West Overton is distilling rye whiskey this week, just like it did when Henry Clay Frick’s grandfather, Abraham Overholt, was making it in a log building at his East Huntingdon farm in 1803.
The production of Old Overholt was stopped in 1919 when the 18th Constitutional amendment — Prohibition — was enacted. It prohibited production and sale of “intoxicating liquor” for use as beverages.
“It’s been 100 years since we’ve had whiskey flowing at West Overton. The whiskey from West Overton is central to the interpretation that we do here. The purpose of our distillery is to educate the public,” said Jessica Kadie-Barclay, chief executive officer of West Overton Village.
The operation of the distillery in what was a two-story brick stock barn at West Overton is another way of giving visitors a “hands-on sensory experience … smell, taste and feel,” of the whiskey, Kadie-Barclay said.
“It is about sharing the lessons of the past and how they impact our present and our future,” Kadie-Barclay said.
In Overholt’s day, the rye grain for the distillery was grown on the Overholt farm. Kadie-Barclay said grain was purchased from a farm north of Bedford for this whiskey production. She said West Overton wants to work with Fort Allen Antique Farm Equipment Association to grow rye on land it owns adjacent to the village.
After a test run was conducted last month, under the supervision of Aleasha Monroe, West Overton’s chief of staff, the distillery began a “stripping run” Monday. The liquid and grain mixture was heated to 180 degrees and then cooled to about 90 degrees before yeast was added to create the “mash porridge.” Fifty gallons of the fermented mash porridge is heated in the copper still, stripping out poisonous acetate and other ingredients from what eventually will become whiskey.
“You can poison someone if you don’t know what you are doing,” Kadie-Barclay said.
A second finishing run of the distilled whiskey likely will be conducted next week while a tour is scheduled to stop at West Overton, Monroe said.
The plan is to produce about 20 gallons of white whiskey from the first batch — making about 6.5 gallons a day, Monroe said.
The finished whiskey will be stored in a tank until it is poured into a charred 30-gallon white oak barrel later this summer so it can be left to age for about a year, Monroe said. It is the charred barrel that will give the whiskey its flavor and smoothness.
Before the product can be sold, Kadie-Barclay said West Overton must get approval from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for its label. When the approval is complete, Monroe said it is likely the new rye whiskey could sell for between $40 and $60 a bottle.
Theproject at West Overton has been four years in the making and had been under consideration for more than a decade. The nonprofit Westmoreland Fayette Historical Society, which operates West Overton Village, created a for-profit company, West Overton Distilling LLC., in 2015.
West Overton is part of the new Whiskey Rebellion Trail in Western Pennsylvania, Kadie-Barclay said. The launch of the trail coincides with the Whiskey Rebellion Festival from Thursday through Sunday in Washington, Pa., which was a hotbed of activity during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when farmers and distillers violently protested a federal a tax on the spirit.
The Whiskey Rebellion Trail is an acknowledgement of the growth of distilleries in the region. West Overton Distilling LLC — not to be confused with the 1906 founding of West Overton Distilling Co. — is one of 112 active distillery licenses in the state, and another 15 licenses that are pending, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board website. Westmoreland County has six active distillery licenses and one pending, while Allegheny County has 10 active and two pending.
The distillery could help to increase tourism in the region, Kadie-Barclay said.
“West Overton’s success means success for the region as well. We see West Overton as being an economic driver for rural agri-tourism,” Kadie-Barclay said.