Whiskey Museum of America project on the clock

Meredith Grelli and the WAM! logo

One of the major decisions George Washington had to make as president of a fledgling nation was how to put down an anti-tax rebellion among whiskey makers in western Pennsylvania.

That region had become a center of distilling by Scots-Irish farmers who had settled in the region after emigrating from their tempestuous homeland in what we now call Northern Ireland.

As I wrote in my book "Barrels & Drams: The History of Whisk(e)y In Jiggers and Shots" (Sterling Epicure, NYC):

"They were not alone in distilling whiskey, but they were among the feistiest and most productive in the New World. ... They quickly pushed their way to the frontier area ... where they found fertile fields for their grain and plenty of takers for the whiskey they produced from some of it. However, when the Continental Congress put a tax on whiskey production -- the fledgling nation's first excise tax -- they refused to pay, thus touching off the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 to 1794. The dispute was about more than simply being taxed. In the minds of a significant number of frontier settlers in the new United States, the government was under control of the eastern elite, and the tax, suggested by Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, to service the national debt created by the War of Independence, was a prime example of unfairness."

Eventually, an armed federal force was sent to the area to put down the insurrection during which a 500-man force of farmers attacked the home of a federal tax collector. Then ...

"Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who had become governor of Virginia, cooked up a deal to break up the concentration of resistance. Jefferson offered sixty acres of land as an incentive for moving to the Kentucky region (then part of Virginia), building a permanent structure, and growing corn."

The transplanted farmers eventually began to use their excess corn to make whiskey and eventually bourbon was born. But, what about back in western Pennsylvania? Plenty of farmers-distillers remained there and created licensed distilling operations that built one of the greatest spirits-producing areas in the new U.S. (Coincidentally, Washington went into distilling in a big way on his Mount Vernon, VA, estate and became the biggest single producer of whiskey in the new country.)

Today, there is a move afoot to create the Whiskey of America Museum (WAM!) in Pittsburgh. It's the brainchild of Meredith Grelli, co-founder and co-owner of Wigle Whiskey, founded in December 2011 as Pittsburgh's first legal distillery since Prohibition. She has put together a group of more than 20 local and regional leaders -- designers, museum staffers and spirits experts -- to help develop "WAM! National Whiskey Museum and Regional Alcohol Emporium."

The museum will serve as the trailhead for an "American Rye Whiskey Trail" that would connect distilleries from Pittsburgh to the Mount Vernon Distillery in Virginia via the Great Allegheny Passage and Cumberland Bike Paths.

Grelli has told local media she estimates the museum will cost $1.1 million, and she already has pledged "six figures" herself. However, she also has set a September 19 deadline for raising at least $35,000 via a Kickstarter campaign or the project may be called off. As of today, she has enlisted 126 backers pledging a total of $11,706.

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