Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Mon Valley and the Whiskey History of Pittsburgh

This piece is contributed by a family member who did some research on Pittsburgh whiskey, specifically Schenley, for which his mother worked in the 1930's. Thanks Highland Park Pete!

All of this was prompted by a curiosity I found online about a San Francisco micro-distillery, High West Distillery and Saloon, bringing back the Schenley brand.

The topic is Monongahela Rye whiskey--you may remember it from a school course in colonial Pittsburgh history.

Mon Rye was first distilled by the Scots-Irish frontiersmen, that great Presbyterian majority who first settled the Monongahela Valley, after the founding of Pittsburgh in 1758.

Why rye? The flood plains of the Mon River, where the many now-dismal steel towns sit, were fertile lands, and the fur traders and such first noticed that the Indians grew there corn on these sites. Queen Aliquippa, ironically who ruled from what not McKeesport (where the Yough meets the Mon), had a large corn plantation there. But the European settlers grew old-fashioned grains, especially wheat and rye. Even though Mon flour brought a good price (one booster historian quotes that in 1800 Mon grain flour "is celebrated in foreign markets, for its superiority, and it generally sells for a dollar more per barrel in New Orleans than any other American grain.")

That said, converting rye to alcohol was even more profitable than milling flour (or trading animals furs and ginseng root, the other two main activities of the early French and English traders here).

By the 1770s in the Mon Valley there were more than 1200 stills, says one historian, run by the Scots-Irish, who had learned the trade back in the Highlands of Scotland. Beyond the local market (themselves), they shipped their whiskey downriver to St. Louis and to New Orleans, and from there by ship first to the East Coast, and some eventually to Europe, via a trading network with their clansmen back in Glasgow, Scotland. (There were also pack horse caravans running the whiskey back East to Philadelphia, to Ben Franklin and his cronies I suppose, but the shipping by water was cheaper, they say.)

This is the first Western Pennsylvania economic boom. Alexander Hamilton, who in New York was trying to figure out how raise revenue the new federal government, still indebted by the cost of the American Revolution, first thought to tax the frontier whiskey trade, thus causing the famous Whiskey Rebellion in Pittsburgh in 1794, the first use of federal troops to crush it. This is thought to also be the first use of federal force to suppress American people.

So the Mon Valley was the Whiskey Valley before it was the Steel Valley. That's an under-appreciated thought, even for me.

Mon Rye whiskey remained famous along the American East Coast, especially among sailors, who had experience carrying to Europe as well as drinking in port.

So here's where the great American novelist Herman Melville enters the story. I only read this novel, "Moby Dick," recently.

I read it in Chapter 84, a crazy chapter in which the narrator fantasizes about that the whale they've just harpooned, who is spouting red blood, should rather be sprouting Old Monongahela whiskey. He'd actually make a punch of it in the hole carved into the corpse of the beast.

So this is the proof text, which I now had time to find, the first literary reference that I've ever found to the Mon's Valley's pre-industrial whiskey fame:

MOBY DICK; OR THE WHALE by Herman Melville (1851)
Chapter 84:

. . . Look now at Stubb; a man who from his humorous, deliberate coolness and equanimity in the direst emergencies, was specially qualified to excel in pitchpoling. Look at him; he stands upright in the tossed bow of the flying boat; wrapt in fleecy foam, the towing whale is forty feet ahead. Handling the long lance lightly, glancing twice or thrice along its length to see if it be exactly straight, Stubb whistlingly gathers up the coil of the wrap in one hand, so as to secure its free end in his grasp, leaving the rest unobstructed. Then holding the lance full before his waistband's middle, he levels it at the whale; when, covering him with it, he steadily depresses the butt-end in his hand, thereby elevating the point till the weapon stands fairly balanced upon his palm, fifteen feet in the air. He minds you somewhat of a juggler, balancing a long staff on his chin. Next moment with a rapid, nameless impulse, in a superb arch the bright steel spans the foaming distance, and quivers in the life spot of the whale. Instead of sparkling water, he now spouts red blood.

"That drove the spigot out of him!" cried Stubb. "'Tis July's immortal Fourth; all fountains must run wine today! Would now, it were old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable Old Monongahela! Then, Tashtego, lad, I'd have ye hold a canakin to the jet, and we'd drink round it! Yea, verily, hearts alive, we'd brew choice punch in the spread of his spout-hole there, and from that live punch-bowl quaff the living stuff."

Rye whiskeys remained popular in the 19th century, although Kentucky whiskeys made from corn became the new fashion.

In 1900 a Pittsburgh chemist named "Frank Sinclair found an underground stream above the junction of the Kiskiminetas and Allegheny Rivers in Pennsylvania. With his charcoal expertise, Sinclair concluded that this stream water was ideal for making whiskey. Around 1900 he acquired the land from Mary Schenley and began what later became known as a Schenley distillery." [This junction is also where the flotsam & jetsam of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 fame, floated by, and where early Ford Citians went to watch it float by.)

Schenley--not the high school, is an unincorporated place on the Allegheny just 8 miles south of Ford City and nearly opposite from Freeport. Remember, in 1933 Prohibition had been repealed. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took over the liquor monopoly, and to ease fears about the safety of alcoholic beverages--too many people had died from moonshine, right?--so the state affixed a seal over the whiskey bottle's cap, as a sign of safety, purity, etc.

In the early 20th century Schenley and Seagram's whiskey were the big brands, I've read, and they each morphed or died off in the 1970s and the Schenley plant was closed and abandoned shortly thereafter. The Schenley whiskey of the 1960s was a "blended rye" imported from Canada.

So, a Canadian import using an "olde formula" from the 18th-century Mon Valley.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Pittsburgh Bucket List

The Pittsburgh Skyline from Mt. Washington

Mt. Washington / Incline - take an incline up to Mt. Washington for a breathtaking view of the city of Pittsburgh. Enjoy the fine dining atop the Mount

Kennywood Park - classic American amusement park, complete with wooden roller coaster, Potato Patch fries, nostalgia and lasting memories

Cathedral of Learning - the tallest educational buidling in the western hemisphere. Take tour the Nationality Rooms found inside the University of Pittsburgh's crown jewel, also take a ride up to the top and see the entire city of Pittsburgh

Phipps Conservatory - historic flora gardens located in Schenley Park.

Carnegie Museums: Oakland - The Natural History museum features a fantastic collection of dinosaur fossils, gems and minerals, and artifacts from ancient worlds. Museum of Art displays collections of traditional art from Europe and the United States.

Heinz History Center - located in the Strip District this museum tells the story of Western PA and also features changing exhibits, and the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.

Andy Warhol Museum - the Pittsburgh native's best collection of original Warhols anywhere in the world.

Carnegie Science Center - hands-on exhibits, live demonstrations, and spectacular movies that teach us a lot about how we work and how the world around us operates.

Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium - one of the major zoo and aquariums in the nation, exhibits more than 4,000 animals representing 475 species, including 20 threatened or endangered species. Located in the Highland Park section of the city

National Aviary - America's largest aviary and home to over 600 animals representing about 200 species located on the North Side

Visit the Children's Museum

Visit the Frick Art and Historical Center - also known as "Clayton" located in Point Breeze, this was the home of the controversial Gilded Age industrialist, Henry Clay Frick, and now serves as a museum complete with a cafe

Station Square - indoor and outdoor shopping, dining and entertainment complex

South Side bar crawl -  the quintessential Pittsburgh night life scene, it is said to have more bars per block/capita than almost anywhere else in the U.S.  Classics like Mario's and Jack's are good starters for tourists and you can certainly find some diamonds in the rough in this bar paradise

Strip District - shop for food at the wholesale markets, ethnic grocers and street vendors.  Wholey's, Benkovitz,  Parma, and Pennsylvania Macaroni Company are just some of the classic places to shop.  Restaurants, clubs, and live music also dominate the neighborhood.

Attend a Cultural District event - watch the Pittsburgh Sympothy Orchestra at Heinz Hall, see a show at the Byham Theater, Benedum Center, August Wilson Center, or O'Reilly Theater, and fine dine in this section of Downtown Pittsburgh

Tour the neighborhoods - eat, drink, shop, and walk the unique neighborhoods (90 total) that make up the city of Pittsburgh: Bloomfield, Downtown, East Liberty, Highland Park, Lawrenceville, Mt. Washington, North Side, Oakland, Regent Square, Shadyside, South Side, Squirrel Hill, Strip District.

Attend a Steeler game - get to the Heinz Field parking lots early to tailgate for the big game on Sunday.  Few NFL teams can match the gameday experience of Pittsburgh's historical professional football franchise.

Pirate game at PNC Park - The Pittsburgh skyline, one of the greatest backdrops in all of baseball.  This park always makes national top 5 ballpark lists.  Great food, beer selection, affordable tickets, and finally what looks to be a good baseball product.
Attend a Penguin game

Attend a Pitt football game

Attend a Pitt basketball game - be a part of the Oakland Zoo and root on the perennial Top 25 Panthers

Attend a high school football game - always a chance you'll be watching a highly recruited star and future NFL player from one of the many Western PA powerhouse programs.

Travel to Bradenton, FL for Pirates Spring Training

Watch Steelers Training Camp at St. Vincent College

Attend the Big East Basketball Tournament in New York's Madison Square Garden - The 2012-2013 season will be the last BET as we have come to know and love over the years as Pitt and Syracuse exit the conference for the ACC.

Own a Terrible Towel

See a U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club

Ice skate at the PPG Ice Rink

Sandcastle - waterpark located along the Mon featuring waterslides, a wavepool, and a lazy river

Shop at the Waterfront - catch a movie, shop, or dine in this vast open air shopping center built over the former site of US Steel's Homestead Steel Works plant.

Shop at Ross Park Mall - the premier upscale mall located in the North Hills where all of the new money resides

Take a ride on the Gateway Clipper - docked at Station Square, cruise the Three Rivers through locks and dams on either the Majestic, Empress, Good Ship Lollipop, Princess or Countess

Ride the "T" - take a trip to the South Hills of Pittsburgh on Pittsburgh's Light Rail System

Ride the PAT Bus

Gotta Regatta - Get dahn to Point State Park for the annual motorboat and river festival.  Eat, watch fireworks and be entertained.

Watch fireworks - Pittsburghers love fireworks and there's plenty of opportunities to see them.  New Years Eve, Pirate games, 4th of July, Regatta, Light up Night, etc.  Watch them from Mt. Washington, the Point, or PNC Park

Idlewild Park - amusement park in Ligonier that also features a water park - Soak Zone, Storybook Forest and Jumping Jungle

Visit Fallingwater - house designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935 located in the Laurel Highlands.  Listed among Smithsonian's Life List of 28 places "to visit before you die."

Visit the Laurel Highlands - located in Fayette County:  go whitewater rafting at Ohiopyle, visit Ft. Necessity, the site of a French and Indian War battle in 1754 that saw George Washington surrender to the French, and tour the largest cave in PA, the Laurel Caverns

Drink Local - Local Beers to sample include:  Iron City, Duquesne, Penn Brewery, East End, and Church Brew Works.

St. Patrick's Day Parade - Said to be the 2nd largest St Patrick's Day Parade in the country and where where it is socially acceptable to crack a beer or ten by 8am, bars, restaurants and streets vendor's serve up green beer for all of the "Irish"

Attend Oktoberfest - drink mass quantities of seasonal beer at Penn Brewery, Church Brew Works, or Hofbrauhaus in late September

Attend a fire hall wedding - complete with rigatoni, friend chicken, and of course, the cookie table

Watch a Rick Sebak documentary - mostly filmed in the late 80s and 90's these documentaries really capture the people, places, history and spirit of the Steel City.  Some of the classics include:  Kennywood Memories, Something About Oakland, The Strip Show, South Side, Things That Aren't There Anymore, Pittsburgh A to Z and Stuff That's Gone

Sit in traffic - your bound to find major congestion in and out of the city during rush hour whether it be sitting on the Parkway East waiting to get into the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, gridlock at the intersection of 51 and 88, constant construction on Rt. 28, coming to a grinding halt on the Parkway West atop Green Tree Hill, or navigating the confusing and congested Downtown streets.

Listen to 102.5 WDVE while sitting in traffic - classics like the Morning Show, Electric Lunch, or legendary DJ Sean McDowell for your requests and afternoon drive home.

Gamble at the Rivers Casino

Little Italy Days - Bloomfield, Pittsburgh's Little Italy; a three-day festival held every September that celebrates Italian-American culture and heritage with music, contests, dancing, children's activities and food.

Swim in Dormont Pool - every year community members must pony-up to "Save the Dormont Pool" from being closed due to lack of funding so enjoy a nice swim off of Banksville Rd.

See a concert at Star Lake Amphitheatre - as of now called First Niagara Pavilion.  Where concert goers travel more for the party than the music.  Legendary tailgates are found in the vast parking lot. 

See a concert at Stage AE - Pittsburgh's newest concert venue, the perfect size to see a show

Take a walk in the park(s) - Schenley Park, Frick Park, North Park, and South Park make for a great time to enjoy the fresh air

Visit Hartwood Acres - see a concert, summer theater, and the outdoor holiday light show - the Festival of Lights

Pittsburgh Parking Chair - Place a chair on the street to save your parking space

Go to Light up Night - Each November every downtown building lights up to celebrate the upcoming holiday season accompanied by a fireworks display and the Christmas tree display

Shop for chocolate at Sarris Candies in Canonsburg - No better place to shop for Easter candy, delicious, creative molds of your favorite cartoon characters, sports, and everyday items.  Also treat yourself to some ice cream at their adjoining ice cream parlor

Visit Overy's Country Christmas at the Westmoreland Fairgrounds - where else can you find a light-up jail house, and a random dinosaur while sipping hot chocolate over an open fire.  The display is topped off with a giant light-up Snoopy watching over baby Jesus in his manger.

Read Out of this Furnace - a historical novel set in Braddock, PA following a Slovak immigrant family's struggle working in the steel mills.  Describes working conditions, typical family life, and idealism of early 20th century working class Pittsburgh.

Dress in Pittsburgh Casual for school, work, church, or a night out on the town

Pick a pumpkin from Trax Farms - spend an autumn evening in the Finleyville farm then sample some delicious apple cider

Walk through the Three Rivers Art's Festival - annual event held in Point State Park and Gateway Center that includes outdoor concerts, art market, and food.  Don't forget to bring an umbrella.

Kick off the fall season at the Rib Festival - whether it be at Heinz Field or the South Park Fairgrounds one can expect this.

Visit the Roberto Clemente Museum - this little known museum is nestled in Lawrenceville honors the legendary ballplayer.

Watch the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix in Schenley Park

Watch the Delvin Miller Adios - one of the biggest harness races in the country held at the Meadows Racetrack and Casino.  Bet and get up close to the racing action at this yearly event.


Primanti Brothers - meat, lettuce, tomatos, french fries and cole slaw in between two slices of Italian bread, a Pittsburgh classic.  Featured on countless food and travel shows and tourist attraction
The Original Hot Dog Shop - eat a hot dog and have a heaping helping of fries

The Original Oyster House - eat a Pittsburgh favorite, the fish sandwich

Eat'n Park - Pittsburgh chain known for their Smiley Cookies

Mineo's Pizza House - Always ranked as one of the top pizza joints in the burgh with two locations, the original in Squirrel Hill and Mt. Lebanon

Quaker Steak & Lube - original location in Sharon, PA, but Pittsburgh has adopted the restaurant that is known for their wings

Pamela's - The hotcakes were given the Presidential Seal of Approval by President Obama as he makes this a stop on his visits to Pittsburgh.  Owners Gail Klingensmith and Pamela Cohen were even invited to the White House to cook for a Memorial Day Event

Deluca's - featured on the Travel Channel's Man v. Food this Strip District joint is known for their dessert like pancakes, breakfast burritos, and monstrous omelettes

The Triangle Bar & Grill - eat a 26" Battleship sandwhich that can feed a family at this Swissvale bar.  Once a haven for steel workers employed at the neighboring mills.

For other places to eat click here


Chipped Ham - buy this depression era creation of thinly sliced ham at the local deli.  Good for sandwiches and ham barbecues.  This lunch meat is sorely missed by displaced Pittsburghers.

Fish Fry - during the lenten season, many Catholic churches serve up jumbo fish sandwhiches with sides of macaroni and cheese and haluski

Pierogies -  they don't hold pierogi races at PNC Park for nothing

Kielbasi and sauerkraut