Kentucky may be the home to 95% of the world’s bourbon whiskey today but it wasn’t always America’s whiskey homeplace. In fact, back before Kentucky was even a state the claim to America’s whiskey region was in the mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and modern the day Washington, D.C. area. And at that time the whiskey of choice wasn’t bourbon whiskey but its spicier cousin, rye whiskey.
1791 Census Shows 7% of the Pennsylvania Population Owned a Still
According to the National Park Service National Register of Historic Places Pennsylvania was a hotbed of distilling in the late 1700s. In a paper compiled by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at least 7% of the states residence reported owning a still. Keep in mind this is the number of those that reported they owned a still, chances are the actual number was much higher. Prohibition shut down all of the distilleries in the area and it wasn’t until the last decade that the area started to see a return to its whiskey roots.
The Launch of the Whiskey Rebellion Trail
After three years of hard work, the idea of the Whiskey Rebellion Trail has been mashed, fermented, distilled, barreled, bottled and served up to whiskey fans in the Northeast. The Trail is made up of 75 craft distilleries and cultural institutions in the greater Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Baltimore area. The group is lead by Meredith Meyer Grelli Co-founder of Wigle Whiskey located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Grelli is the Founder and serves as the Chair for the Whiskey Rebellion Trail.
Editor’s Note: We encourage you to scroll down and click the Spotify Hamilton soundtrack play button while enjoying this story.
“It’s been really fun to work on. It’s been a three year project,” said Grelli. “We officially launched in July. We launched with 75 sites including craft distilleries and museums. It spans the geography from Philadelphia across Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh down to Baltimore and the D.C. region. The goal of the Trail is to tell the American Whiskey story.”
“What we wanted to do was tell this regions part in American Whiskey. You can tell a lot of American history through whiskey. The mid-Atlantic region is really where American whiskey was born. We produced rye whiskey; in my part of the world in Western Pennsylvania we produced Monongahela Rye. Rye whiskey was the most common, the most prevalent American whiskey prior to Prohibition and is what inspired the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.”
Mid-Atlantic Rye Whiskey Terroir
Much like wine is known for its regional terroir based climate, soil and local conditions Mid-Atlantic distillers believe in a similar concept. Historically, that terroir was based in large part on Monongahela rye.
The National Park Service data says, “According to local histories, the Monongahela Valley was particularly suited to the growing of rye grain. Agricultural historian Stevenson Fletcher noted that rye yields were somewhat higher than those of wheat, especially in light or poor land or land under indifferent management. Fletcher also stated that more rye was grown in the colonial period up to 1840 than barley or oats.”
“English traveler, Henry Wansey, stated in 1794, that…whiskey is the general beverage of the back settlers because every man with a small still and little rye can produce it in his own house. Fletcher attributes William Strickland to stating in 1801 that all the backcountry of America is very favorable to the growth of rye, and it is entirely consumed in the distillation of whiskey.”
“We wanted to tell that story. Whiskey is what inspired America’s first excise tax and that it sparked our first national revolution and inspired George Washington to march 13,000 troops from Philadelphia across the state to western PA to put down the rebels in Pittsburgh. After the Rebellion Washington retired to Mt. Vernon and setup his own distillery there. We wanted to loop in that whole part of the story telling so the Trail follows George Washington’s path pretty loosely across PA down to D.C. and Mt. Vernon.”
“We wanted to celebrate the history and educate about the history and create experiences around it. And this area, the Mid-Atlantic region, is one of the most prolific craft spirits producing regions in the country. We wanted to celebrate all of the craft producers that are making it so fruitful right now. You can experience the Trail through the craft spirits, you can experience it through the history, you can do a mix of the two and we’ve tried to craft passports across the region that give you opportunities to do both.”
Craig Davis, President & CEO of VisitPITTSBURGH and Founding Trail Advisory Board member said, “We see the Trail as a wonderful way to show off our region’s rich history as well as its emergence as an area with something for everyone, including spirits and craft beers, our arts and food scenes, family fun activities and great museums. The burgeoning craft distilleries of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington, D.C. represent one of the most prolific craft producing regions in the country.”
Every Distillery is a Reflection of the People Who Started It
Around the time of the launch Grelli did a part of the Trail, she said, “It’s been a really cool experience. On July 15 we did a launch trip ourselves where we did a version of the Whiskey Rebellion Rebirth Trail. We did four cities in four days. We visited 25 distilleries and a handful museums. It was remarkable to see how different each distillery is. It’s just so cool how each one is such a reflection, especially from a craft distillery perspective, such a reflection of the people who started it, and their personalities and how you can go to 25 distilleries and see 25 very different production businesses at work. It’s pretty cool and inspiring.”
Whiskey Rebellion Trail by Rail – All Aboard!
How to Travel the Whiskey Rebellion Trail
The new Trail offers fans lots of choices from simple day trips, regional trips around the state or a slower paced year long passport that you take your time. Visitors can follow a curated itinerary to travel along a multi-day Rebirth Trail, taking them through the heart of the Whiskey Rebellion and through each major city in the region, including Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, DC and Philadelphia. Weekender and one-day passes are available for each region, including Washington, DC, Bedford, Lancaster and Bucks Counties and the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania.
The Whiskey Rebellion Trail is broken into four main parts depending on how much time visitors have and what they are looking to spend.
- The Rebellion – Greater Pittsburgh and surrounding Western Pennsylvania.
- The March – Central Pennsylvania.
- The Finale – Greater Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
- The Order – Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital in 1791 and the host to whiskey excise tax legislation.
- The Rebirth – The big adventure covers all regions.
The items included in each package vary widely. Take a close look at each Trail and you will find a variety of spirit flight vouchers, distillery tours, discounts merchandise or bottle purchases, tasting flights, flight voucher, cocktail vouchers, general admission to museums, or a guided tour voucher.
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What Distilleries are on the Whiskey Rebellion Trail?[table “” not found /]
To get started the Whiskey Rebellion Trail is focusing on craft spirits distilleries and museums to tell the history of the Whiskey Rebellion. Next year the board plans on adding restaurants, bars and hotels into the mix and then finally transportation and tour service providers.
Passes include entrance to museums, including the Senator John Heinz History Center, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and the Museum of the American Revolution, as well as cocktails, flights and tours at the 70 participating distilleries. Passes will range in price from free to $359 for an annual pass where you can visit nearly every stop on the Trail. As always drink and travel responsibly.
1818 Records Show 25% of All Stills in the Early U.S. were in PA
The National Park Service Report goes on to say that, “Although historian Leland Baldwin stated that about 25% of United States stills in 1794 were located in the Monongahela county, it may be more accurate to say 25% of the stills were in Pennsylvania. The earliest known complete record is from Tench Coxe’s 1810 list of manufactures. This records 36 Pennsylvania counties with 3,594 distilleries. Of this number 799 were in southwestern Pennsylvania. (For unknown reasons Greene County was not listed with any distilleries.) This last number represents 22% of the total distilleries in Pennsylvania. Adam Seybert’s 1818 Statistical Annals notes 14,191 stills in the United States in 1810. Accordingly, 25% of all United States stills were located in Pennsylvania. (Please note that these early reports are often unreliable, but they are used here to give an idea what may have existed at that time.)”
What is American Rye Whiskey?
And for your listening pleasure, we encourage you to listen the Hamilton the Musical soundtrack as you read this story along with a glass filled with some American Rye Whiskey!
Source: U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service / National Register of Historic Places: Whiskey Rebellion Resources in Southwestern Pennsylvania