Whiskey revival: Brown spirits staging another rebellion in Western Pennsylvania
Denis Burke gets a kick out of explaining the inspiration behind J. Gough's Tavern, his new Greenfield watering hole.
During the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, he says, Pittsburgh pub owner J. Gough was forced to turn his establishment over to the U.S. Army, which proceeded to clean him out of liquor and food. Although Gough had little choice in the matter, other whiskey makers regarded him as a traitor to their cause, Burke says.
J. Gough's name became mud, and eventually morphed into jag-off — that iconic Pittsburgh term for a despicable dude.
Of course, it's a tall tale — one of many that Burke likes to tell — and part of the fun of sipping whiskey at his pub, where more than 100 different kinds of bourbon, Scotch, and other spirits line the shelves.
The real impetus behind J. Gough's was Burke's visit to a 200-year-old whiskey bar in Scotland, where some 300 bottles were on display. “Ever since then, opening a tavern is something I'd wanted to do,” says Burke, whose launch last fall couldn't have been better-timed.
Whiskey and whiskey bars have surged in popularity in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the past five years, according to Wigle Whiskey, a Strip District-based distillery that sells to scores of taverns and restaurants.
Wigle was started in 2012 after Mark and Mary Ellen Meyer and their adult children Meredith and Eric decided to resurrect what had been lost locally during 1920s Prohibition, an era when Pittsburgh was said to have harbored more than 3000 illicit distilleries.
Wigle also has a connection to the Whiskey Rebellion, in that it is named after Philip Wigle, a distiller sentenced to hang during the ill-fated tax protest, according to Wigle Whiskey spokesman John Tarasi. “Wigle was eventually pardoned by George Washington, but the tax on whiskey still stuck.”
Like their pioneering predecessors, Wigle and other Pittsburgh-area distillers such as McLaughlin Distillery in Sewickley and Maggie's Farm Rum, make spirts in small batches using locally sourced ingredients, which is part of what is driving the brown spirits revival, Tarasi says.
“There are trends. Twenty years ago, it was craft beers, and now it's whiskey,' Tarasi says. “After Prohibition, whiskey was dominated by large distilleries, especially in the South, in states like Tennessee and Kentucky. The emergence of craft distilleries is making whiskey exciting again.”
The number of small, independent distilleries in Pennsylvania grew from four in 2012 to 37 in 2015, and is expected to approach 70 by the end of this year, with most located near Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, according to Elizabeth Brassell, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
“It's a new entrepreneurial experience, and a lot is being driven by millennials,” she says, of their popularity. “There's a generational shift toward buying products with unique stories behind the brands, and a shift from just consuming to having an experience, to being entertained.”
The growth of small craft distilleries has challenged large distributors like Jack Daniels — the top-selling whiskey in Pennsylvania — to develop products, including those with an artisanal vibe, that distinguish them in new ways, says Brassell, noting that they also have stepped up their marketing campaigns.
“It's not just what's in the bottle and its cost, which were key drivers of yesteryear, but also the producer's unique story, label, attributes, and nuances — the overall brand experience — that sells today,” Brassell says.
State-store whiskey sales to bars and restaurants, known as licensees, generally climbed in the past five years, with one category of products — flavored whiskeys — skyrocketing. PLCB sales of flavor-infused booze increased in Allegheny County from 35,377 units in 2012 to 150,893 in 2016, and in Westmoreland County from 16,377 units to 47,162 during that same time period.
“There's not just Canadian whiskey, there's maple whiskey, honey whiskey, apple whiskey, even black pepper whiskey,” Brassell says. “You can have bourbon on the rocks, or a bourbon infused with herbs.”
Colin Smith, director of operations for Winghart's Burger & Whiskey Bar, with locations in Greensburg and Pittsburgh, thinks flavored whiskeys are a fad, like the flavored vodkas of a decade ago, but artisanal whiskeys, whether produced by Jim Beam or a local distillery, will remain popular.
“About 50 percent of our sales are what people would consider craft liquor, regardless of the brand,” he says. “It's an illusion in our industry that only small distillers are pumping out artisan-made products.”
Every Winghart's stocks more than 80 different kinds of brown spirits, and while most of the top-shelf labels are ordered neat, the bar menu also features elaborately-concocted drinks, Smith says. Winghart's signature cocktail, the Uber in Manhattan, is crafted with house-made bitters and a guest's choice of liquors.
“We guide them through the experience,” Smith says. “They can choose bourbon or rye — we recommend both since they complement each other — and they can pick from 13 different vermouths.”
5 Market Square and 1505 E. Carson St., Pittsburgh, and behind Westmoreland Mall on Route 30 in Greensburg
Industry Public House
Adam Garcia, manager of Industry Public House in Lawrenceville, which carries 100 different kinds of brown spirits, says consumers have demonstrated a penchant for innovative cocktails, or classics that have been given an unusual twist.
“Your Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds are popular again, although we might use a different bitters or vermouth, or a non-traditional whiskey,” he says, noting the appeal to millennials.
“American bourbons and ryes are really popular in large part because folks are looking for home-grown. We're lucky to have Wigle's and Maggie's Farm in our backyard, but even the big-name brand American whiskeys are in demand now.”
Industry's signature cocktail is the Smokestack, a drink served on a rock. “It includes the guest's choice of whiskey — we try to steer them toward bourbon or rye — a little bitters, some maple syrup, and a smoked treatment using the guest's choice of wood chip,” Garcia says.
Industry Public House, 4305 Butler St., Pittsburgh's South Side, and 140 Andrew Dr., Robinson. Details: industrypgh.com
If two of life's finer pleasures are sipping whiskey and smoking cigars, Dal Forno in North Huntingdon brings them together. The restaurant-bar features a vast collection of bourbons, Scotches, and ryes and craft cocktails such as the Red Moon over Manhattan, a bourbon-based drink with red wine. The Whiskey & Cigar Room, with its widescreen TV and lounge-like ambience, sells cigars ranging from flavored stogies to the Fat Molly, and caters to women as well as men, according to Dal Forno manager Bridget Dye, who says educating customers is a key part of Dal Forno's mission.
“Anytime people want to come in and learn about whiskeys or cigars, we're happy to help them,” she says.
The menu features Neapolitan pizzas baked in wood-fired ovens and small plates such as roasted bone marrow, Calabrian pork ribs with sweet and sour barbecue sauce, and meatballs crafted from Proscuitto, Portadella, and beef, and stuffed with house-made Mozzarella.
Dal Forno, 1061 Main St., Banco Business Park, Irwin. Details: 724-515-7012 or dalfornorestaurant.com
Butcher and the Rye
Rustic decor and a vast collection of whiskeys make Butcher and the Rye one of the region's most notable restaurants for folks who appreciate bourbon, Scotch and other brown spirits.
Located in Pittsburgh's Cultural District, the two-story destination owned by chef Richard DeShantz features 600 varietals of whiskey on the main floor, and craft cocktails in the second-floor Rye Bar where folks also can choose from custom and locally sourced beers and more than dozen different wines. Butcher and the Rye has twice been named a James Beard Semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program.
A meat-centric menu features small and large plates made with pork belly, lamb neck, rabbit, and beef marrow, and the décor imparts a folksy but elegant vibe with its antique American flag, vintage meat cleavers, and antler chandelier.
Butcher and the Rye, 212 6th St., Pittsburgh. Details: 412-391-2752 or butcherandtherye.com
Although you expect Scotch at Piper's Pub on Pittsburgh's South Side, you'll also find bourbons and ryes.
“Since we're a Scottish-style pub, we've always been about single-malt Scotch, but the trend is now rye, so we're bringing in some interesting varieties,” says bar manager Hart Johnson. “We have a rye on the shelf right now from an Indian distillery that makes single malt whiskeys. It's a novelty, but a tremendous whiskey. You just have to know what you're ordering.”
Flights of three small pours make trying new products easy and fun and Johnson is happy to guide folks in their selections. “It can be intimidating if you're familiar with just a couple of whiskeys to walk into a place where there are 160 different kinds,” he says.
Although pub patrons often drink their liquor neat, Johnson makes a mean Manhattan and other classic cocktails. Piper's also offers traditional pub favorites like fish and chips and salmon. If you're into soccer, you'll find English Premier League games broadcast on wide-screen TVs as early as 7 a.m. on Saturdays.
Piper's Pub, 1828 E. Carson St., Pittsburgh's South Side. Details: 412-381-3977 or piperspub.com
Braddock's Pittsburgh Brasserie
Folks eager to try new whiskeys can indulge their spirit of adventure at Braddock's Pittsburgh Brasserie, which offers a sampling of three different libations plus a mini-tutorial on what is being served, every Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Braddock's is big on bourbon and single-malt Scotch, and features artisan-made and premium spirits from distilleries ranging from Angel's Share and Bulleit to Glenlivit and Balvenie. Whiskey flights are on the menu every day of the week, with three to four “small pours” priced at $14 to $35 per flight.
Braddock's boasts a dinner menu with entrees such as bourbon-candied pork chops, drunken grilled pheasant, and Scottish salmon with cherry bourbon glaze. Breakfast and lunch also are served, with kielbasa, pierogies, and sandwiches like the “Big Ugly” Reuben on the menu.
Braddock's Pittsburgh Brasserie, 107 6th St., Pittsburgh. Details: 412-992-2005 or braddocksrestaurant.com