Small-batch whiskey-making, like most creative and entrepreneurial endeavors, is all about heart. More specifically, it's all about "hearts" -- the product of the distillation recipe that emerges after the impure "foreshots" and "heads," and before the "tails." In other words, it's the good stuff -- the sweet spot of the fermentation and stripping undertaking that you'll eventually want to bottle ... and drink.
Father and son duo Mark and Eric Meyer, proprietors of the new Wigle Whiskey distillery in the Strip District, spend their days (and some of their evenings) in pursuit of these hearts. On a table in their warehouse distillery, the copper still's byproducts are in plastic sampler cups, arranged chronologically, in the manner of a high school chemistry project:
Hearts IV, 80.5 percent, 5:03 p.m., CW: 4.5.
Hearts IX, 77 percent, 6:56 p.m., CW: 4.5, SV: 9.
Hearts X, 75 percent ...
The numbers are gibberish to most of us (CW stands for "condenser water," while SV stands for "small valve"), but what they mean, in a practical sense, is that the Meyers' experimental phase is drawing to an end, and the owners of the first whiskey distillery within Pittsburgh's city limits since Prohibition are getting that much closer to having products they can sell. The first one, a white, unaged rye whiskey, should be in bottles by the end of this month or the beginning of March, and available for purchase on site.
When that happens, it will mark a new phase in what has already been a two-year planning and construction process. Last month, I met with father and son to discuss the creation of Wigle Whiskey:
Q. What was the most difficult part of the process?
Eric: "I think we estimated the build-out of the space would be done in January 2011. We didn't really finish [it] until August or September. We're really happy that we're rejuvenating an old building in the Strip -- it's a big part of our business, and who we are. But we pretty much had to replace all the infrastructure."
Mark: "For me, everything was harder than we thought it was going to be. There were a lot of regulatory challenges. You have to apply for a license to the federal government, to the state government. ... Although both entities were incredibly cooperative, it's a long process. The licensing with the federal government took six to seven months -- getting your label approved by the federal government took a long time. The build-out was a challenge. Then, just getting used to the equipment takes some time."
Q. Carl Distilleries built most of the equipment, yes?
Eric: "We're actually really fortunate, because there's only really two companies in the world that make stills well. They're both in Germany. And because of this explosion in craft distilling, they're getting a lot more demand. So they can pick and choose their [projects]. ... Carl has one American rep, and he actually lives in Philadelphia. He's familiar with the Strip, and he was really excited about having a distillery in the Strip. There's really very few urban distilleries."
Q. Why are there so few urban distilleries when there are so many urban beer breweries? A lot of the brewing equipment overlaps. Why did it take so long?
Eric: "I was really surprised that there were not more urban distilleries [in the U.S.]. They all seem to be in office parks. And then, once we had to do the renovation of the infrastructure, [we realized why] ... I think that's the biggest impediment. In Pennsylvania, the lack of on-site sales, I think that really deterred quite a few people."
Q. But that state law was changed recently, allowing for on-site distilled spirits sales -- something the breweries and the wineries have been allowed to do for some time.
Mark: "That's probably the single biggest reason why there weren't, aren't, more distilleries in places like the Strip. Of course, there were only two distilleries in Pennsylvania before us. Those organizations, when they started out, they never anticipated that they'd be able to sell on site. So they were looking for cheap space in a warehouse. And they weren't really thinking about being in an area where there would be a lot of foot traffic."
Q. How much of your sales do you hope would come from that foot traffic, as opposed to sales from the state stores?
Eric: "We would really like to focus our sales out of here. The appeal of our business to people is, they get to see where the whiskey is made, they get to see who makes it, what ingredients it's made with. ... My guess is that people are going to almost prefer to buy it here at first, than at the stores, because it is a new product."
Mark: "The distilleries that have had on-site sales, 56 percent of their revenue would come from on-site sales. We'd think that we'd replicated that, or even exceed that. We're very happy and fortunate that the law passed and changed. And if you look at limited wineries in Pennsylvania, that's certainly where the bulk of their sales come from."
Q. Distilled spirits -- as well as beer -- are only as good as the grain. You eventually found growers in New York, Ohio, and Washington County. Was it difficult?
Mark: "I found it very challenging to find local farmers that we could source from. To try to break through the whole way that grains are distributed, it took an enormous amount of time, and a lot of networking, to be able to do that. [And] we were self-limiting, because we wanted to be organic. And that's very hard to find."
Eric: "We're using two [rye farmers]. This is a mixture of rye from Washington County, and then from eastern Ohio."
Q. Are they growing it fast enough for you?
Eric: "We need a lot of rye. This batch [is] somewhere around 800 pounds of rye, to get about 250 bottles. And we're doing about a batch of week ... 800 pounds of rye per week for a small farm is a lot of rye."
Q. At first, you'll be selling "white whiskey." The aged whiskey will have to rest in barrels for a few months, or years, in order to take on the flavors and brown hues that we typically associate with whiskey. But you guys are selling miniature "Wigle"-branded wood barrels, so people can age their own, right?
Eric: "These little ones, they're from Virginia, it's a company called Thousand Oaks [Barrel Co]. This was sort of a pie-in-the-sky idea when we last talked, [but] there was a lot of interest, so we decided to go forward with it. Because [the barrel] is smaller, the spirit interacts a lot more quickly with the wood, so that aging process happens a lot quicker. ... After three months, you're going to get everything out of this that you can get out of it. You'll have a dark spirit. If you left it in longer than that, you'd actually have oak water."
Mark: "What's fun about this is everybody's whiskey will be their own unique whiskey. Nobody will take it out at the same time. ... We've had fun doing it [ourselves], just to see how it's going to come out."
Q. Why whiskey? Beer and wine seems like much easier hobbies, and business plans.
Mark: "We wanted to do something that we thought would be interesting for Pittsburgh. ... Pennsylvania used to be known for rye whiskey, and we thought, 'Why isn't Pennsylvania producing rye whiskey? That's crazy.' We decided that's what we'll do -- and that's before we really knew anything about the market, or anything else. We just thought we wanted to bring back that tradition."
Q. OK, rye makes historical sense. Why make a wheat whiskey?
Mark: "Because it's different -- all the whiskey on the market is essentially bourbon. It's all corn-based. So we decided we would do wheat as a complement to the rye, because it's a sweeter product."
Q. How has the hospitality industry reacted to Wigle?
Eric: "The restaurants have been super into it. ... I thought that was going to be a big part of my job, walking into bars and [trying to get the product on shelves.] But the restaurants and bartenders have been supportive. ... Our problem is, [I] think we're going to have a lot more demand than supply."
Q. Enough about the process. How does the white whiskey taste?
Eric: "People are very surprised. I think they expect more of a vodka taste, which is really no taste, or they expect it to be very alcohol-tasting. ... but because we're using a good rye grain, it has more of a distinctive taste than people are expecting."
Q. Will it taste the same each time? Or do you expect that there will be some variety in the batches, as at a small brewery?
Eric: "People, when they order an East End Big Hop IPA, they know it's going to fall into a taste profile, a range. But every Big Hop is a little different; there's a little snowflake quality to them, in a good way. I think people accept that, because it's just two of us. Each batch is different -- we're OK with that."
Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625. For bar and spirits news, follow him on Twitter: @btoland_pg. First Published February 2, 2012 5:00 AM