Harrison: We walked into Liberty Pole Spirits with open minds but amateur palates. Delaney Parks and I, interns here at the Union Progress, are both 21 with very limited whiskey-drinking experience. But the opening of a new campus for a Washington, Pa., distillery was a great opportunity to learn about the history and expand our range a little.
We made the 40-minute drive from Pittsburgh out to Washington, where Liberty Pole was holding an exclusive sneak-peek media preview of its new campus before the grand opening this past Saturday. It held tours and offered complimentary beverages.
Here’s our report on the campus, its unique brand of spirits and our experience testing out some drinks.
Delaney: Entering through the bright red doors of the Liberty Pole Meetinghouse as whiskey novices, we were uncertain exactly what to expect. As we took in our surroundings — from the old-fashioned lanterns to a bartender twisting an orange peel to garnish an old fashioned — we were met with warm welcomes from the staff, who were eager to help us along our whiskey journey.
A local history lesson
Harrison: As part of our crash course, we get a history lesson from proprietor Jim Hough. You can’t open a whiskey distillery in Western Pennsylvania without embracing the wild history — and you have to hold a little bit of a grudge against Alexander Hamilton.
Residents in the 1790s enjoyed whiskey for a variety of reasons, Hough says. It made them feel better when they were sick. In a time with few other luxuries, it helped them relax. Fruit juice was added to make the taste more palatable to children. (It was interesting to see that my pineapple-flavored cocktail has roots somewhere.)
Distilling whiskey had a practical purpose back then, too. The process ensured that rye leftovers lasted forever rather than growing moldy. Western Pennsylvanian farmers became the leading producers of rye whiskey.
Those farmers were up in arms in 1791 when the newly formed United States instituted taxes on all distilled spirits. Hamilton, who came up with the idea as President George Washington’s treasury secretary, hoped to ease the country’s considerable Revolutionary War debt.
Western Pennsylvanian distillers, some of whom were war veterans with a hatred for any “taxation without representation,” saw the tax as unjust and rose up in what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. They tarred and feathered tax collectors and eventually forced Washington to muster an army and he put down the uprising. The event put the region’s whiskey makers at the forefront of America’s early history.
Liberty Pole takes its cues from that history. Its name comes from the old liberty poles that farmers would put up to express their displeasure with a particular event.
“Liberty poles were the Twitter of 1794,” Hough says. People would put a scrap of paper on the pole to tell anyone passing by their thoughts on the issues of the day, such as the dreaded Whiskey Tax. Liberty Pole Spirits gives a nod to those same grudges: An upside-down painting of Hamilton hangs over the main seating area next to the bar.
The place overall makes you feel like you could just as easily be sitting in a 1790s tavern, as long as you ignore the flat screen TV. There are old-fashioned chandeliers, multiple fireplaces, and stone walls. There’s wooden furniture and a couple of nicer blue chairs facing a fireplace.
A whiskey distillery having the vibes of George Washington’s America makes a good amount of sense. Whiskey, after all, has the same aftertaste now that it did two centuries ago. People drink it for (mostly) the same reasons now as then. Sipping on a bitter whiskey drink here feels more authentic than your average artificially processed 21st-century product.
Hough says that Liberty Pole prides itself on authenticity. It uses pot distillation, a cumbersome process. It’s how whiskey was distilled for many centuries until column distillation came along, bringing with it more efficiency and automation. For Hough, the tradeoff is worth it.
“[Pot distillation] is way more inefficient. But we think the flavor is far superior.”
In that same vein, Liberty Pole pays considerably more for its grains than national brands such as Jim Beam do. It buys only non-GMO products. It wants its whiskey to taste as close to the way it did in the era of the Whiskey Rebellion as possible.
I have no idea how close the makers came — after all, I can barely taste the difference between, say, rye and bourbon. But the specifics of whiskey tastes is only part of the reason Liberty Pole exists. The setup of the place, the history, the tours — it’s an experience.
All around the campus and into the rickhouse
Delaney: When we start to hear whispers around the meetinghouse that a tour is getting started soon, Harrison and I order our drinks in preparation. He heeds Jim’s earlier advice — that whiskey novices should always start with craft cocktails with juices and syrups, move to Old Fashioneds, then Manhattans, and finally graduate to straight whiskey when they’re ready. I throw that suggestion out the window and ask for a Manhattan, with rye, to show my respect for the facility.
We sample our own drinks and each other’s, and I realize I have thrown myself headfirst into the whiskey journey. The tropical foamy vibe of Harrison’s Louisiana Punch is objectively delicious, but I can see the appeal of the strong, spicy Manhattan. I’m still grateful for the sweet cherry garnish and the ice cubes for which I opted.
Armed with our glasses, we begin our tour in the Meetinghouse. Ellen and Kevin Hough — mother-and-son duo of the family-owned and operated distillery — offer us a very warm welcome. “Every day, we continue to be pretty amazed at the support and love we’ve received,” Ellen says.
She explains that the blue walls and brown trim surrounding us are similar to the original Liberty Pole location and that the building itself was designed to resemble a roadhouse, the kind that would have provided comfort and refreshments to Pennsylvania travelers. With nowhere nearby to go, the travelers would have sought overnight refuge. Often while the owners were sleeping, they would drink up all the whiskey — leading them to install a “cage bar,” which Ellen says is a future goal for the new campus.
Ellen also adds that the menu strays from typical fare such as fries and steak in favor of authentic tavern food: lamb meat pies, johnnycakes, and smoked trout dip, which incorporates locally sourced ingredients.
Led by the duo, our tour wanders into the joint bottle shop and tasting bar. Kevin points to a mural that is the centerpiece of the small, cozy room: “The whole Hough family, we’re all on the right-hand side, and then the Colonial reenactors are on the left side. The two eras of Pennsylvania whiskey are coming together.”
“Puts a lot of pressure on you to make good whiskey, doesn’t it?” Ellen interjects with a smile.
Next, we approach the fully functional distillery area. Kevin gestures at the intimidating-looking mill room, where grains for each batch of whiskey are ground. It’s both explosion-proof and more automated than their previous system. Once ground, the milled grain is fed into a container Kevin calls a grist hopper, and weighed. From there, it goes through fermenting and mashing, in an elaborate set of metal vessels that he says is about three times the size of Liberty Pole’s original equipment.
Kevin and Ellen’s pride and joy are a pair of two traditional “pot stills,” named Howie and Harold after Jim’s and Ellen’s fathers. Harold is the same one they’ve operated with for four years, and Howie is brand-new and arrived after weathering an eight-month shipping delay (thanks to a treacherous encounter with a bridge). “We can laugh about it now,” Ellen says.
Once the whiskey is loaded into barrels, the barrels are rolled over to the rickhouse, a five-story storage area, in a “magical” process. “This is so nice!” she says. “You used to have to put them on a truck and drive them across town.”
The final stop on our tour is the rickhouse itself, a tall, dark, building that houses a wooden aroma, a seemingly infinite number of barrels, and according to Kevin and Ellen, a whiskey-stealing ghost that followed them all the way to the new facility.
“When we did the move, we were like, ‘Well, we should bring the ghost over with us,’” Kevin says. Ellen interjects that, “It makes good whiskey!” before he goes on to explain that “Mom had been told that ghosts like to attach to objects. And so we had these keys in our basement since we opened up, from day one. They don’t go anywhere, but they’re cool objects.”
“And so,” Ellen adds, “the ghost is here, making the whiskey taste good again.”
Another perspective on the whiskey journey
Harrison: After the tour, I sip on my cocktail. The Louisiana Punch — made with rye whiskey, pineapple and lime juices, and ginger simple syrup — more or less serves as my introduction to the taste of whiskey.
I can’t resist a good fruit drink, so when I saw pineapple on the menu, I jumped at the chance to soften the whiskey. It tastes pretty good, although you’d never mistake it for your average mixed drink, which aims to make you forget you’re even drinking alcohol. The whiskey aftertaste is glaring.
Todd Ashmore, an employee at Liberty Pole, says there’s a process to enjoying the taste. He hadn’t been a whiskey drinker until he did some tasting at Liberty Pole with friends and found himself enjoying the atmosphere. He got started with cocktails until transitioning to the Old Fashioned, made with burnt sugar and orange bitters. That’s a much stronger whiskey than the flavored cocktails.
“It was my gateway drug,” he says.
From there, he drank the Manhattan and ended up diving into straight whiskeys — completing the acclimation process. His favorite is bourbon.
The complex nature of whiskey makes it ripe for exploration. The aging process leads to subtle differences and adjustments between barrels, depending on specific conditions. Differentiating between intricate flavors is a unique skill that even Todd, who has become a seasoned whiskey drinker, hasn’t reached. He says that Rob Hough “can taste everything.” Rob, Kevin’s brother and Jim’s son, plays a key role in operating the distillery and often tastes the barrels as they age to get a sense of which will turn out the best.
For my part, I’m not close to pure whiskey enjoyment. Delaney seems closer — she calmly drinks a Manhattan and gains praise from Rob. He turns to me and my pineapple cocktail.
“We’ll work on you,” he says.
Time to taste
Delaney: Emboldened by our chat with Todd, Harrison and I realize there’s just one final step in today’s whiskey journey — the tasting. Because he has to drive back and I have apparently decided that I have something to prove, we conclude that I’ll be the one to take the five whiskey bullets. Each will be served in a tiny plastic cup.
We head into the adjacent room used for sales and tasting. It’s warmly lit by a hanging candelabra and filled with bottles, mini chalkboards advertising signature spirits, and a small case with cigars. After talking for a little bit with Marc Mitterer, one of Liberty Pole’s employees, about what sets apart the whiskeys I’m about to sample from others (authenticity, mainly), he pours me a sip of classic rye whiskey. I already had this one in my Manhattan earlier, so I brace myself for the slight sting I know is coming — this time, without syrup and ice to mask it.
“This is gonna be the one that’s — people like to say spicy, it’s not spicy hot, but it’s gonna have some flavor to it, more of a burn,” Marc tells me as I swirl the sip around my mouth and swallow. I have to agree. It’s an intense sensation for sure, mostly because of that signature burn. I try to detect the flavors underlying the spice. I think I get a hint of the oak, but that may just be manifestation on my part. Marc says the rye “holds its own” in cocktails, and I understand why many prefer it with mixers, an ice cube or even a bit of water (always from a natural source, never from the tap).
Next up is the corn whiskey. I’m told it’s set apart not only by the grain used but also because it’s aged in previously used barrels. As a result, Marc says the color is lighter, and the flavor is “a heck of a lot” sweeter. I don’t know about that last part — it certainly lacks the fire of the rye, but it isn’t exactly overwhelming my palate with sugar.
Following up the corn is the wheated bourbon — with a solid base of corn, enhanced with Pennsylvania wheat. Marc says this one is his favorite. I ask what I should be looking for, and he tells me there’s a lot more definition. More than any other, this one often has him sitting with each sip, analyzing it with his tongue. After tasting it, I conclude that there is indeed a whole lot going on — a balance between the other two in terms of sweetness, with a vanilla-esque undertone, and some spice that tastes almost like cinnamon.
I’m warned that the next one, peated bourbon, is both a specialty and a “big departure” from the others. With liquidized smoked peat added, this one adds an intense but all-natural smoky flavor to the mix. This one, he says, is the star of the Rebel Tea (one of the craft cocktails we didn’t get around to trying), which adds a chai essence that transforms the liquor.
Right off the bat, I smell the smoky flavor, and when I lift it to my lips, it “hits me over the head” the way Marc warns. So far, I’ve avoided having any visible reaction, but Marc and Harrison laugh at the face I make. I can best describe the experience as inhaling next to a campfire with the wind blowing smoke directly at my face. I’m sure some people love drinking it neat, but it’s not for me.
To round out the tasting and recover from the smoke, he pours out a dessert: the bourbon cream. He promises me that “you’re gonna love this” and says it goes well in a milkshake. Unlike the corn whiskey, this primary sensation is sweet — with a caramel flavor I can imagine really brightening up a milkshake, or coffee or hot chocolate. It’s a nice note to end on.
Marc adds that “we do set ourselves apart, regarding not only the quality but also the environment,” and this tasting experience has only made that clearer for me.
“You’ll learn to appreciate [whiskey],” Jim had said to us before we got started. “And that’s why I call it a journey.” As we stepped out of the same red double doors, Harrison and I agreed that we had taken at least the first couple of steps in that journey.
Liberty Pole Spirits now is located at 800 Adios Drive in Washington, Pa. It’s open noon to 7 p.m. Wed.-Thurs., noon to 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 1 to 4 p.m. Sun. (closed Mon.-Tues.). Learn more at https://www.libertypolespirits.com.