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)
. . . 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.