Sometimes our friends know what's best for us. That's how I found myself, to my bedraggled and bleary-eyed surprise, cheerfully labeling bottles of Wigle's soon-to-be released Sassafras Whiskey on an early Sunday morning. This whiskey is part of Wigle's experimental wood-finishes line, a monthly endeavor reflecting the distillery's penchant for innovation. Inspired by its adventurous customer base, co-owner Meredith Grelli says Wigle "devotes an enormous amount of resources to experimentation, innovation and events to bring people through our doors. We want to help form an educated spirit population."
All of this begins with an educated and passionate staff. Ben Taylor, a home brewer turned distiller, adds the "art to the distillation," says Grelli. After exploring 12 different kinds of wood finishes, from applewood to maple, he and the rest of the staff felt that the Sassafras Whiskey was so different that it was worthy of its own event and release. Every bottle begins its life as Wigle's Wheat Whiskey. It's aged for 16 months in a new American white oak barrels. The signature flavor is introduced during the last six weeks of aging, when honey-combed sassafras wood staves are added to the barrel.
In keeping with Wigle's tradition of using local plants, sassafras is native to the eastern United States. I grew up with some in my backyard, so my first golden amber pour of this spirit brought a lot of history with it. A first taste hits the palate with a slightly medicinal tang, balanced by a creamy, malty nose and a lingering, root-beer-like finish. A revisitation reveals hints of mint woven throughout. Although it's more than smooth enough to drink straight, it would make a lovely Manhattan.
The spirit's coming-out party is set for Jan. 30. Be there for a shot at — and a shot of — this very limited release. A portion of the proceeds will benefit The Animal Rescue League and the Wildlife Center.