Iron City, Strong Spirits

3/11/15 -

On a recent trip to Pittsburgh I visited numerous watering holes* and was delighted by cocktails crafted from fresh components.  Some drinks featured innovative ingredients (coconut cream, tarragon, crushed red pepper,) others were deftly executed classics, but every bar had an assortment of exciting spirits from Pittsburgh’s own Wigle distillery. Local spirits are alive and well.

(One of Pittsburgh's famous Primanti Brothers sandwhiches.)


Wigle hopes to reestablish Pennsylvania’s illustrious distilling history. Today Pittsburgh may be better known for Iron City beer (don’t try it) and Primanti Brother’s French fry and coleslaw stuffed sandwich (do try it, especially the local favorite “Pitts-burger”,) but before prohibition western Pennsylvania produced five times as much whiskey as Kentucky. Pittsburgh was the epicenter of this enterprise, with about 4,000 stills operating in the mid-eighteenth centaury (for perspective, the population was around 20,000.) Whiskey was truly the lifeblood of the city, and in many circumstances replaced money as a means of colloquial currency. 

(A historic pot still found in the fantastic Senator John Heinz History Center.)

Whiskey was a great way to utilize excess grains, and for Pittsburgh, that grain was rye of the Monongahela River Valley. Rye, like wine grapes, is most distinctive when grown in poor soils, and the valley’s composition of clay with some sand, silt, and gravel makes for low yields, and high quality crops. We don’t usually think of American spirits as showing terroir, but whiskey made from these fields has a spicier, more robust profile than their cousins from the south. Unfortunately, whiskey drinkers in the last several decades have not had the opportunity to try this style of rye as Pennsylvania was without a distillery until the last decade.


(Wigle's beautiful, modern pot still.)


Enter Wigle: Pittsburgh’s first new distillery to open since America’s prohibition. The name Wigle comes from Philip Wigle, a Pittsburgher who in the 1780s refused to pay a whiskey tax and sparked the Whiskey Rebellion, pitting rebel distillers against George Washington’s young, national army. Wigle was sentenced to be hung, but a last minute twist of fate saved him from the gallows. Today’s Wigle is far less confrontational, as the distillery is a family affair and committed to being a constructive part of Pittsburgh’s community. All of the grain is sourced from the soils of the Monongahela river valley within 300 miles of Wigle’s location. The Wigles are committed to non-GMO, organic grain, and support local farmers working organically by purchasing 3 tons of grain a week that is then processed at Wigle’s on-site grist mill. You won’t find industrial column stills here: the less efficient, but higher quality pot stills are used to create a spirit that still carries much of the grain’s flavor. There are very few distilleries in the world that take such care in sourcing locally to create a product that is a true reflection of a place and a part of America’s potable history.

We’ll be sampling a line-up of Wigle’s wonderful products from 5-8 on Friday, March 20th. Wigle’s staff will be on hand to explain the distillation process, and to create some phenomenal cocktails. We’ll be featuring a couple of products not available outside of Pennsylvania along with the classic Wigle rye and Gin. Please join us! John Rankin


*If you’re visiting Pittsburgh we’d highly recommend having a drink at Tender, Acacia, or Bar Marco, which has both beautiful cocktails and a superb wine list.

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