—the region was once home to hundreds of small distilleries that made Monongahela and other spirits.
And over four days traveling the region, it seemed the forces behind the Whiskey Rebellion are still very much alive.
“We heard, over and over again, almost at every stop, how there were so many connections between the events of then and now,” Grelli said. “The Whiskey Rebellion is more relevant now than ever—the stories of inequality, feelings of political disempowerment, a leadership that doesn’t represent a large portion of the population, the urban-rural divide.”
During our stop in Washington, Pennsylvania, I lingered to watch the duel between two costumed opponents. They stood apart at ten paces, a kerchief was dropped, a flintlock sounded loudly. One of the duelists went down, hard. His wife rushed to his side, keening loudly and silencing the crowd. It was harsh and realistic, not the Disney version I was anticipating. (You know: the shots miss, the duelists shake hands, they vow to work for world peace).
Also, haunting was the taunting of the victor. With smoking gun still in hand, he stalked around the dying man and his grieving wife, shouting continual insults that were apparently the colonial versions of, “Who’s the big man now?”
It all felt a little disconcerting. Last year, Grelli dropped the tar and feathering portion of another annual festival her company has long hosted. This performance involved artists coming up with fun, new ways of depicting an old punishment, but in the current political environment encouraging any sort of violence didn’t seem right.
“It just felt so raw,” Grelli said. Yesterday seems to have caught up with today.