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Westmoreland County Historical Society explores state's role in whiskey distillation

| Tuesday, April 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Western Pennsylvania was the bustling center of whiskey distillation in early America for more than a century, but after Prohibition, the industry largely went dormant here until just recently.

During his presentation on “Distilling in Pennsylvania” in the Westmoreland County Historical Society's Calvin E. Pollins Memorial Library in Unity, Chairman Robert Myers described the early history of distilling in the area and identified nearly a dozen large distilleries that had been active in the county prior to Prohibition.

Overholt Distillery in West Overton, near Scottdale, was founded in 1810 and went from producing six gallons per day to more than 200 before expanding to open Broad Ford Distillery on the Youghiogheny River below Connellsville. Samuel Dillinger's distillery was established in 1834 in Ruffsdale, and Sam Thompson supposedly won his Brownsville distillery in a poker game, Myers said.

Shrever's Distillery in Perryopolis was destroyed by a fire, but a replica was rebuilt in its place. Nothing remains of Greensburg Distilling Co., which produced Mount Odin Old Rye Whiskey. Belle Vernon was home to John Gibson's Son & Co. and Thomas Moore distilleries, Myers said, while John Mathias & Co. and Liberty Distillery operated in Manor and Armbrust, respectively. John Gibson's Son & Co. grew to become the country's leading producer, with Dillinger following in second place.

Distilling had been a cottage industry in the region far before the large-scale distilleries began churning out whiskey by the barrel.

In the late 18th century, frontier distillers offered the newly formed federal government its first true challenge after the Revolutionary War when they refused to obey a new tax on alcohol.

“We didn't have money, or our ancestors didn't. They would barter. You can't get tax money out of people who don't have money,” Myers said. “The people in Western Pennsylvania had relatively little amounts of cash, so you couldn't tax them on anything because they really didn't have the money to pay it.”

George Washington marched west from Philadelphia with 13,000 troops to quell the “Whiskey Rebellion” and established the federal government's authority in the process. Even after agreeing to abide by the taxes, whiskey production in Western Pennsylvania continued to grow.

“There are documents that say by 1809, Western Pennsylvania was producing half a barrel of rye whiskey for every man, woman and child living in America,” said Meredith Grelli, co-owner of Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh, one of the first distilleries licensed under new state law passed in 2011 that allows distilleries to offer samples and sell their products on-site, just as wineries and breweries had been permitted to do for years.

Today there are only a handful of distilleries in the western part of the state, all of them defined as small, craft distilleries.

“After Prohibition, you don't have any (distilling equipment) left,” Myers said. “The (distillery) in Belle Vernon, they sold everything at auction, so now you have to buy everything to start a distillery back up again. Then you have to fit into Pennsylvania's laws, which meant you could only sell through a liquor store. Shipping to different states was an issue. There were all kinds of issues.”

Once the new state law alleviated some of the issues holding back distilling, new companies began to emerge focused on producing small batches of craft spirits.

“People are starting to really engage in how their spirits are made and what kind of flavors you can get and this whole range of options that really haven't been available until very recently,” Grelli said.

Along with Wigle, Myers said, Stay Tuned distillery in Munhall and Maggie's Farm distillery in the Strip District have opened in recent years, and Boyd & Blair vodka, distilled in Shaler, is sold in 31 states as well as Canada and Singapore.

Disobedient Spirits LLC has been renovating a former grocery store in Homer City for use as a distillery, and owners Bob Segrist and Bob Begg hope to open for business this year.

The presentation on distilling meshes well with the theme for the historical society's annual Frolic fundraising event. This year's Prohibition-themed Frolic will be held April 26 in the Westmoreland County Courthouse — decorated to resemble a 1920s speakeasy — and will feature dining, dancing and a courtroom drama based on a case heard in the county about a speakeasy in Latrobe.

“I'm not exactly sure how we came around to Prohibition, but it's been a lot of fun. There are a lot of fun things to do in association with that,” historical society Executive Director Lisa Hays said of the theme.

“History isn't just wars and politics,” she added. “It's also how people lived and the values they had and how those values evolved and developed. Prohibition touches on that. It's a good part of our social history.”

Tickets for the Frolic are $70 for historical society members and $80 for nonmembers. Advance reservations are required.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913, or greinbold@tribweb.com.

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