The Fall and Rebirth of America’s First Great Whiskey: Pennsylvania Rye

Before Kentucky bourbon, there was Pennsylvania rye, a spirit that slowly died out following the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s. Bryce T. Bauer on its fall and the producer who is finally bringing it back.

pennsylvana rye whiskey history

Today the Monongahela Valley of Western Pennsylvania is known—if it’s known at all—as the home of Pittsburgh. It’s in this valley that its namesake river becomes the Ohio, after flowing 130 miles from its source in West Virginia. And it’s here that the center of American steelmaking, the valley’s livelihood, imploded by the mid-1980s, devastating those who lived there.

But long before that—around the time of the Revolutionary War, in the late-18th century—the area was known simply as the West, a land inhabited by a pioneering group of farmers, Scots-Irish and German immigrants, who were making America’s first prominent indigenous whiskey. Made with rye, not corn, millions of gallons of “Monongahela Whiskey” was issued from both large distilleries, like the famed Overholt Distillery, as well as hundreds of smaller stills.

But since Prohibition, the stills—the legal ones anyway—have been silent. Until recently.

Following the state’s easing of distillery regulations in 2011, new Monongahela rye is beginning to trickle out, including some from Pittsburgh’s Wigle distillery, which began distributing beyond Pennsylvania last fall.

“We were the first distillery in Pittsburgh since Prohibition, as far as we know,” says Meredith Grelli, who co-founded the distillery along with her husband Alex and her parents. Though born amid America’s craft distilling boom, the inspiration for Wigle is rooted deep within Pennsylvania’s distilling history—predating even that of Kentucky bourbon country—back to the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.

At that time, only about 125,000 people resided in Western Pennsylvania, many of whom were immigrants fleeing land-scarce Europe for the abundant and cheap property available in America. They brought along with them a deep knowledge of distilling. In Europe, they’d used malted barley for their whiskey mash, but barley took poorly to the new land, so they used rye, which adapted much quicker.

But because the west was so sparsely populated, there was little local demand. The country’s major markets were all east, toward Philadelphia and New York, but transporting the rye as bulky and perishable grain was expensive. Instead they distilled it, making a much more manageable product and creating a reputation for quality whiskey—one that Wigle is hoping to revive.

Even though the Pennsylvania whiskey industry eventually died out, it proved an important training ground for the next generation of whiskey producers. Not only did many of the Monongahela Whiskey distillers flee from Pennsylvania to Kentucky following the Whiskey Rebellion, so did some of the soldiers sent to put them down.

As Americans began to give up rum following the Revolutionary War, whiskey became the de-facto currency of the western Pennsylvania farmer-distillers’ barter-based economy. Consequently, it drew the attention of the new federal government, which was eager to pay off millions in war debt.

In 1791, the United States introduced a liquor tax, which many distillers refused to pay. The disagreement simmered for three years until the summer of 1794 when farmer-distillers—among them one Philip Wigle, or “Vigol,” as his named appeared in court cases—torched the house of a tax collector.

Empowered, the mob threatened more violence, and President George Washington decided he had to respond. The unrest gave him the opportunity to test whether his troops would be willing march against their fellow citizens to enforce the nascent nation’s laws. Thirteen thousand military men did, quashing the rebellion and arresting several of the instigators, including Wigle. One of only two men to be convicted of treason for his role in the Whiskey Rebellion, Wigle faced death, but was eventually pardoned by Washington.

“The reason we loved Wigle in particular was because he was just really a passionate guy who got in over his head,” Grelli says. “When we were starting the distillery we really related to that.”

Though the Grellis weren’t fighting against the government’s alcohol taxes, they did launch their distillery in a state with notoriously abstruse liquor laws. In fact, their original business plan banked heavily on being able to ship directly to consumers—something that wasn’t even legal when they began.

“We threw away our business plan on, like, day six,” she said. Instead, they worked on building out their distillery, while simultaneous pushing for the direct-shipment rule, which went into effect last year.

The law’s change allowed them to produce an array of experimental spirits to be sold to passionate consumers, including subscribers to their CSA, or “Community Support Alcohol,” program. To that end, in addition to producing a spicy, delicate traditional rye—made from organic grain grown within 300 miles of the distillery—they also have a series of wheat whiskeys finished in casks made from a variety of non-oak wood, a slightly floral brandy-esque spirit made from local honey and a range of special releases that vary elements of the aging process, like the level of barrel char.

“We have a really strong perspective that the role of a craft distillery should be about pushing the bounds, trying things that a big distillery can’t,” Grelli says.

This passion for breaking the bounds of traditional liquor-making and trying something new is reminiscent of the innovation of the first Monongahela Valley distillers, who surveyed their surroundings and made booze with it.

“I think people come to us at our distillery, at our barrel house, as much to learn the history as they do for the spirits,” she said.

Even though the Pennsylvania whiskey industry eventually died out, it proved an important training ground for the next generation of whiskey producers. Not only did many of the Monongahela Whiskey distillers flee from Pennsylvania to Kentucky following the Whiskey Rebellion, so did some of the soldiers sent to put them down. They too became whiskey makers, and together they helped create the next great American whiskey: Kentucky Bourbon.

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