The Balestreire family had been in the fruit-and-vegetable trade for nearly a century, and in the city's Spring Garden neighborhood for most of that time. So it must have been weird earlier this month when Tony Balestreire walked into the yellow-brick and cinder-block bunker at 1055 Spring Garden Ave., the former headquarters of Balestreire Produce wholesalers that has been in the hands of Pittsburgh's Wigle Whiskey since last spring.
"He told me, 'I hope you're in business as long as we were,'" said Meredith Grelli, one of Wigle's co-owners.
If they are, they will probably need a bigger barrel house, but for now, this one -- set to open to the public at the end of May -- will have to do.
"We looked all over," Ms. Grelli said. "We wanted to stay in the city, and we wanted something close to the distillery." Wigle's Strip District headquarters -- it opened in 2012 in the Pittsburgh Wool Co. building -- is less than two miles away from the new barrel house by way of the 16th Street (David McCullough) Bridge.
While the primary purpose of the barrel house is right there in the name -- to house the whiskey-aging barrels that now are threatening to overtake the Strip headquarters -- the venue also will serve as an events space and an "innovation" lab, where experimental batches and tinctures will be sampled. On Saturdays, starting May 31, it will be open for public tours and tastings.
On a recent Wednesday, Ms. Grelli led her brother and co-owner Eric Meyer and a group of staff and volunteer guides through the tour stations, honing the loose script they'll all be using when the barrel house opens. While the distillery tour focuses on the whiskey-making process and the Whiskey Rebellion, at the barrel house, they'll explain the science of aging and barrel-making, and the growth of the regional distilling industry in the mid-to-late 1800s. It's full of Western Pennsylvania history and replete with the iconic names of our post-Civil War industrial age: Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon and, naturally, Abraham Overholt, grandfather to Frick and founder of one of the nation's pioneering commercial distilleries.
"It's like the sequel. It's the next step in both the production [and] the history" of whiskey, Ms. Grelli said. "We're still refining it and getting more historical information" from the West Overton Distillery Museum, which keeps records and artifacts from the Overholt distillery. "We'll tinker with it until the end, probably."
While the tour is still taking shape, the barrel house will be, too. Contractors are on site this week to help turn the garage and parking pad -- both connected to the warehouse -- into a bar and "whiskey garden," an open-air events and entertainment space. As with Wigle headquarters, the warehouse overhaul is being carried out by builder M M Marra and architect Edge Studio.
The attached garage will be converted into the barrel house bar (to be overseen by Wes Shonk, who tended bar at both Butcher and the Rye, Downtown, and 1947 Tavern in Shadyside), and the gravel-and-concrete parking pit will become the garden and events area with a small performance stage. Food is to be provided by Thin Man Sandwich Shop.
It's a residential neighborhood, with several row homes across the street, but feedback from neighbors has been positive so far, Ms. Grelli said.
During an informal meet-and-greet with community stakeholders, "Neighbors just started coming in and hugging us for bringing life back to the building," she said. "It was just affirmation that we were in the right place."
Pennsylvania limited distillers, including Wigle, can now ship directly to consumers, thanks to a change in state regulations that took effect April 5. The change was meant to put distilleries on the same playing field as Pennsylvania's limited wineries, and it means that buyers no longer have to go to the state store or visit the distillery to make a purchase.
Blackbird Distillery in Brookville, Jefferson County, opened March 26. Owners Jennifer and David Black are producing corn moonshine, as well as flavored whiskeys, including apple, peach, cherry and banana.
The distillery, which is open Wednesday through Sunday, was partially financed by a loan secured through The Progress Fund, a Greensburg-based community development lender. The Fund also supplied financing for the Boyd & Blair vodka distillery in Shaler.
Speaking of Boyd & Blair, its vodka has been selected by Fleming's Steakhouse chain as the "signature" spirit in its house vodka martinis. (Gin martinis will be built with Hendrick's.)
There are 65 Fleming's steakhouses in 25 states, mostly in the West, with the closest ones being in Cleveland and Radnor, Pa. The year-long deal gives Boyd & Blair a presence within a major national hospitality chain, as Flemings is owned by Bloomin Brands, which also owns Carrabbas, Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill.
"The Boyd & Blair Martini is stirred table-side in a cut-glass beaker, poured at the table, and served with a bowl of various olives. A really impressive presentation," said Prentiss Orr, co-owner of the distillery. "Needless to say, [the deal] will increase sales and production with some significance, but it might be too early to say how much."
Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625. For bar and spirits news on Twitter, @btoland_pg.