Pittsburghers love supporting their own and honoring the region’s history. It’s why we still eat church pierogis, still call the former Macy’s building Kauffman’s, and still pretend I.C. Light tastes good.
But there’s one local product that deserves some more of that homegrown love: Rye whiskey.
Western Pennsylvania was the hub of rye whiskey during its heyday at the turn of the 19th century. In 1808, Allegheny County produced one barrel of rye for every two people living in America. Rye, which was commonly referred to as Monongahela Rye, was such a commodity that when George Washington tried to tax it, whiskey producers revolted and started the Whiskey Rebellion.
“Rye is an American O.G.,” says Shipwreck Asunder, a bartender and whiskey specialist at Butcher and Rye.
After prohibition, rye was basically eliminated. And when distilleries returned, bourbon became top dog. Bourbon and rye are almost the same spirits, except bourbon is distilled from 51 percent corn mash and rye from 51 percent rye grain.
Asunder thinks rye deserves additional affection, especially from Pittsburghers.
“It’s supporting the local economy, it should be on the top of people’s lists,” says Asunder.
All three Pennsylvania ryes offer the classic rye flavors: caramel sweetness up front, peppery heat in the back, a kick out the door. None should be missed. Pittsburgh City Paper ranked them below. Try them for yourself at Butcher and The Rye, which offers a Pennsylvania Rye flight.
Wigle Whiskey Pennsylvania Rye
Pittsburgh-native Wigle is the most approachable and balanced of the three main Pennsylvania rye whiskeys. Its flagship rye is aged for at least two years and makes for easy sipping. At 80 proof, it’s a great introduction to rye whiskey. But don’t take its mildness for lack of flavor. Wigle's rye still shines with caramel, almost honey-like flavor and finishes with a subtle peppery kick on the way down.
Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye
Hailing from Eastern Pennsylvania, Dad’s Hat has the most intense flavors of the three. The 90-proof rye supplies a strong punch of caramel-maple flavor upfront. That wallop stays with you until getting a powerful kick of black-pepper spice in the back. Dad’s Hat is for the whiskey drinkers who enjoy those involuntary neck-and-face stretches that come with a strong-willed spirit.
Liberty Pole Rye Whiskey
The newest rye joining the Pennsylvania family, Washington, Pa.’s Liberty Pole is the sweetest of the three. It carries a strong aroma of maple and provides sweet notes of cherry and grape when sipped. It’s the most potent of the three at 92 proof. Overall, it provides a pretty distinct rye experience with its unique fruit-like sweetness.