Second Whiskey Rebellion extends across Western Pa.
By Bob Karlovits
Published: Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
The Second Whiskey Rebellion is being waged in stores, bars and distilleries all over Western Pennsylvania.
It is a revolt in which bourbons are winning new followers with drinks that are quietly subtle or boldly stark. Moonshines have matured into white whiskeys and are the heart of classy cocktails. The rebels in these battles are winning converts.
Unlike the first rebellion in 1794, there are no signs of federal troops marching in to quell proceedings.
It is a rebellion that will be celebrated at the Pittsburgh Whiskey & Soft Spirits Festival on Friday in the Rivers Casino, for what general manager Dale Markham believes will be the biggest in its six years.
The festival will feature 78 tables with more than 300 types of whiskeys coming from distilleries from Scotland to Kentucky, vodkas from Poland to Shaler, and cordials from all over the world.
It also will feature the likes of Elvis, Frank and Dean, strolling around the Casino adding a Vegas feeling for the night.
“We were serious at the start,” Markham says about the beginning of the festival when the goal was to portray the new-felt class of the amber potion. “Now we're looking to have some fun with it.”
The timing is right to have some fun with the whiskey-festival concept.
Distilled spirits are gaining such popularity, they have robbed a 5-percent to 6-percent market share from the seemingly untouchable beer, says David Ozgo, chief economist for the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Matt Schwenk, director of product selection for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, says whiskeys have become more and more popular with those ages 21 to 29, and with women, who now drink it 28 percent of the time.
The growing popularity fuels activity at Wigle Whiskey in the Strip District, as it rolls into the end of its first year of operation, It has been marketing two white whiskeys, aging half for the creation of the brown variety, and now is selling a whiskey-based gin.
In a related sense, Boyd & Blair is in its fourth year of distilling vodka in Shaler and has seen business growing 54 percent in 2011, after a 36 percent jump in 2011, co-owner Barry Young says.
Whiskeys have become so popular that even a burger bar has jumped aboard. Zachary Winghart, co-owner of Winghart's Burger & Whiskey Bar, Downtown and in the South Side, sees a great learning curve happening with customers who are discovering the variety of whiskey.
“A lot of people know Jameson, and then they discover Red Breast,” he says, referring to two brands of Irish whiskeys.
Winghart sees that swing in the examination of how to drink whiskeys. He says it is “really American to drink whiskey neat,” that is, without any taste of water or ice. But in Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, he say, a drop of water to explode the aroma and taste is considered a must.
Also, he says, an increasing number of customers are exploring their favorite cocktails with whiskey or looking in new directions with whiskey mixes.
Cocktails have been a staple at the Wigle distillery, where unaged wheat and rye whiskeys have been introduced as a substitute for cocktail favorites such as vodka and rum.
While purists enjoy their whiskeys with maybe a cube or two of ice or a drop of water, they have come to realize many fellow drinkers are discovering whiskey another way.
Jim Beam, a Kentucky whiskey producer since 1795 that sells 6 million cases per year worldwide, acknowledges that trend with a large selection of cocktail recipes on its website.
The growing fascination with whiskey is coming from the same interest that has fueled the farm-to-table movement in cooking — or dining, says Ozgo from the spirits council.
“Just as people got interested in buying local produce, they got interested in buying whiskeys made nearby and with nearby grains,” he says.
The whiskey rebellion is like the craft-beer movement, Ozgo says, though much smaller. The National Brewers Association reports 1,940 craft breweries in the United States. By comparison, Ozgo says there are about 300 craft distilleries, although some are very small.
Wigle's Meredith Grelli says distilliation is “still a mystery” for many people, because in entails a process of creating a mash from grain, then making a beer-like substance from which a vapor is refined into a liquor. It is a process governed by close monitoring of time and temperature, far removed from the relative simplicity of at-home beer kits that have been popular since the 1970s.
Ozgo says whiskeys were at their heyday in the '50s and '60s when they were the source of 75 percent of all drinks. Spirits had a big decline in the '80s, and whiskeys suffered a 50 percent loss of their market.
As interest in vodka and rum began to grow, he says, an interest in whiskeys emerged. He believes many American drinkers moved to bourbon from scotches because of a lighter taste profile that made them friendlier.
Schwenk from the PLCB says some of the bigger distillers have gone after customers with products such as Red Stag, a cherry-flavored liquor from Jim Beam. Piedmont Distillers from North Carolina sells moonshine-like bottles of white whiskey flavored by fruit floating in them.
The fascination continues to grow and produce other liquors, such as Wigle's gin, Schwenk says. There is a great deal of experimenting going on in the creation of the mash and the aging process. He thinks something could result from that.
“Someone may just hit a home run and produce a new American whiskey,” he says.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7852.
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