Whiskey, wine and beer: A spirited discussion about a downtown renaissance

Michael Bradwell
Observer Reporter

The owners of two downtown distilleries and a winery are seeing more visitors from outside Washington County dropping into their shops but said Thursday there need to be more special events and retail offerings in the city to build tourist traffic.

While greater numbers would help their businesses grow, the group also said their whiskeys, wine – and soon craft beer – if properly promoted, could become a driver for a bigger renaissance of the city’s business district.

Their comments came during a panel discussion titled “Raising Our Spirits,” a networking event at the Crossroads Center in Washington sponsored by Washington County Chamber of Commerce and the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties.

The panel, which drew about 150 chamber members, included Ellen Hough, co-owner of Mingo Creek Craft Distillers; Angela Burgess, co-owner of Washington Winery/A&M Wine and Beer Supplies and the upcoming Washington Brewing Co.; and Ed Belfoure, co-owner of Red Pump Spirits. Their discussion was moderated by Jeff Burd of Tall Timber Group of Pittsburgh.

At the outset, the trio said they have had the full cooperation of the city and county government in getting their businesses off the ground.

They also praised the annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival as a historical “hook” that helps to promote their businesses, but said they would like to see more events that incorporate the county and city’s longtime ties to the rebellion, its historic impact and even distilling activities that occurred in the pre-Prohibition era.

“I have to have a story that no one else can copy,” Hough said in describing how she and her husband, Jim, are promoting their distillery with the local historical legacy of the Whiskey Rebellion, something younger customers appreciate.

“We get millennials here because they’re into whiskey and the history of whiskey,” said Hough, who added that Mingo Creek and its “Liberty Pole” brand of products will celebrate their first anniversary in July.

Those same customers are seeking other nearby attractions and accommodations that could spell a longer stay and more spending in the area, Hough added.

“They’re asking about hotels, bed and breakfasts and Uber rides,” she said.

Burgess, who with her husband, John, operates the winery and supply shop, said that in addition to more events, she’d like to see more shops and antique stores in town.

The Burgesses have joined with John and Michele DeFede, co-owners of the Upper Crust Italian Bistro, to launch Washington Brewing Co., a microbrewery and restaurant they plan to open this fall at 28 E. Maiden St.

While acknowledging that historic sites in town such as the LeMoyne House are staffed by volunteers, Burgess said she wished it were possible for those sites to open on Fridays and Saturdays.

Belfoure, a retired corporate and government chemist who grew up in Cokeburg, added that the upper end of North Main Street, where Red Pump is located, could also use more retail attractions.

He suggested that in addition to the Whiskey Rebellion, the city’s historical narrative could touch upon the years before and during Prohibition, to include discussions of legitimate distilleries, and even moonshining activities.

Hough said that while making high-quality crafted distilled products is essential, offering visitors an experience helps to ensure return trips.

“You have to have quality of product and quality of adventure,” she said, noting the success of other towns around the country that have taken advantage of local historical events to boost tourism, including Tombstone, Ariz.

“The gunfight at the OK Corral lasted for about 10 seconds, but they make millions of dollars every year off of it,” she said.