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Wigle Whiskey seeks to re-establish Pittsburgh's historic role in the liquor trade

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The line snakes out the door into the Smallman Street parking lot. People wear parkas and mukluks against the late-winter chill. It's been a year since Wigle, the first distillery to open inside Pittsburgh city limits since Prohibition, first offered its aged, deep-cut rye whiskey. One of Wigle's more adventuresome bottlings, it comes at a knee-bending 121 proof.

"A friend served me some," one hollow-cheeked gent avers. "It was love at first slurp."

Fueled by a pioneering spirit and supported by a sophisticated clientele, the Meyer family — husband, wife, three children, one spouse, various hangers-on — has enlisted in a growing double revolution. First is the rise of small American craft distilleries, once a fixture of the landscape, but for decades virtually moribund. Second is a return to rye whiskey, at one time the nation's spirit of choice: Long eclipsed by cheaper barley beer and lighter bourbon, rye's depth and power is finding a whole new market.

For the family of Alan and Mary Beth Meyer, says their daughter Meredith Grelli, it all began four years ago. A couple centuries back, white rye made Pittsburgh both famous and wealthy. With some 4,000 documented local stills in operation, by 1850 the Pittsburgh region was producing a half-barrel for every man, woman and child in America. "The odds were that if you were drinking a spirit, it came from Pittsburgh," Grelli says. "We said, ‘Let's bring that back.'"

"Our goal was to re-institute rye whiskey in Pittsburgh," she adds. "We want to showcase the whiskey that — before steel — made this region famous."

That desire prompted a two-year trek to open the doors of the new distillery. Dad, the lawyer, crafted legislation that allowed Pennsylvania distilleries to sell their own product. Second, family members went to alcohol school. Third, they traveled to Munich, Germany, to buy the right pot still. Fourth, they fitted out a Smallman Street warehouse. Fifth, they developed their own unique line of products — all organic, all local.

The Meyers quit their jobs, pouring their family savings into the new venture. And they named it for another whiskey-maker who risked it all: Phillip Wigle, a Pittsburgh distiller-turned-Whiskey Rebel sentenced to hang for treason before President Washington pardoned him.

One of an estimated 300 active American craft distilleries, Wigle "makes every product in careful, thoughtful ways," Grelli says. As such, family members mill their own grain, then brew, distill, age and bottle everything themselves.

"Craft is integral to what we're doing," Grelli says. "In every case we preserve the flavor of the grain as much as possible."

To that end, Wigle also makes other spirits, including clear wheat and rye whiskeys as well as Ginever, a 19th-century Dutch-style gin. Then there's a rum-like spirit distilled from buckwheat honey. "It's called Spiced Landlocked, and has a mossy, earthy, pungent quality," Grelli says. "It's not middle of the road."

None of Wigle's products is. Unlike larger distillers, who strive to ensure that every bottle of Jim Beam, say, is exactly like every other, "we don't devote a lot of resources to consistency," Grelli says. "We believe that every batch is unique and should be celebrated."

Grelli pledges the family will "continue to experiment — because we know people will go new places with us. They will gladly celebrate that we're doing all these things they're not accustomed to. There's a community of people here united by their taste and curiosity."

And by such regular Wigle events as Labeling Parties, to which two dozen people come on a Tuesday night to snack and drink and help apply labels. Or Taste Panels, during which participants sample products in development, write notes, take votes. The honey spirit, for example, had four such panels, four different development batches and five tastings over five months, until Wigle arrived at a final beta (a word they've freely adapted from the high-tech world).

"We keep trying stuff until it works," Grelli says. "We really do work at a fever pitch for innovation. We're obsessed with new products, new methods, new flavors."

So, apparently, is Wigle's growing customer base. While some Wigle products are available online through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, Wigle sells most of its spirits at the distillery.

And it's there that a satisfied customer heads for his car, a grey "I Work for Whiskey" T-shirt wrapped snugly around twin bottles of Wigle's latest product.

"It's the first time a rye ever said hello to me," he says with a smile. "It won't be the last."

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