Steel Mills and Stiff Drinks: Pittsburgh’s Alcohol and Steel Boom
Today, Pittsburgh residents look at drinking as more of a social event, whether that includes a night out with friends in the South Side, or an intimate gathering over wine at a Cultural District establishment. But Pittsburgh’s growing and eclectic mix of bars and booze that is bringing more and more tourists to the area is thanks, in part, due to one of Pittsburgh’s biggest former attractions: Steel.
Pittsburgh’s steel industry exploded after the American Revolution, with mills particularly popping up in Allegheny County after the 1870’s. The 1880’s brought with them a wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Each of these groups brought with them a taste from home, with Russian workers carrying their love of vodka to their new home in the United States.
These workers were a mix between single men and married men who were working to support a family back in their home country. And after they were off the clock, many of them headed straight to bars, more and more of which were being built to handle the surge of eager customers. Pittsburgh’s population grew nearly seven times between 1870 and 1920.
Working in the mills was not an easy job. According to a local historical blog, “Originally the number of bars were built to satisfy the steel workers who would end a shift and cross the street to the closest watering hole for a beer (or two… or three) before heading up the steep slope steps towards home (and to often stop at another of the numerous saloons that littered the hillside, conveniently located next to the slope steps).”
The blog continued, “Gary Regan writes in The Joy of Mixology ‘Indeed, the boilermaker was popularized by 19th century steel workers in Pennsylvania, who drank to wash away the taste of factory life. It’s not a story with a lot of romance. It was such a horrible job, you’d just want to slam a whisky before you had your beer.’”
With so many single men calling Pittsburgh home, the city turned into a center of crime and gratuitous alcohol consumption. Neighborhoods all over the city were gaining a reputation for the illicit actions that were taking place. McKeesport became known for its red-light district called the “Brick Alley.”
Mills continued to boom from the 1930’s through the 1970’s, during which time municipalities drilled down on illegal activity. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s, Pittsburgh’s steel industry began to crumble, leaving tens of thousands of laborers without work, forcing them to lower wages and non-union work.
Looking at Pittsburgh today, with its success in finance, medicine, and technology, it is easy to forget that the city was once a struggling “has-been” powerhouse. But the city’s former, and now reestablished glory, has brought us the wide range of alcohol and bars that make up the city’s exciting culture.
Ustianochka is proud to be a part of the culture of Pittsburgh, reaching back to the Russian immigrants who found their way to the Steel City. It was their drive to do good, old fashioned, hard work… and their love of a good drink… that allow us to bring the smooth taste of Ustianochka Vodka to Pittsburghers today.