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By Jen Lucas, Pack Up + Go Contributor
In the late 1700s during the presidency of George Washington, a tax was imposed on whiskey manufacturers, which resulted in their rebellion. Throughout Western Pennsylvania, these farmers protested the Federal Excise Tax enacted by Alexander Hamilton as a way to recover costs associated with the Revolutionary War. They would place Liberty Poles, which were essentially large flags with “No Excise Tax” written on the fabric, along roads, town centers, even on their homes.
Somehow unaware of this rich history in my own backyard although a fan of the libation, I knew I had to schedule a tour at the newly opened Liberty Pole Spirits, a distillery located in Washington, PA approximately 25 miles south of Pittsburgh.
The founders of Liberty Pole Spirits—the brand name for their blanket company Mingo Creek Craft Distillers—are huge enthusiasts of history from the Whiskey Rebellion era. The Hough family has been distilling their award winning whiskey from their Washington location using locally sourced grains, opening to the public in July 2016. A recent trip to the American Craft Spirits Association resulted in a gold medal for the Houghs’ Peated Bourbon and a bronze for their Bourbon Whiskey.
Liberty Pole Spirits offer tours of their facility and formal tastings on Saturdays only at 1 pm, 3 pm and 5 pm. Tours are limited to 10 people per group. I was fortunate enough to reserve a spot recently and fell in love with this family-owned and operated bourbon-colored jewel.
The tour showcasing the location’s distillery and aging rooms costs $20 per person and includes a cocktail in the Meeting Room, which is modeled after where farmers used to congregate in the 1700s to strategize their rebellion against the government. There were four drink options listed on the menu, all crafted by the matriarch of the operation, Ellen Hough, and naturally made with one of the five whiskeys they produce. I went with the Mingo Mule, which was a concoction of their Bassett Town Rye Whiskey, Nectarine-Cilantro Shrub, fresh squeezed lime juice and a splash of ginger beer. This was not your typical tasting mule but it was amazing nonetheless. It was evident that a lot of trial and error and taste-testing went into each specialty cocktail, which sounds like a dream job to me!
The Meeting Room was adorned with period-specific décor. Above the large fireplace hangs an upside-down painting of Alexander Hamilton as a sign of disrespect for his role in the exile tax during the Whiskey Rebellion.
On to the distilling room where you’ll see the original crane from the building’s previous occupants, who sold cemetery monuments. That crane now acts as a transport for whiskey barrels to and from the aging room downstairs. Currently, there are two stills. The main one, custom made by Trident Stills in Maine, is 300-gallons and named Harold, after Mr. Hough’s dad, who they lovingly joke was a collector but never drank the whiskey. The smaller 15-gallon still is named Howard, after Mrs. Hough’s father, a chemistry teacher. This one is used for research and development. After learning a bit about the distillation process we headed down to the aging room.
The aging room, with the fragrance of a livestock feed store and rightfully so, has a high-tech custom water filtration system and barrels of locally grown corn waiting to be made into whiskey. The racks house several barrels of aging whiskey, which we learned is common. Approximately 4% will be lost due to evaporation depending on temperature and humidity.
We headed back to the Tinker Dining Room for the long-awaited tasting. There were five Glencairn glasses, each with a sip of one of their whiskeys, covered by a circular dish called a watch glass, which keeps the aromas and flavors sealed in. There was the Bassett Town, Corn, Bourbon, Rye and Peated Bourbon. Being a whiskey fan regardless, I was overly impressed with the flavor of each, especially the rye, as that is a flavor I am usually not so fond of. My favorite was the Bourbon Whiskey which, as I mentioned, was a bronze medal winner. The Peated Bourbon, of Scotch-Irish decent and made with peated barley, had a very distinct flavor, although it was another I enjoyed.
Unfortunately, the tour had to end at some point or else the Hough family would have had to carry all 10 of us out of that tasting room. The entire experience was extremely informative and enjoyable. Whether you are a casual whiskey drinker or a connoisseur, I highly recommend it. The history behind the area where Liberty Pole Spirits are located, the family’s knowledge and enthusiasm, as well as their recognized talent for distilling are reason enough to reserve a tour or simply stop in for a history lesson and a specialty cocktail.