One of the Coolest Cities You’ve Never Been To: Washington, Pennsylvania

Take a tour of Liberty Pole Spirits, a Pennsylvania distillery where American whiskey runs deep.

Washington, Pennsylvania, is home to craft whiskey maker Liberty Pole Spirits.


When you think of American whiskey, your mind likely heads to Kentucky and its endless rivers of bourbon. Or perhaps you think of Manhattan, where Don Draper types swill the borough’s namesake cocktail. But for Jim Hough, the heart of American whiskey beats in a quaint little town in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hough and his wife, Ellen, are the founders of Liberty Pole Spirits, a line of craft whiskeys they produce at their  Washington, Pennsylvania distillery. Hough, who works in finance by day, became interested in distilling more than a decade ago. When the couple was ready to turn their hobby into a business, they found their hometown was the perfect place to set up shop.

Rebels with a cause

In the distillery’s tasting room, it’s easy to get in the spirit of Washington’s colonial whiskey-making past.

In 1794, farmers in Washington and throughout western Pennsylvania rebelled against an excise tax on American whiskey, attacking and destroying the home of a regional tax inspector. Washington was a hotbed of opposition and activity; David Bradford, a leader of the uprising, lived just blocks from the site where the Houghs’ distillery stands today. (His house is now a museum.)

The rebellion was swiftly squashed when George Washington sent 13,000 troops to the region. But the spirit of revolt lives on through Liberty Pole Spirits.

“Our brand, our story—everything we do here is Whiskey Rebellion-themed,” says Hough. “This is where it all happened.”

Liberty Pole Spirits’ name is a nod to the large poles that farmers would erect as a peaceful form of protest. The distillery’s tasting room looks like an 18th-century tavern, complete with a stately brick fireplace and a portrait of Alexander Hamilton, hung upside down in protest.

Creating whiskey from grain to glass

Great whiskey comes from locally grown grain, which is aged in special oak barrels.

Today, Hough calls Liberty Pole’s operation grain-to-glass, meaning that every step of the process is done on site, from milling the locally grown grain to hand-labeling each bottle. All of their craft whiskeys are distilled in a 300-gallon, American-made still named Harold (after Hough’s whiskey-collecting father).

The distillery’s current lineup features five craft whiskeys, including a Monongahela rye (a pre-Prohibition style of rye) and a colonial corn whiskey. But it’s another unusual product that’s attracting the most attention.

“If we’re ever known outside of Washington, it’ll be because of the peated bourbon,” Hough says.

Using malt imported from Scotland (the grains, which are dried over burning peat, give scotch its distinctive smokiness), the whiskey is a beautiful marriage between sweet bourbon and smoky scotch. In February 2017, the unique spirit earned Liberty Pole a gold medal from the American Craft Spirits Association.

Though awards are nice, Hough is proudest of the fact Liberty Pole is a true family affair.

“We’re 100-percent family owned,” he says. “We have no outside interests that can make us do anything we don’t want to do.”

Jim and Ellen work alongside their two sons, who left the corporate world to work full-time at the Pennsylvania distillery. Even Murphy, the family dog, gets involved; he’s the distillery’s excitable unofficial mascot.

The spirits of Washington

Hough sees the distillery as just one piece of the surge of interest in his hometown. Washington boasts another distillery, Red Pump Spirits, and the Washington Winery; a new brewery is on the horizon. And every July, thousands of people flock to Washington for the Whiskey Rebellion Festival, a weekend of music, history and plenty of American whiskey.

Hough remembers recently talking with a young, local couple that had gotten a hotel in Washington and spent the weekend eating and drinking their way through town.

“How long has it been since anybody’s done a staycation in Washington?” he beams. “But I think there will be more of that. It’s a neat old city. It really is.”

Murphy, Liberty Pole’s unofficial mascot, keeps watch over the whiskey barrels.

Ready to travel? Find hotels in Washington.



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