Rye Whiskey

The year was 1794. John Neville was one of the most hated men in western Pennsylvania: a federal tax collector for the excise tax on whiskey. A few days earlier he had been out serving writs. Then on the morning of July 16 a band of fifty buckskin-clad mountain men attacked his home. Neville with help from his slaves and the women of the house managed to repel the attackers. That afternoon a contingent of soldiers under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick was dispatched to protect his home.

The following morning the attackers returned, about 800 strong and accompanied by a fife and drum band. Neville heard them coming, bolted out the back door, and hid in a thicket. Meanwhile the mountaineers attacked the home and after a brief skirmish Major Kirkpatrick surrendered the federal troops to the rebels. The home and all outbuildings were burned to the ground.

Across western Pennsylvania and the Maryland panhandle, western Virginia and Kentucky, the militias turned out in support of the rebels. The banner of the divided snake was raised on liberty poles for the first time since the revolution. The western American frontier was up in arms and the Whiskey Rebellion was underway.

Before it was over an army of 7,000 rebels would threaten to take Pittsburgh, and the President of the United States, George Washington, would actually command an army in the field, in this case an army larger than the one he commanded at Valley Forge.

History books tell us that the rebellion was about whiskey and an excise tax. But it was far more than that. It was two cultures, two lifestyles, two radically different sets of attitudes that were on a collision course. Rye whiskey was simply the single most divisive and symbolic issue.

Western Pennsylvania had been settled by Scots, Irish, and Pennsylvania Dutch. Early on, German immigrants in Pennsylvania developed a long standing feud with the Quaker authorities in Philadelphia. That is why they settled the back country of southeastern Pennsylvania, where they became known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Soon they were joined by Scots and Irish immigrants who were chased out of Philadelphia by the Quakers, who complained that one of them was more trouble than fifty Englishmen.

It was here in 18th century southeastern Pennsylvania that rye whiskey became a major farm industry. But if you had given one of these farmers a glass of today’s rye or bourbon they would not have known what it was. They might even have thought you were trying to poison them. The technique of aging American whiskey in charred oak barrels, the conditioning that gives American whiskies their reddish color and distinct vanilla charred oak flavor, was not developed until much later.

“Now, that’s rye.”

On the other hand, if you gave one of these 18th Century farmers a glass of Russian vodka he would say “Now, that’s rye.” In fact, rye distillation was developed in Russia. From there it spread to Eastern Europe and was eventually brought to Pennsylvania by Germans from eastern Europe. There were plenty of other grains around: wheat, barley, and native American corn. But the Pennsylvania Germans stuck with rye, and even the Scots and Irish abandoned the barley distillation of their home lands in favor of rye for the same reason the Russians settled on rye three hundred years earlier. The consensus was that rye made the best whiskey, a position not unlike that of a growing number of contemporary whiskey experts.

After the Revolutionary war, many veterans, Scots, Irish, and German moved west into the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania. They brought with them their taste for the clear, unconditioned, white whiskey distilled from rye mash. Here in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, rye whiskey would take on an entirely new cultural significance.

Western Pennsylvania was a harsh, raw, and mountainous country. The settlers lived in log cabins and slept on mud floors covered with bugs and animal skins. Travelers from back East reported that the conditions were horrendous even by 18th century standards. There was plenty of game and fish to provide sustenance, but no coffee, beer, tea, or sugar, not even much in the way of fruit or vegetables except for wild berries.

Whiskey was the only luxury in life. It soon assumed the role that wine and beer play in European cultures. Housewives put jugs of it on the table where it was consumed with meals. Shop keepers gave it away to customers. Whiskey drinking became the only social diversion.

But it was even more than that. Farming was much more difficult than it was back east, and almost a waste of time. There was very little hard currency in the area, so very few people were in a position to buy anything. Lumber, hogs, cows, and grain were too bulky and heavy to be shipped to market. Distilled whiskey and furs were the only products that could be hauled east in Conestoga wagons for any sort of profit. In western Pennsylvania a gallon of whiskey could be taken into a store and traded for twenty-five cents worth of ironware, cloth, salt, or gunpowder. In some cases even Presbyterian ministers received part of their pay in “Old Man Rye.”

So by 1791 there was smoke rising from the home stills of hundreds of cabins along the Monongahela River, flowing up from West Virginia, and through southwestern Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh.

Then the new Federal Government passed “Mr. Hamilton’s excise tax.” Excise taxes on distilled spirits were nothing new in Pennsylvania; between 1684 and 1791 Pennsylvania was never without an excise tax. But most of these were rum taxes that did not apply to spirits distilled from domestic products. Distilled products for home consumption were also exempt. Furthermore, the astute Quaker authorities in Philadelphia used these excise taxes to build forts to protect the frontier against Indian attacks, the one state expenditure that backwoodsmen heartily endorsed.

This tax was different. It was aimed at raising money to pay for state debts from the Revolutionary War inherited by the federal government, and it affected all distilling, including farmhouse distilling. Andrew Hamilton wanted to test the mettle of the new federal government’s law enforcement powers. In fact, he was looking for a reckoning between the Federalist and Antifederalist factions. The excise tax law was designed to provide it.

At the time few Americans feared that the new nation would divide between North and South. But almost everyone believed that the new nation would soon split into two nations, east and west, separated by the Appalachian Mountains. There was a strong separatist movement in the western mountainous regions of Pennsylvania, Virginia (which included present day West Virginia) and Kentucky. Some of the agitators had already chosen names for the new nation: Westylvania and Transylvania. There was even talk of union with Spain, which controlled the Mississippi, or reunion with Great Britain, simply because many westerners now realized that the new federal government had the potential to become more obnoxious than the old European colonial governments.

At the time there was virtually no commercial distilling industry in western Pennsylvania. Spain had closed the Mississippi to American trade. The presence of Indians and British troops in the Northwest territories made rafting whiskey down the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers tantamount to suicide. The center of the American whiskey industry was not the Monongahela River Valley but the Susquehanna River valley, where the distillers of Lancaster and York were turning more grain into whiskey than the millers were turning into flour.

For the most part, the distillers of eastern Pennsylvania simply grumbled and absorbed the tax. Many of them actually supported the tax because they thought it would drive the small home distillers out of business. Thus, in southeastern Pennsylvania, the big distillers favored the tax, but the small farmers hated it. This had the effect of turning the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers into staunch Antifederalists.

While the distillers of eastern Pennsylvania could afford to live with the tax, the situation in western Pennsylvania was far different. Most western farmers did not see $20 a year. They distilled whiskey for home consumption and used it for barter. How, they asked—and quite reasonably so—could they pay an excise tax when the reason they distilled whiskey for barter was because they had no money to pay for anything in the first place?

Hot coals were poured in their boots…

Reasonable or not, their argument fell on deaf ears. The Federal government sent tax collectors into the back woods to collect the excise. But separatist politicians and agitators in western Pennsylvania now saw the opportunity they had been waiting for. They ignored, and in some cases actually encouraged, attacks on federal agents. The tax collectors were attacked, their wigs singed and hair cut. Hot coals were poured in their boots and they were tarred and feathered. In some cases they were branded with hot irons, or maimed and put on public exhibition.

The state courts turned a deaf ear on complaints. Witnesses could not be found, and charges were dismissed on the flimsiest of alibis. Many judges merely sniffed that they were on the bench to enforce state, and not federal, law. The federal government had few troops in the area, and even if they had, there would have been little chance of finding the hooligans in the back woods.

When the area burst into open rebellion in July of 1794, the federal government had no choice but to send in an army. Once the army had made its way over the daunting mountain ridges and arrived in westen Pennsylvania it moved quickly to crush the Rebellion. In the end, the supremacy of the federal government over state governments and local independence movements was firmly established.

But once having made their point, the Federalists took a conciliatory attitude. Unlike the victorious northern politicians after the Civil War, both Washington and Hamilton realized that in order to reunite the country and abort future separatist movements, living conditions in the west would have to be dramatically improved. The frontier elites, who agitated the rebellion, went unscathed. Many of the local hooligans escaped west. In the end the Government was left with 20 nobodies in jail. Only two were ever convicted of treason, and George Washington pardoned both.

In a brilliant move, Alexander Hamilton turned his tax collectors into procuring agents for the army. The hated ‘revenooers’ now posted signs that they were prepared to pay top dollar for significant quantities of legally distilled whiskey. Thus the tax collectors became customers.

General “Mad Anthony” Wayne led a military expedition into Kentucky, where he handed the Indians a crushing defeat at Fallen Timbers, and the subsequent Treaty of Greenville eliminated Kentucky’s Indian problem that had persisted for twenty years. As a result of the Jay Treaty, signed the same year, the British evacuated their Northwest forts. The following year the Pinckney Treaty with Spain provided long-coveted access to the Mississippi River and the Port of New Orleans.

Agricultural products, including whiskey, could now be rafted safely down the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers to New Orleans where they could be shipped around the world. When the Government began stationing troops in the northwest territories after the Louisiana purchase, ports along the Ohio River, such as Owensboro, Louisville, and Maysville, became major procurement centers for all military supplies, including the daily whiskey ration. By the early 18th Century two of these whiskies were beginning to acquire a reputation of distinction.

The rye whiskey from western Pennsylvania would come to be known as Old Monongahela. Meanwhile, the Kentucky distillers were enjoying a good deal of success from corn distillation, and much of this whiskey was finding its way to the busy port of Maysville, a town that was now in Mason County. But prior to 1789 it had been a part of Bourbon County. The locals continued to refer to the area as “Old Bourbon County,” and products from this area continued to bear this designation. Soon the barrels of whiskey standing on the docks of Maysville were being stamped “Old Bourbon Whiskey.” And Kentucky was on its way to becoming the whiskey capital of the world.

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