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There's a rich history of whiskey making and drinking in Western Pennsylvania, but in the years since Prohibition, most distilleries never returned to the region and many of us have lost touch with this piece of local history.
Wigle Whiskey, a new distillery in the Strip District, hopes to end that drought, both by producing local whiskeys and by reminding the community about Pittsburgh's historical connection to a delicious spirit. While the white (unaged) whiskey won't be for sale for at least another couple weeks, and the aged whiskey will take another couple of years, they've already started holding weekly tours of the distillery that offer people a taste of whiskey along with a fun and unusual history lesson.
When I arrived at Wigle on a recent Saturday afternoon, I was a bit skeptical. Twenty dollars will buy a fair amount of good whiskey, so I wondered whether a tour and a tasting would justify the price.
Tours start in the best possible way -- with cocktails and snacks served in the distillery's tasting and event space. The spacious, modern room was surprisingly pretty and well appointed, and the mood quickly warmed up as the eight of us sipped two seasonal cocktails and nibbled on cheese, nuts and chocolate, all purchased from Strip District merchants.
Tours are limited in size, and the intimate atmosphere encourages questions and discussion. Wigle Whiskey is a family affair, jointly owned and run by various members of the Meyer and Grelli family. Eric Meyer, "Wigle-in-Chief," leads the tours, but his sister and her husband, Meredith and Alex Grelli, were also on-site during my tour, helping to pour cocktails and talk whiskey before the official presentation began. Head distiller Mark Meyer (Eric and Meredith's father) also made a brief appearance.
With only one distillery so far, Pittsburgh can't offer the breadth of options that a bourbon drinker gets visiting Kentucky. But at Wigle, they seem determined to make up for quantity with quality.
Drinking cocktails was fun, but it was just the beginning of the hour-long tour and tasting session. Mr. Meyer's tour of the facility cleverly combined the story of whiskey with a story from the Whiskey Rebellion -- the beginnings of a museum that they hope to create. At each stop on the tour, we learned a bit more about how whiskey gets from its raw ingredients (water, grain, yeast) to barrel or bottle, while enjoying another installment of the hair-raising tale of Phillip Wigle, a historical figure who helped spark the Whiskey Rebellion. The region was an important whiskey-producing region at least into the 1800s, but the last distillery, Schenley in Armstrong County, closed in the 1970s.
Brimming over with newfound knowledge, we returned to the main room for a serious tasting of Wigle's wheat and rye white whiskeys. We learned to sniff and sip, rolling the liquor around in our mouths for optimal appreciation of its flavors.
I'll admit to one bias: I really love whiskey. But this is a tour that even the most casual spirits drinker is certain to enjoy.
Wigle Whiskey -- at 2401 Smallman St., Strip District -- offers group tours on Saturdays ($20) and private tours, and you also can sign up for a cocktail-making class. Starting in March, it will offer tastings from 5 to 7 p.m. Info: wiglewhiskey.com.
China Millman: 412-263-1198 or firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 2, 2012 5:00 AM