Western Pa. whiskey history
Some of the largest manufacturers of rye whiskey in the world used to be found in Western Pennsylvania. Here is a look at some of the distilleries that helped give the area its reputation:Gibson: John Gibson, of Philadelphia, in 1856-57 built the then-largest distillery in southwestern Pennsylvania, in Gibsonton, near Belle Vernon. After his 1864 death, son Henry, Andrew M. Moore and Joseph F. Sinnott took over what was said by 1899 to be the largest pure rye whiskey distillery in the world. Moore & Sinnott took over in 1884, and its warehouses contained as much as 100,000 barrels of whiskey. The distillery was shut down in 1920.Dillinger: Samuel Dillinger started with a small still on his East Huntingdon Township farm. After a fire, he built a large new one in Ruffs Dale in partnership with his sons. It used about 500 bushels of rye daily for 50 barrels of whiskey. Dillinger was second largest to Moore & Sinnott in Westmoreland County production.Guckenheimer: It was the brand name for rye whiskey distilled at Pennsylvania Distilling Co. in Bethel Township, southwestern Armstrong County. The plant was started in 1855 and was taken over in 1865 by the Guckenheimer family. Said to be one of the largest rye whiskey facilities in the world, by pre-World War I it used 2,100 bushels of grain daily.Overholt: Abraham Overholt in 1810 established a small still on his farm in West Overton, near Scottdale, where he produced "Old Farm" rye. A much larger operation was added in Broadford, northern Fayette County, by family members in 1853, with new buildings in 1868 and 1899. Ownership changed at times to A.O. Tinstman and H.C. Frick, both grandsons of Abraham Overholt. "Old Overholt" came from Broadford, which had major fires in 1884 and 1905. The West Overton distillery was closed in 1919, but Broadford continued to manufacture during Prohibition under special permit.Schenley: Just above the junction of the Kiskiminetas and Allegheny rivers, chemist Frank Sinclair found an underground stream ideal for whiskey making to go with his charcoal expertise. Around 1900, he acquired the land from Mary Schenley and began what later became a Schenley distillery. After Prohibition, Joseph S. Finch Co. expanded and modernized the operation to make a wide range of Schenley-label beverages.Sam Thompson: Started by Samuel Thompson at a grist mill south of Beallsville in Washington County, it moved to West Brownsville. Its buildings have since been used for other purposes.Mathias: "Old Westmoreland" and "Old Manor" were popular brands at the Fry & Mathias distillery in Monark, along the Pennsylvania main line in Westmoreland County. Built in 1878, it shut down in 1900.Greensburg: Greensburg Distilling made rye whiskey until Prohibition at a building along South Main Street, which later became Stuart Drug.
There were many more, but this should give an idea about who made this region the capital of rye whiskey production when tastes were different, and which contributed to the southwestern Pennsylvania economy.
The revival of centuries-old rye whiskeys — including Monongahela and Maryland styles — is helping foster a renewed interest in historic spirits.
“Rye whiskey in general is swinging upward in the market,” said Teresa DeFlitch, director of people and education at Pittsburgh-based Wigle Whiskey.
The volume of rye whiskey produced in the United States increased nearly 16 percent in 2018, with makers selling more than 1 million cases for the first time, the Distilled Spirits Council reported this week. U.S. distillers sold just 88,000 cases of rye in 2009, according to DSC figures.
Instead of focusing on cornering a market and competing about which is better, craft distillers in the Mid-Atlantic region instead are embracing the past and the area’s role in American whiskey — rye, in particular, said DeFlitch.
The New York Times quoted her in an article published Friday about the resurgence of Maryland-style rye whiskey, even if people aren’t really sure what it was exactly.
“For all its fame and praise, no one quite knows what ‘Maryland style’ meant,” the Times story noted. “Most distillers back before Prohibition did not keep recipes, or document how they made their whiskey.”
The sweeter palette of Maryland-style rye whiskey likely came from using corn in the mash bill or swapping out distillers yeast for brewers yeast — or both.
Western Pennsylvania’s Monongahela Rye, considered by many as the gold standard of whiskey at one point, was known for it peppery bite — largely because it was made predominantly, if not completely, from rye.
For those that haven’t savored the nuance, DeFlitch compared it to the difference between rye bread and cornbread.
“Our ryes, we do in the style of Monongahela Rye,” DeFlitch said. “One of the reasons we were founded was to bring back that history.”
Wigle began operating in Pittsburgh’s Strip District in late 2011, becoming the city’s first whiskey distillery since Prohibition — a period from 1920-33 when alcoholic beverages were banned from being made, imported and sold in the United States.
Wigle has a number of rye whiskeys in its portfolio, including Single Barrel Straight Rye, Pennsylvania Rye and Pennsylvania Deep Cut Rye. Last year, the distillery partnered with the Senator John Heinz History Center to release a special, limited edition Prohibition Rye whiskey.
The roots of rye whiskey in Western Pennsylvania date to before the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.
“Bountiful supplies of rye and other grain, coupled with the distilling expertise of area pioneers, created many of the largest manufacturers of rye whiskey in the world here,” the Tribune-Review previously reported.
“This really was the epicenter of American whiskey for a long time,” DeFlitch said of the Mid-Atlantic, which includes both Pennsylvania and Maryland. “The innovation we see today around Mid-Atlantic rye whiskey varieties is exciting. It honors that history and demonstrates the amazing craft scene we have here.”
Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review news editor. You can contact Jason at 412-320-7936, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .