Local Wigle whiskey distillery celebrates rebellion hero

Patrick Wagner | April 16, 2012    

Your average bottle of whiskey will have a label that’s some variation of dark beige or dark… Your average bottle of whiskey will have a label that’s some variation of dark beige or dark brown, covered in block text that includes pictures of waterfowl or old men with moustaches. If you pick up a bottle of Wigle Whiskey on the other hand, you’ll see pastel colors, Philip Wigle’s playful, broken noose and a few white letters that proclaim its hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Wigle Whiskey and its home at the Pittsburgh Distilling Company on Smallman Street in the Strip District are making a splash as the city’s first and only craft distillery. This new business is not the work of a transplant from the better-known whiskey countries to the north or south but the work of a Pittsburgh native who wanted to do something different after he left the legal profession.

“I had to learn a new craft,” said Mark Meyer, who is the owner of the company alongside his family: wife, Mary Ellen Meyer; son, Eric Meyer; daughter, Meredith Grelli; and son-in-law, Alex Grelli. A family vacation through the wine country of New York in 2010 sparked an interest not just for Mark Meyer, but for the rest of his family as well.

“We were visiting these vineyards thinking ‘What is an urban counterpart to a vineyard?’ because you can’t grow grapes in Pittsburgh very well,” Meredith Grelli said. “So we started doing some research while we were on vacation and found this rich whiskey history back home.”

The family went into hyperdrive, planning and working together to make these ideas into a sober reality.

“I really loved the idea of a family business,” said Mary Ellen Meyer. “Our children went far away for college and jobs, so we’re delighted that they chose to return to Pittsburgh for this. We all have quite different interests and skill sets, and who would have thought that whiskey-making would have pulled those together? But it has.”

Each of those skills came in handy. Mark’s experience as a lawyer helped the company navigate the extensive paperwork involved in opening a distillery, including a change to Pennsylvania state law that allows Wigle to sell its products on-site. Eric used a passion gained during his time in Kyrgyzstan with the Peace Corps.

“He worked in a micro-distillery there,” said Mary Ellen, “and gained an interest in doing that kind of work someday.” Almost from the beginning there has been another silent partner that gives the whiskey its peculiar name.

“We found Wigle and just fell in love with him,” said Grelli. The history of the region as an early epicenter for American whiskey production and the famous Whiskey Rebellion led the family to a man named Phillip Wigle who became a folk hero for punching a tax collector. In the 1790s Alexander Hamilton was trying to pay the huge debts America had rung up during the Revolutionary War, and he decided the best way to do that was to put an excise tax on whiskey.

“You can imagine how well that went over,” said Grelli. “One day Wigle decided to go to the house of the local tax collector and ask for his whiskey taxes back.” While some of the history is hazy, it’s known that at some point Wigle fought with the man.

The protests in this part of the country escalated for years until protesters opened fire on tax collector John Neville. This prompted a federal response, and President George Washington led a force of 13,000 troops against Pittsburgh’s roughly 400 residents.

“The reason it’s so prominent in sixth grade history books is because it’s the one time a sitting president has led troops against his own people,” said Grelli. Wigle was eventually pardoned, the unraveling noose on Wigle Whiskey’s wheat and rye bottles alluding to his fate.

Behind that noose, the bottle’s clear liquid hints to something unique about this product that’s more often thought of as having an aged, amber hue provided by years of careful storage in hardwood barrels.

“These are not moonshine,” Grelli said. “What’s different is the essence of the grain is still in this. In aged whiskey most of the flavor is coming from the barrels. It’s sort of like light versus dark tequila or rum, but it hasn’t really been done with whiskey until recently. There hasn’t been a lot of experimentation, but now there’s a craft community that has sprung up and willing to try these things.”

Along with small casks for enthusiasts to age it themselves, the Wigle is aging a great deal too. “We’re aging half of the whiskey we produce, so besides the wheat and rye whiskey, we’ll have aged versions in a couple of years,” said Grelli. Whatever final form the whiskey might take, every batch is made in smaller parts with organic grain that’s milled on-site and distilled using a copper kettle custom-made in Germany. Tall and somewhat imposing with its own brassy orange sheen, the still was created by a firm that doesn’t just work with anyone.

“They chose us because we were urban and family, and they liked that,” said Grelli. While not the only craft distiller in Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Distilling Company is one of only a few and is currently the only one in Pittsburgh, a location which is central to the distillery’s philosophy and practice.

“It’s been nice because it’s introduced me to people who I didn’t really see in my last vocation,” said Mark Meyer. Local bartenders, kitchen managers and devoted fans have created a community based around this new local product.

“People have come in here because they want to see what’s going on,” said Grelli. “We show them what we do, and they get excited about it. We haven’t had to pound a lot of pavement. We have some seriously skilled mixologists in town that tasted the stuff and really wanted to put it on their menu.” Restaurants from Union Pig and Chicken to Oakland’s Mad Mex have placed it alongside national brands behind their bars.

Through the whole experience, the family has become closer with each other.

“Because we’re new at it, and there are many varying demands, we have come to respect that everyone is working hard to make it work,” said Mary Ellen Meyer. “Some days are 6 a.m. to midnight. I really don’t know how you could do a business like this if it wasn’t family.”

During those long hours, new products, from a variation of gin called jenivier to a spicier and more robust rye whiskey, have been developed with an eye for Wigle’s customers.

“We have a number of tasters who come in and help us develop our new products,” Grelli said. Those testers, along with everyone who tours the old warehouse, have been trained in the art of tasting whiskey. Whether you’re sipping on the spicy rye, the smooth and sweet wheat or even the bottle of swill many have at home, the steps for tasting whiskey are the same.

“You want to put it on your tongue and swirl it around so it hits every part of your tongue,” Grelli said. “There’s a southern version of that where you almost chew it, and then there’s the Wigle way where you just drink it.”

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