Did you know that American Whiskey was born in Pittsburgh? Neither did we until we discovered Wigle Distillery in the Strip District. It is such an amazing place, which makes for a great story- so here it goes. During the 1700’s and 1800’s, Pittsburgh was THE place to get proper whiskey. At its pinnacle, Western PA had over 4,000 documented stills. Now, Wigle Whiskey is the only whiskey distillery in our region. To be honest, I’m okay with those odds. Why? Because Wigle Distillery has the tastiest spirits the world has ever known. There’s something in that Pittsburgh water…
Wigle opened its doors in March, 2012. The distillery is named after the good-natured man Phillip Wigle, who was sentenced to hang for his love of whiskey. He inadvertently triggered the Whiskey Rebellion, a fight against the taxation of whiskey. If you haven’t noticed this yet, make sure you check out their logo, you’ll see that the g is being hanged. Also, you may wonder if the name is pronounced “wIggle” or “wiggle”- the owners say “wiggle”- so we are sticking with that. Plus, it just sounds like a good ol’ time. Wigle. Fun right?
Wigle Distillery makes lots of delicious spirits: White Whiskey, White Rye Whiskey, White Wheat Whiskey, Aged Whiskey, Gin, and Rum. They are making these fine spirits just like the distillers did back in their heyday; with local ingredients and a copper pot. Also, if you are into aging your own whiskey, they have a kit for that, n’at. Those crafty distillers have also made their own line of bitters: Organic Aromatic and Organic Rosemary Lavender. Also, they are in the works for developing more bitters including a spicy chocolate mole and a bitter orange. We got the opportunity to sample them-completely amazing.
You may wonder why we would be interested in a distillery because we have focused much of our efforts on craft beer. Well, beer and whiskey are more alike than you may think. Oddly enough, for the first two days of processing, beer and whiskey are almost identical. Surprised? We were too. Here is the breakdown of the process.
Malted grain is immersed in water to germinate. Then, the wet grain is dried out in a kiln and allowed to sprout, making it possible to turn starch into sugars- just like the malting process for brewing beer. Next, the mixture is then ground up and mixed with hot water (which is called “liquor” for distilling and for brewing its called “mashing”). Once the mixture has converted its starches into simple sugars, the wort (sweet, watery mixture) is ready to be boiled (at this stage, the beer wort is mixed with hops). The worts are boiled, cooled, then moved into holding tanks where the yeast will introduced to the liquid.
While the beer wort is readied for its fermentation, the whiskey wort is readied for the distillation process. At this point, the processes deviate. The whiskey wort is heated to just below the boiling point of water, allowing the alcohols (which evaporate at a lower temperature than water) to move up the still, passing through coiled copper tubing (called the “worm”) where the alcohol vapors become liquid once again.
Their “unaged” or “unoaked” whiskey is bottled right out of the stills. You’ll notice that the liquid is clear. Their aged whiskey sleeps peacefully in their 15 gallon handmade wooden barrels for months at a time. During the aging process, the whiskey moves in and out of the wooden barrels and extracts the tannin and vanillins out of the wood. This process aids in the creation of the unique flavor and beautiful amber color found in Wigle’s aged whiskey. Wigle recently purchased a barrelhouse in the North Side to accommodate the growing demand of all of those wonderful, drunken capsules.
We are so fortunate to have a craft distillery here right in the ‘burgh. Wigle is one of a few craft distilleries in the United States that produces every one of their products from scratch. They only use fresh and local organic grain. The owners are so committed to freshness that they only mill the grains onsite that same day when they are ready to make one of their signature “batches”.
If you ever have an opportunity to visit Wigle Distillery- please do it! Our first experience was completely incredible. We originally went to pick up Christmas gifts for our friends. Nothing says Merry Christmas like a great bottle of booze, right? As we arrived, we were greeted so warmly by one of the owners, Mary Ellen. She talked us through their spirits, and they all sounded really appetizing. We couldn’t make up our minds so we ended up ordering a tasting flight. I admit- this was my first liquor tasting session. I know, I know.. that’s pretty crazy but truthfully I was never overly excited about liquor. The vast majority of my experiences with liquor were in college. And in those days, we definitely weren’t drinking for taste… But Mary Ellen was so fabulous, knowledgeable, and accessible. She instructed me on how to properly taste the liquors and how to prepare the glass- drop a couple of ice cubes in or add a splash of water then swirl and taste. They were all good- actually, extremely good. Just by themselves. I never, EVER thought I would enjoy liquor all by itself. Wigle has truly ignited an appreciation and interest for craft spirits. Plus- the atmosphere in the distillery is incredible. The colors are warm and bright. This place really fosters inspired conversation when you sit down to drink one of their signature cocktails with friends and family. After that first trip, we knew this place had to go down in the books.
Wigle’s Bottle Ceiling
The next time we went in for the interview, we were greeted by one of the owners-Meredith Grelli. She gave us a really insightful and entertaining tour of the place. Then, she introduced us to her husband, Alex Grelli, and her father Mark Meyer while they were in the midsts of distilling one of their coveted spirits. This establishment is truly a family affair. The idea of a distillery in Pittsburgh came about during a trip to Canada. Meredith’s family had visited several wineries and really fell in love with that culture and atmosphere. They wanted to create that same environment here in Pittsburgh and before you know it…Meredith’s brother Eric, mother Mary Ellen, and father Mark all shared in her and Alex’s vision of bringing a craft whiskey distillery back to its birthplace. And it has been magic ever since.
When we were their guests that evening, we too felt a part of their family. The owners and staff were authentically genuine and kind. They even invited us sit in on their bitters class, which was a whole new (and exciting) world for us. Let us tell you a little about what we learned in that bitters class. We sipped on their signature Old Fashioned cocktail as we waited for the other eager students to arrive. Lauren, the ingenious bitters developer for Wigle, explained bitters and their rich history. Bitters are basically a delicious concoction of herbs and roots nestled inside one of their finest liquors. To many refined bartenders- a true cocktail contains the combination of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. It is amazing to wittness how a few droplets can completely transform the taste of a cocktail. If you like to have fun while learning something new- this is definitely the class to sign up for. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we are going to get a few friends together and sign up for another one soon.
We believe in Wigle Distillery. We believe that they have embraced the creativity and sense of community that Pittsburgh is well known for. Great lengths are taken to support regional farmers by using only local and fresh ingredients. They aren’t here just to sell whiskey, they are here to educate, serve, and inspire fellow Pittsburghers. Thank you Wigle for bringing craft whiskey distilling back to its birthplace. Cheers to you Wigle!