With a crystal glass, a beaker of red-gold whiskey and a fragrant spiral of orange, served on an elegant silver salver at the Omni William Penn Hotel, I propose a toast to the soft-spoken godmother of Pittsburgh’s boozy history. While supporting her nine children with a popular – albeit highly illegal – bar in 1888, widow Kate Hester actually coined the term “speakeasy,” hushing the customers to keep the cops from the door. So this afternoon, I’m day-drinking in her honor. An upscale Old Fashioned, made to my exact written order, seems appropriate.
At the confluence of three famous rivers – the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela – Pittsburgh is a city that has never gone thirsty. But the city clearly prefers whiskey to water. Its current craft cocktail boom inspired its own sold-out weekend talkfest last August, Three Day Blow. Critics from around the country flocked to debate and report on local ryes, grappa, cider, vodka and beers at the Hemingway-inspired festival.
The current national buzz about the local spirits scene builds on a tradition that dates back to – anyone? – America’s Whiskey Rebellion. Since the 1790s, western Pennsylvania’s whiskey business has gone underground twice. One downtown joint where it has resurfaced is the Wigle Tasting Room, a new tasting emporium that opened at the end of April at the century-old Pittsburgh property in the Omni collection of hotels.