In 1794, Western Pennsylvania spawned the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising of farmers upset by a tax on whiskey -- the distilling of which was a crucial source of cash. In an early test of authority for the fledgling U.S. government, the uprising was crushed … but a more refined rebellion is taking place here today.
Last week, Strip District-based Wigle Whiskey fired up its brand-new copper still: For the first time since Prohibition, Pittsburgh has a working whiskey distillery.
The distillery is named after Philip Wigle, one of two people convicted of treason during the rebellion.
Unlike most craft distilleries, Wigle (pronounced "wiggle") will carry out the entire production process: Workers will mill whole wheat or rye grains, cook them into a mash which is fermented into an un-hopped beer, and finally distill the beer into whiskey.
"We're really just cooking," says Eric Meyer, one of the co-owners. "People make alcohol production out to be a magic science that it's not. … Whiskey is beer's older, more sophisticated brother."
Traditionally, whiskey is barrel-aged until it reaches maturity. Wigle plans to barrel about half its production, but will immediately bottle the other half and sell it as raw, or "white," whiskey.
"People are going to like the white whiskey a lot more than they think," says Meyer. While the primary flavors in dark whiskey come from the wood, he says, white whiskey highlights the flavors of the grain itself. "Neither one is necessarily better," he adds.
The first bottles should go on sale next month, though buyers must again contend with overbearing government: State law requires customers to either order bottles online ($30), or find them in bars. (Wigle is pushing for the passage of legislation allowing limited on-site sales of distilled beverages.) But Meyer hopes to open the brightly-colored tasting room -- housed in Wigle's distillery at 2401 Smallman St. -- in December.
"We see ourselves as teaching people how to be nice whiskey snobs," says Meyer. "We're in Pittsburgh, not the Upper West Side."