Business Owners Thirst To Highlight Pittsburgh's 'Shot And Beer' History With New Museums

Sep 7, 2016


Credit doctyer / Flickr

Local entrepreneurs are planning to celebrate Pittsburgh's alcohol heritage with two proposed museums.

Wigle Whiskey co-owner Meredith Grelli is part of a team developing the Whiskey Museum of America. She said much of Western Pennsylvania’s story can be told through the lens of whiskey distillation. 

“It’s such a part of our regional identity,” Grelli said. “I think whiskey is powerful because we can tell this much broader story through it.”

For more than 100 years before Prohibition, the Pittsburgh region was home to many of the country’s most prominent distilleries. Rye whiskey, specifically, was the area’s trademark, she said.

“If you were drinking whiskey in America, you were most likely drinking stuff called Monongahela Rye,” said Grelli.

The Whiskey Rebellion of the late 1700s was fought in western Pennsylvania as a protest of the federally levied excise by Alexander Hamilton. The West Overton Distillery in Scottdale, Pa., is one of the country’s oldest whiskey manufacturing facilities. Industrialist Henry Clay Frick’s father married the distillery owner’s daughter, bolstering the younger Frick's rise to prominence.

Frick would later go on to found a coke manufacturing company and become a significant player in the region’s steel boom, selling part of the whiskey business to Andrew Mellon. Grelli said the infrastructure developed by whiskey manufacturers, including the trains built to export goods, helped set the stage for steel.

As secretary of the treasury, Mellon enforced Prohibition, while still running the distillery. Many historians also believe the first speakeasy was started in McKeesport by bar owner Kate Hester in the late 1800s.

Grelli said a whiskey museum has been a dream of Wigle's since it opened four years ago. She wants the facility to be “equal parts history, science and culture.” The Wigle team is collaborating with more than two dozen local organizations and wants to open a “pop-up museum” in the next six months as a preview of the permanent museum. They set a goal for full funding by 2018.

Joe McAllister, principal for Brew: The Museum of Beer, said both he and the whiskey museum developers’ proposals are aligning with Pittsburgh’s rising profile.

“We’re in the right place at the right time for what’s going on with beer and what’s going on with Pittsburgh,” he said.

McAllister said Pittsburgh’s relationship with beer began more than 250 years ago, when soldiers at Fort Pitt demanded the beverage.

“They were stationed out here in the wilderness and felt like they were dealing with all kinds of privation, they pretty much demanded that they have beer, at least,” McAllister said.

In the 19th century, McAllister said German immigrants brought their brewing techniques to western Pennsylvania in great numbers, helping to popularize beer consumption throughout the country. After years of independent breweries, industrialization, McAllister explained, happened to breweries just like it happened to steel.

“We were certainly part of that move toward factory-made beer, which at the time was seen as a very good thing,” he said. “Then consolidation. Pittsburgh saw a number of breweries go into major breweries before Prohibition.”

Brew: The Museum of Beer launches their crowdfunding campaign Oct. 18. McAllister said the money raised will finance validation studies that he hopes will reflect his estimated revenue projections.

Brew is modeled partially after the Guinness Storehouse Museum in Dublin and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, according to McAllister. The Rock Hall, which McAllister estimates most closely mirrors Brew Museum's demographic, brings in $100 million annually.

The Whiskey Museum of America is meant to serve as a trail head to a northern rye whiskey trail, which Grelli said would be a response to the southern Bourbon Trail. Many of their ideas for their whiskey museum are designed after spaces in Bourbon County in Kentucky.

Neither Grelli nor McAllister have chosen locations for the museums. The two have been meeting throughout their development process and hope their facilities encourage Pittsburgh tourism.

“We could create a region and a regional identity and brand around this being an alcohol education destination,” said Grelli.