Pittsburgh gets its first distillery since before Prohibition
Owner Eric Meyer poses for a portrait in the under-construction Wigle Whiskey, a distillery in the 2400 block of Smallman Street in the Strip District.
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Though distilled spirits run in the region's historical veins as much as coke or iron, there hasn't been a whiskey still in southwestern Pennsylvania in decades -- not a legal one, anyway -- and there hasn't been a distillery of any kind within Pittsburgh's city limits in nearly a century. But that changes this summer, when an "artisan" whiskey distillery opens in the Strip District.
Wigle Whiskey will be distilled on the ground floor of the Pittsburgh Wool Co. building near 24th and Smallman streets, beneath the Schoolhouse Yoga classroom. Its owners, Eric Meyer and his father, Mark, and other family members named the whiskey after Philip Wigle, one of two men convicted of treason and sentenced to hang for his role in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.
From the Rebellion and a century onward, southwestern Pennsylvania was an important whiskey-producing region, and its Monongahela rye was more widely consumed, at least into the 1800s, than Kentucky bourbon. At one point, by one author's account, more than a quarter of the young nation's distilleries were within 50 miles of Pittsburgh.
The Meyer family will be bringing whiskey back to the region for the first time since the 1970s, when Schenley Distillery in Armstrong County (known for its Sam Thompson brand, among others) stopped producing. In Pittsburgh, the last distillery probably was Joseph S. Finch, at South Second and McKean streets, which was out of Pittsburgh for good by 1920, according to Sam Komlenic, editor of Malt Advocate.
"The major distilleries moved out of the cities after Prohibition," he said. Joseph S. Finch, for example, moved its operations to the Schenley plant after Prohibition ended.
"This is an opportunity," the younger Mr. Meyer said, "to restore this Pennsylvania industry that has been dormant for a long time."
The Meyer family and its contractors -- including builder M M Marra and architect Edge Studio -- have spent the past five months gutting the empty garage and warehouse space, splashing it in blues, yellows and greens, installing cabinets and plumbing, hanging whiskey bottles-turned-light fixtures.
"They wanted a space that was going to be light, bright, playful, [something] refined, within the rawness of the space," said Anne Chen, principal at Edge Studio. Many American whiskey brands tend to conjure earthy, historic themes, wood tones and leather. But Wigle, from the logo design to its physical space, is leaning the other direction.
When the Meyers met with Edge last summer, the family told their designers that the space should convey that "this is not your father's whiskey," Ms. Chen said. "We want to do something that is very different."
Re-imagining the space is step one. Step two is the equipment: By the end of June, the Meyers hope that the distilling pieces -- a boiler, a hammermill, a mash tank, fermenting tanks, various holding tanks and, finally, the custom-built copper pot still -- will all have arrived.
"We're all in," said Mr. Meyer. By that he means financially (they will have sunk nearly seven figures into this space by the time it's producing whiskey later this year) as well as conceptually: Unlike most small distillers, Wigle will fully process the product on site.
Whereas a vodka distiller might work with pre-shaved potato flakes, or whiskey maker might buy its grain pre-milled, Wigle will buy the wheat and rye grain unprocessed, and then pound it into grist in the distiller's hammermill. The first run will probably be the rye; next they'll work on a clear wheat whiskey.
Some of the rye and wheat whiskey will be sold unaged, 90 proof, for around $30 a bottle. The rest will be set aside to be sold next year or the year after as an aged whiskey. Mr. Meyer said his family also may consider selling or giving away small wooden barrels in which customers can age the whiskey as long as they want. They also want their grain to come from a local farm, though a source hasn't been found and they may have to pay a farmer to grow rye and wheat for them.
The Meyers will soon be part of a niche community that is growing more popular by the month: There are 260 or so "craft" distilleries existing in the United States today, according to the American Distilling Institute. Eight years ago, there were about 60 such distilleries in the country. Despite high start-up costs and regulatory barriers, distillers are finding that there is a market for small-batch, locally made booze -- much as farm wineries and craft breweries have known for the last two or three decades.
Some distilleries, in fact, are built next to existing breweries, reducing the start-up costs, and even the production costs, since some of the same ingredients in beer mash can be used in the distilling process. Most of the small whiskey distilleries, out of necessity, initially traffic in unaged whiskeys and white whiskeys, since aging whiskey for several years would mean they'd have nothing to sell, and no early cash flow.
"The advantage that wine and beer have is that you have home wine- and beer-makers," said Bill Owens, head of the distilling institute. "There's clubs. There are shops." Making beer and wine in your garage is easier, and those hobbies translate more easily into start-up businesses.
Marketing beer and wine to the masses is easier than marketing rye and moonshine, too.
That's why "the ultimate challenge," Mr. Owens said, "is to make whiskey."
Mr. Meyers said his family is up to the challenge. With the amount of effort and design the they've put into the distillery space, including its entrance, the family hopes that the distillery will not be merely a place that makes booze, but also a neighborhood gathering place that offers tours and tastings and hosts small parties.
In other words, a "community" distillery -- a place where farmers, a century or two ago, might have brought their own grains after the harvest and produced small batches of whiskey for personal consumption, leaving a portion of the product behind for the person operating the pot. (For the record, Wigle will not allow you to bring your own grains and distill your own whiskey.)
Mr. Meyer said he and his family have been working with the Artisan Distilling Program at Michigan State University to develop their recipes and distilling techniques. Along with Mr. Meyer and his father, the Wigle team includes his brother-in-law, Alex Grelli (a Texas transplant who will be the company's No. 2 distiller), mother Mary Ellen Meyer (marketing), brother Jeff Meyer (librarian, who will curate a planned Whiskey Rebellion museum) and sister Meredith Grelli (marketing, and also one of the founders of Burgh Bees along with her husband, Alex).
Before Wigle can begin selling its first product -- something that should happen by the autumn -- it will need to receive the proper federal permits, and must also be listed by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. When this distillery opens, it will be the second in the region. Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, which makes Boyd & Blair vodka in Glenshaw, has been operating since 2008.
Mr. Meyer said his family has been working with Boyd & Blair's owners, Barry Young and Prentiss Orr, as well as some Philadelphia distillers to amend the state law that forbids distillers from selling their product on site. Wineries and breweries can give samples of their product, then sell it, Mr. Meyer said. But at the few Pennsylvania distilleries now operating, you can't buy a bottle.
Instead, you have to drive to the nearest state liquor store.
But House Bill 242 would change that, allowing on-site sales for "limited distillers" that produce less than 40,000 gallons of product.
That bill, however, has been tabled indefinitely.
Visit wiglewhiskey.com for more details.
First Published May 22, 2011 12:00 am