Nectar From the Leafy Monongahela Valley

The following is from an 1882 history of Preston County, West Virginia, by Samuel T. Wiley:

… a few copper stills in the county added the small amount of their production to the large quantities of the Old Monongahela rye whiskey, conveyed by boat from Brownsville and Pittsburgh to New Orleans, and thence sent all over the world. This pure old Monongahela copper pot distilled rye whiskey was of world wide renown, and often graced the board of prince and potentate of the Old World. It took its name from being principally distilled in the Monongahela Valley.

Recently I’ve been focusing on the whiskey tradition of Eastern and Central Pennsylvania, one often associated with German Palatine immigrants. This whiskey preceded rye distilling over the mountains in the southwest section, from Bedford to Greene counties as well as Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties. It was the latter distilling, especially along the Monongahela river, that became known as Monongahela rye whiskey and acquired fame throughout the U.S. and beyond.

In fact, Monongahela whiskey’s repute began before the Civil War, certainly by the 1850s it was known nationally and even earlier in specific markets.

Since rye whiskey was made all over the granary of Pennsylvania, why did the Monongahela version became so well-known? It was famed in its own right and as the predecessor to Kentucky bourbon.

Names connected to this tradition included Dillinger, Bridgeport, Overholt, Gibson, Sam Thompson, and Large, but there were many others. West Brownsville, right on the river, was a locus of production in the later 1800s, home of old Sam Thompson.

The Monongahela river rises in north-central West Virginia and flows northward to end in Pittsburgh where it joins the Allegheny River to form the mighty Ohio. It’s a traverse of 130 miles, often through rich rye-raising country and edging the green Laurel Highlands of southwest Pennsylvania.

Rye whiskey was shipped by that route to Pittsburgh. From there it was sent downriver on Ohio flatboats to New Orleans, whence to world marts.

The transport in wood barrels improved the whiskey due to changes of climate, the time of transit, and rocking on the water. Water transport was an early means to improve liquors. What started with utility ended as both that and a technique to improve quality.

From Scotch whisky to Madeira – and India Pale Ale – examples can be cited of liquors made famous in part through being sent far afield.

It is obvious, or I think it is, that this transportation factor was the key to success for Monongahela whisky, a whiskey whose flavour equalled the euphony of its name.

The navigable Monongahela waters made it convenient to send whiskey upriver for transhipment to distant American cities and the world.

You can see the pattern by continual references in the literature to Pennsylvania “country whiskey” or similar terms, e.g., mountain dew, common whiskey, moonshine. The latter were new whiskey,  white or nearly so whereas long-shipped rye whiskey was red-to-brown and sweetish from the effects of the barrel. The two were almost different products.

The same thing happened to bourbon: country corn moonshine became a lush, brandy-like spirit thousands of miles away by virtue of long shipment on the water.

Both Pennsylvania rye and bourbon ended by being successfully aged at the distillery: a similar quality was achieved to the shipped article. An analogy is ale long-stocked in England as compared to pale ale sent to India. Porter long-vatted in Dublin as against foreign stout shipped in wood to … everywhere.

The extremes of temperature in Kentucky resulted in a very flavourful product, all that whiskey moving for years in and out of the barrel frame with the cycles of cold and hot. Despite differences in climate the warehouses of the Monongahela rye distillers achieved a high quality as well.

I had the chance to taste original Michter’s Original Sour Mash whiskey many times, a rye-heavy whiskey which was a classic Penn State type despite being made in an eastern county. You could taste subtly the forest in it, it had a cool, autumnal quality vs. the gothic richness of Kentucky whiskey deriving from the crazy extremes of heat.

Finally, the Pennsylvania industry died out; Kentucky’s endured. Rye is made in Kentucky today of course, and now in many places, including Pennsylvania again by revivalists, so perhaps a great Pennsylvania distilling tradition, based on rye, will rise anew.

A Canadian rye whisky, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% rye, offers plenty of flavour and quality. In past years it was used to flavour the blends of Alberta Distillers but some is bottled on its own now under the Canadian Club label. Some other bottlers feature whisky from this source too, at different ages and proofs. WhistlePig rye is an example, featuring bottlings recently that are partly aged in Vermont.

Selection is important here, I’ve never found WhistlePig to have the richness of the CC version, but perhaps the bottler wants it that way.

I’d think the CC Chairman’s Select is similar to the best old Monongahela whiskey even though made far away. Stylistically it follows the old Mon style: distilled at low proof, made mostly from rye, and aged for long years in new charred oak.

It would be nice though to have it at 50% abv proof, the old bonded U.S. strength. Or if that’s an unwarranted U.S. intrusion, how about 57.1% abv, the old Imperial proof standard? I’m there.

Note re image: the second image above was sourced from the Large Distillery page here at www.pre-pro.com, a site devoted to chronicling the distilleries, brands, and memorabilia of pre-Prohibition distilling. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.