#FlashBackFridays are the best kind of Fridays. They allow us to look back fondly on some of our favorite memories from the good ol’ days. We all love to get nostalgic about our childhood, old friends, and popular culture trends that are long gone. We especially like to draw attention to our parents’
horrific questionable fashion choices for us during our most innocent and impressionable years. But hey, it’s these little snippets of time that ultimately help shape the people we are today.
If Pittsburgh could Flash Back a Friday, I’d imagine that whiskey would be included in its first post. After all, Pittsburgh is the birthplace of American Whiskey as we know it. Throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s, Western Pennsylvania was the command post for American Whiskey production. By 1808, Allegheny County was producing half a barrel of whiskey for every man, woman and child living in America. Today, Wigle Whiskey is the only whiskey distillery in the region and was the first distillery established in the City of Pittsburgh following Prohibition.
On Friday, August 28th, Wigle will be sharing the ultimate #FlashBackFriday by releasing its first batch of Straight Whiskeys; Straight Rye and Straight Wheat. Wigle started this project three years ago, right when they first opened their distillery doors. So these are going to be their oldest batches released to date. Our taste buds will be transported back to the 2012 and 2013 harvest, where we can appreciate all those earthy, local PA grains.
So what’s Straight Whiskey, anyhow? Straight Whiskey refers to a style of whiskey, which carries some pretty stringent requirements. In order to be considered a “straight” whiskey…
- Have spent at least two years stored in new charred oak barrels Wigle aged their Straight Rye for three years and Straight Wheat for two years
- Include a mash bill of at least 51% rye (for Straight Rye) and 51% wheat (for Straight Wheat)
- Be bottled at no less than 80 proof Wigle’s Straight Rye is 100.5 proof and Straight Wheat is 100.7 proof- PAR-TAY!
So, why Straight Whiskey…
Wigle Whiskey is all about pushing the boundaries, exploring new flavors and techniques. Yet, they also find great pleasure in resurrecting lost flavors and forgotten distilling practices. It’s an intricate balance of innovating the whiskey of tomorrow, while mastering the craft we fell in love with long ago.
Plus, Wigle customers are always neb-nosing, “Where yinz hiding the old stuff?” For one reason or another, we (yes, me too) are completely intrigued by the concept of time, especially when it comes to waiting around for a single batch of booze. Maybe it’s the amount of patience it takes to properly age Straight Whiskey that catches our eye. Or maybe it’s the thought of whiskey slumbering away as the years come and go. For whatever the reason, we’re drawn to it. We want it, like right now. And finally, we get to have it!
Here’s how it’s done…
The Straight Whiskeys start off the same as Wigle’s traditional small-cask whiskeys. They make a mash using their prized local, organic, heirloom grains. Then they brew up a “beer” and let that ferment for a few days. Next, they distill that beer. And voila, whiskey! Well unaged whiskey, that is.
For the small cask whiskeys that need to be barrel aged, the distillers will transfer the whiskey to new, small oak barrels (10-15 gallon casks). These whiskeys are left to rest and mature from anywhere between 12-20 months.
But Wigle’s Straight Whiskeys are treated a little bit differently. The Straight Whiskeys age and mature in large, 53-gallon oak barrels. And spend a ton more time hanging out ( 2+ years). So what gives? Why the bigger barrels and why longer time frame?
The distillers are looking for the magical powers of Oxidation and Extraction to ignite the sultry and luscious flavors found in Straight Whiskey. Let’s break down the extraction process first.
While the whiskey is resting in the barrels, it naturally moves in and out of the oak barrel, and in turn extracts tremendous color and flavor. The wood offers up hints of clove, cinnamon, vanilla, and coconut. The speed of extraction is mostly influenced by the surface area. The smaller the barrels, the more square inches of wood available for each gallon of whiskey, so the extraction process can happen in less time. To avoid the dreaded over-aging (yes it’s a thing), the distillers use bigger barrels for the longer barrel snoozes.
Well, what about that expensive Scotch that has been aged for like 18 years? Why not wait longer like they did? First, these commercial distillers are using huuuuuuuge barrels. Secondly, the barrels are finished in used Bourbon and Sherry barrels. A.K.A, most of the wood’s flavor and color was already sucked up. Totally different ball game.
Now let’s talk about the second flavor game-changer, Oxidation. Whiskey evaporates out of the cask during maturation and aging, leaving more and more room in the barrel for oxygen. The oxygen interacts with the whiskey, and transforms the whiskey’s chemical compounds into other desirable molecules (like ethanol into acetic acid, for example), which are then free to react, causing more compounds to form.
It’s an on-going chain reaction, which yields some of the most impressive flavor enhancers, like esters. Esters form when an organic acid reacts with an alcohol. And there’s a wide variety of alcohols in whiskey (mostly ethanol, but you’ll also find butanol, propanol, amyl, among others), so there’s potential for tons of different esters to form during the aging process. They may exist in small quantities, but they sure make a mighty impact. You can think of esters as you would think of potent dried spices, where a little pinch can go a long way.
But the only big problem with oxidation and extraction is- it takes time. Lots of time, actually. So we’re all forced to wait, and exercise some serious adult-like patience. But it all pays off when we can taste the fruits of our beautiful PA grains perfectly balanced with the right amount of extraction and oxidation.
Once the Straight Whiskey has reached full flavor potential, it’s off to bottling!
You may notice that the rectangular bottle looks strikingly different from Wigle’s traditional circular bottle. That’s because this Straight Whiskey is crazy special, and they wanted it to stand out from the crowd. If you take a closer look at the label, you’ll first notice the purple and blue coloring. These colors give a nod to the traditional White Wheat Whiskey and White Rye Whiskey bottles. And if you look even closer, you can see a beautiful scene of Pittsburgh’s rich whiskey history. See if you can spot the gristmill, the burning Neville house, Wigle’s distillery, and one of Pittsburgh’s iconic smokestacks. Artist: Ryan Davis
And if you turn the bottle around, there’s even a nifty little booklet that goes through the timeline of Pittsburgh’s whiskey-filled history. So why did Wigle pull out all the stops for these Straight Whiskeys? Well, I can tell ya one thing; they couldn’t be more proud of these batches. It’s their Capstone Project, or senior thesis, if you will. This is the moment Wigle has been waiting for since it opened its doors in 2012.
And they can’t wait to celebrate this moment with all of us! It’s their way of saying thanks to all of us in Pittsburgh who have joined them in this remarkable journey. And since the LGBT community has experienced a huge milestone this year as well, they’ve decided to celebrate these achievements together.
So all of Pittsburgh is invited to join together on Friday, August 28th, to raise our glasses to a brighter future, thanks to the tireless movers and shakers in our community and to our favorite craft whiskey distillers and innovators here in Pittsburgh. Thanks Wigle for giving us an occasion truly worth celebrating.
Tickets are only $5, which includes entry and sampling. You can grab tickets right here
Cheers N’at, Devon and Tim
A million thanks to Wigle’s Jill and David– this post would not be possible without your excellent guidance and enthusiasm for these whiskeys. It was such a pleasure learning about this process. Cheers!