4-state Whiskey Rebellion Trail launches in Pittsburgh
A multi-regional Whiskey Rebellion Trail some 225 years in the making launched in Pittsburgh’s Strip District on Friday.
The trail includes 75 craft distilleries and cultural institutions in the greater Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore areas, showcasing the spirits producers of the Mid-Atlantic.
The trail owes its inspiration to the 1790s Whiskey Rebellion centered in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, an event that put the concepts of “freedom from oppressive government” and “taxation without representation” to the ultimate test.
The American Revolution, while obviously successful, had put our fledgling nation $54 million in debt.
How, then, to start making up that deficit?
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton — yes, that Alexander Hamilton — talked President George Washington into setting an excise tax on distilled spirits in 1791. An excise tax is a tariff placed on goods that are made and sold in the U.S.
This hit Western Pennsylvania farmers, 90% of the region’s population at the time, particularly hard. Rye, distilled into whiskey and transported east, was their main crop.
Whiskey was a staple in just about every household, and it was the most common form of currency in the primarily barter economy.
Add to that the fact that plenty of people had turned to spirits such as whiskey to get through those tough times, with the British to the north, the Spanish to the south, and the Indians to the west. Pittsburgh at the time was the western frontier.
A tax and a rebellion
A rebellion ensued as the farmers refused to pay the tax and in the summer of 1794 there were bloody confrontations. But the tax remained, at least for a time.
The settlers had lost the battle but they won the war: the whiskey tax was repealed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802.
“The Mid-Atlantic has been a hotbed of alcohol ingenuity from its start, as the birthplace of rye whiskey and home of the 1790s Whiskey Rebellion,” said Meredith Meyer Grelli, founder and chair of the Whiskey Rebellion Trail. Grelli is owner of Pittsburgh craft distillery Wigle Whiskey, named for Phillip Wigle — a man convicted of treason in the Whiskey Rebellion.
“We’ve charted a spirited journey to give the ‘spirits curious’ a taste of the craft producers and cultural institutions that are putting this region on the map once again.” Grelli said.
In its inaugural year, the trail will focus on craft distilleries and museums, with the intention of adding bars, restaurants, and hotels along the way. The Whiskey Rebellion Festival being held in Washington, Pa. this weekend is already on the trail.
“People from all over the country are rediscovering Pittsburgh and are learning more and more about its past and present,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “The Whiskey Rebellion Trail combines the best of both into a package that showcases not only our region and its attractions, but also our neighboring friends on the trail.”
Similar to Kentucky Bourbon Trail
The trail is similar in concept to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which was started in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and spawned the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour in 2012.
Since then the trails and distilleries on them have sparked a tourism boom, drawing over 2 million visitors. The hope here is that the Whiskey Rebellion Trail will be just as popular and lucrative.
“The Bourbon Trail is amazing and it’s been around for many years. We certainly hope that we can add to that story,” said Teresa DeFlitch, director of People and Education at Wigle Whiskey. “It’s really about bringing attention back on this region’s role in the history of American whiskey.”
“This was really the birth place of American whiskey with Monongahela Rye, Maryland Rye and other styles of Pennsylvania rye, and a lot of people don’t know that,” DeFlitch said. “So, using the Whiskey Rebellion as an entry point into that history makes it really fun. And it really highlights the amazing craft distilleries that have come on the scene in this region.”
The trail’s partner institutions in making this concept a reality include the Sen. John Heinz History Center, the Bradford House Museum in Washington, Pa., West Overton Village & Museums in Westmoreland County, George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Fairfax, Va., and the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Peduto focuses on historical aspect
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called himself a fan of whiskey but made a point of saying that the Whiskey Rebellion Trail is about much more than whiskey.
“This is a tour of America. It’s a tour of our history, those that have made this country and those who are investing in it today in a way that is rebuilding cities,” said Peduto. “It stretches to our partners in rural parts of the state and a four-state area in a way that pulls us together at a time when politics pulls us apart.”
Local media as well as reporters from around the country were invited to spend the next four days on the trail beginning with a stop at Wigle that included savory samples of smoked bourbon and rye malt whiskey.
Glasses were even raised in a toast that harkened back to the Whiskey Rebellion.
“You can pour me a little, you can pour me a lot, as long as it’s whiskey, I’ll take another shot.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].