Distillery in Washington, Pa., looks to history | Drink | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Distillery in Washington, Pa., looks to history

The Whiskey Rebellion inspires Liberty Pole Spirits

Barrels of whiskey
Barrels of whiskey
Ellen and Jim Hough, owners of the new Mingo Creek Craft Distillery, have set up shop in the ideal place to honor their passions for distilling and history. The distillery is designed in the style of an 18th-century meetinghouse, complete with antiques and a portrait (albeit displayed upside down) of Alexander Hamilton. Hung in the Mingo Creek Meeting House, which is the front tasting room, are three flags: the traditional stars-and-stripes, the flag of the Whiskey Rebellion and a liberty pole — the symbol of protest used during the Whiskey Rebellion. The Houghs call their whiskeys Liberty Pole Spirits in honor of that effort. In fact, the building near the heart of Washington, Pa., sits on a spot once frequented by the Mingo Creek Society — the rebels who protested the excise tax on whiskey in 1791 and eventually joined the Whiskey Rebellion against President George Washington, in 1794. The Hamilton portrait’s aforementioned orientation represents disrespect for the Secretary of the Treasury’s role in levying the offensive tax in order to pay war debt.

In keeping with the spirit of the region, Jim Hough, who doubles as head distiller, makes Mingo Creek’s spirits using some of the heritage methods and styles of the 1790s. All the corn is a red-hued variety called Bloody Butcher. This heirloom corn has a high phosphorous content, which results in a sweeter spirit once distilled. The rye comes from nearby Westmoreland County, and the spent grain is sent to local farmers for feed.

For distillation, the Houghs use a copper pot still (which runs single distillations in batches) instead of a more modern column still (which can run continuously). Their Basset Town Whiskey, Hough’s version of the original whiskey from this area — Monongahela rye — must be triple-distilled in order to come out smooth, sweet and free of “heads.” Heads are the part of the distillation that yields acetone (yes, that stuff in nail-polish remover) and other undesirable compounds. Jim Hough makes sure that he uses only the “hearts,” or the drinkable middle parts of the distillation process, by making close “cuts” in each batch. “We probably lose some good alcohol,” says Hough, but to him it’s worth it to produce a small-batch, high-quality product.

While nothing is quite ready to be bottled yet, a taste of whiskeys still sitting in barrels gives a sneak peak at what’s in store. I have high hopes for the peated bourbon, which even at 125 proof is already smoky and smooth enough to enjoy. Mingo Creek’s grand opening is July 9 — fittingly, on the Saturday of Washington’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival. For the occasion, they’ll release their Basset Town Whiskey (Basset Town being Washington’s original name), and their Liberty Pole Corn Whiskey. Expect releases of Liberty Pole’s bourbon, peated bourbon and rye whiskey to roll out over the course of the fall. 

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