Tribe Live: by Debra Erdley

The West Overton Village and Museum wants to take America's craft distilling explosion back to its roots.

The museum just outside Scottdale in East Huntingdon will open a craft distillery this year. It will be in the historic village where Abraham Overholt first distilled rye whiskey in 1803 at the epicenter of the region that a decade earlier gave rise to the revolt known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

Museum officials said the plan, two years in the making, took a giant step forward last month when the state Liquor Control Board granted West Overton Distilling Co. LLC, a limited-production license. The license permits the facility to distill up to 100,000 bottles of whiskey a year.

When production resumes, West Overton will become the second of seven federally designated historical sites on the American Whiskey Trail to distill spirits. The only other historical site that produces whiskey is at Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia estate.

“We always felt the distillery was the story of West Overton,” said Rob Ferguson, president of West Overton's board of directors. “There are other stories here as well, but West Overton grew up around the distillery. Our goal and business plan mirror that of Abraham Overholt's during the 1800s when estate-distilled Old Farm was the rye whiskey of choice.”

West Overton Village, known as the birthplace of Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick, includes 18 buildings dating to the early- and mid-1800s. It is open to the public during the fall and summer, when its grounds are a frequent wedding venue.

The distillery, which will be part of the interpretive tour at West Overton, is coming into production in the midst of a renaissance in American craft distilling. According to the American Craft Spirits Association, there are 800 regional craft distilleries scattered across the United States.

The West Overton Distilling Co., the nonprofit corporation formed to oversee the operation, became the 40th craft distiller licensed in Pennsylvania. There are three in Allegheny County, one in Fayette County and another in Indiana County.

Museum Director Jessica Kadie-Barclay said officials hope to build a reputation for a fine local product distilled with grains purchased from farmers a mile away.

Although the original distillery was the foundation of West Overton's development, Kadie-Barclay said it ceased operations about 100 years ago. She credited Ferguson with championing its revival.

Ferguson, a Scottdale funeral director, said the project took on new meaning for him one day when his father casually remarked, “Your great-great-grandmother would be proud of you.”

“I asked him what he meant and he said, ‘Your great-great-grandmother was an Overholt.' She was Sarah Overholt. That's been a neat, neat part of the ride,” Ferguson said.

He said many pieces had to come together to bring the project to fruition.

The museum board chartered a separate nonprofit corporation to oversee the project, hired a lawyer specializing in liquor licenses to plead its case before the liquor board and federal agencies, and engaged a second lawyer with a background in patent and trademarks to help it acquire the Old Farm designation from the Patent and Trademark Office in Washington.

The famed whiskey made headlines four years ago when a woman rehabbing a Scottdale mansion into a bed and breakfast discovered nine cases of Old Farm, bottled in 1912, hidden in the walls. Her caretaker was later charged with theft when 52 of the bottles came up empty.

Ferguson said museum officials, who also had some samples of Old Farm, sent them off to Carnegie Mellon University for analysis to help them fine-tune the recipe.

He declined to discuss startup costs for the project but said longtime West Overton supporter and volunteer Charles Fischer, of Scottdale, donated funds to underwrite the purchase of distillation equipment in memory of his wife, Mary Ellen.

A stock barn on the premises of the Village is being renovated to house the distillery.

Officials aren't saying when production will get under way. They hope the addition of the distillery will enhance the lure of the Village for so-called heritage tourists as well as whiskey aficionados.

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