While names like Jack Daniels and Jameson may be the most well known whiskey brands, believe it or not, Pittsburgh, a city best known for its steel past and (usually) triumphant sports teams, can actually be labeled a “whiskey city” too. In fact, Pittsburgh and the surrounding Western Pennsylvania area was one of the largest whiskey making areas in the United States back in the period immediately following the Revolutionary War. (For a little historical background, in the late 18th century Western Pennsylvania was the furthest point west in the United States. Ohio wasn’t even a state yet and anything west of there was the frontier if you can believe it.)
When I first heard about the opening of Wigle Whiskey I was thrilled. Although it’s probably not hard to find new things to see and do when living in a city like New York or London, in a city the size of Pittsburgh, not to mention one where not a lot of people visit for the sole purpose of “vacation,” sometimes it’s hard to rustle up a new tourist find. But being able to tour a whiskey distillery, especially one located just outside of the city’s downtown, is extremely unique.
I had planned to visit Wigle for a while, yet procrastination does not mesh with the limited number of tickets available for public tours. However, for anyone who wants to skip the tour and head straight to a very reasonably priced whiskey flight tasting or other uniquely concocted cocktail, this option is available Tuesday through Sunday from 10 AM-6 PM with no reservations necessary. But if you’re like me and wanted to blog about more than just the taste of whiskey (aka the process of making it), you’ll want to book your tickets in advance, which is what I finally did. With my parents’ Easter visit to Pittsburgh, it seemed like it would be a fun outing even if the idea of seeing my extremely petite and non-hard liquor imbibing mother drinking whiskey would be a bit of a comical sight.
Wigle is located right in the city’s nitty gritty Strip District, which really seems the perfect setting for a whiskey distillery. (Whiskey “ain’t” wine and doesn’t need vistas of rolling vineyards like a winery does to keep with the ambiance.) It’s also a family run operation (nothing on a mass scale here) which makes it all the more charming to visit.
The $20 ticket includes a whiskey cocktail before the tour, the tour (duh), and a straight tasting. For their cocktails D and my dad went with the “Popeye” which consisted of rye whiskey, spinach, cilantro, and apple. When I saw the ingredients listed for spinach and cilantro I wanted to gag, but a taste of D’s quickly showed there was nothing to worry as all you truly tasted was the apple. It seemed that they had been chopped and pureed into the blend. I (and my mom who had a few sips) went with the “Summerset” which was rye whiskey with pomegranate and ginger beer. My drink didn’t seem very alcohol strong, but as time wore on, it was definitely one of those where you feel it later.
I had signed us up for the 1:30 PM tour on a Saturday and there were 14 people in all. Through portions of it, the tour guide had to speak loudly (slightly yell) due to the noise filtering in from the tasting room right out in front (it’s not a large facility), but thankfully he was a good “orator.”
Wigle is the name of a real person who lived in Western Pennsylvania during the late 18th century (Phillip Wigle), who was a whiskey distiller. We would learn that Wigle and other Pennsylvania distillers would be the ones to spark the famous Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. Following the end of the Revolutionary War the newly formed United States had large debts to pay, so the Federal Government decided to tax whiskey distillers as a means of helping to pay off some of these debts. Needless to say this didn’t go over well with the distillers. Wigle ended up getting into a fight with a tax collector, was convicted of treason and sentenced to hang. He was ultimately pardoned by none other than the first Commander in Chief himself, George Washington, but Wigle’s legacy remains to this day in the city.
Having toured another whiskey distillery before (Jameson in Dublin, Ireland) the tour at Wigle was everything that Jameson was not-light, funny (although these obviously are directly tied to the tour guide’s presentation) and interesting (anything with history tied in is a huge plus). As much as I want to learn about the ingredients that go into making an alcoholic drink, a little history definitely helps to dilute the stuffiness too. To me, the neatest thing I learned is that whiskey is essentially distilled beer…reaffirms the notion that everything is relative.
Following the tour comes the whiskey flight (four in all). Featured were a rye whiskey, a white whiskey, an aged whiskey, and a jenever (Dutch gin). I can’t really say I had a favorite since any hard liquor straight up is like fire coming down your throat. But it’s still an experience I can definitely appreciate all the same.
All cities have zoos, art museums, science centers…you get the picture. But not every city has a whiskey distillery. So whether you live in Pittsburgh or are coming as a visitor, head down to the 2400 block of Smallman Street and pay a visit. Phillip W. and his counterparts would definitely think you’re “cool” because of it, the tax collectors at the time, maybe not so much.