Distilleries make a comeback in southwestern Pennsylvania

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Making alcohol, especially whiskey, was once big business in southwestern Pennsylvania.

In fact, in 1916, there were 13 registered distillers employing approximately 116 people, in Westmoreland County alone. The number, however, does not include those people, many of whom were farm owners, who opted to use their grain to make their own brew, according to Robert Myers, president of the Westmoreland County Historical Society.

“That was until Prohibition, however,” said Mr. Myers, who this month presented an overview of the distilling of whiskey and other “spirits” in Pennsylvania.

The historical society presented the April 1 program as a fundraiser at Calvin E. Pollins Library in Greensburg. The society has Prohibition as a theme this year for its annual program.

According to Mr. Myers, people’s taste for “spirits” goes back to ancient times, when fresh water supplies were limited. In the U.S., making alcohol goes back to the Pilgrims, who distilled beer.

“The first noted distiller was a Presbyterian minister named Elijah Craig,” he said.

In the years to come, whiskey and the like were not only used for personal consumption but as “money.” Farmers used their grain to barter for necessities.

The practice was so popular that it led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, when locals protested against the federal government after it placed an 11-cent-per-gallon tax on the alcohol.

“The U.S. was in debt after the [Revolutionary War]. George Washington taxed alcohol to recoup money,” Mr. Myers explained. “In Pennsylvania, the people didn’t have money.”

Despite the people’s objection, the government eventually won the battle and ultimately led to many farmers deciding to go into the distilling business formally.

Overholt Distillery, which started in Overton, was the first distillery recorded in Westmoreland County.

Many other distilleries followed, remaining in existence until the end of the 1920s with Prohibition, at which time many producers were forced to close their doors and stop production.

While “legal” production came to a halt, the people’s taste for the “spirits” continued, and they sought them through illegal means.

Although Prohibition ended at the close of the decade, it was too late for local distilleries to recover.

There are still signs, however, of the once-thriving industry, said Mr. Myers, whose love for industrial history led him to many of the distillery sites that remain standing today.

The A. Overholt Distillery in Broad Ford, near Connellsville, was one of the sites he visited. The building still stands, but it is gutted, he said.

While the distillery business had seemingly become extinct in southwestern Pennsylvania, Mr. Myers said there has been a resurgence since 2011 when Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation putting distilleries in the same category as wineries.

There are now four distillers in the Pittsburgh area — two in the Strip District, one in Munhall and one in Glenshaw, Mr. Myers said.

Next on its agenda, the society will transform the Westmoreland County Courthouse into a 1920s speak-easy for a Spring Frolic from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday. It will include food, live music and dancing.

As was the practice during Prohibition, guests will be admitted only if they know a “secret” password and knock. Those attending are encouraged but not required to wear 1920s attire.

Tickets are $70 for members, $80 for nonmembers. For information or to register: 724-532-1935, ext. 215.

Linda Metz, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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