It’s not often I climb out of my toasty bed at sunrise on Saturday to head down to the whiskey bar, but today was special. Wigle Whiskey in the Strip was releasing it’s latest batch of freshly aged specialty whiskeys–three ryes and four wheats–aged in five different types of wooden barrels. I am by no means an expert on fine spirits, but to my credit, I have labored through long and delightful decades of ‘field research’ pertaining towards the subject.
According to their web site–www.wiglewhiskey.com–they take their name from Philip Wigle, a local man who was sentenced to hang in 1794, when he, “defended his right to distill in a tussle with a tax collector”. He unwittingly helped spark the Whiskey Rebellion, which pitted Pennsylvania distillers against George Washington’s troops.”
In the spirit of bringing whiskey production back to Western Pennsylvania, Eric Meyer, and his father, Master-Distiller Mark Meyer, set up shop in December of 2011 at 24th and Smallman, with a maze of distilling equipment and barrels, attached to a small front room for retail sales and tastings. $5 cocktails, or $5 samplings of their delicious, different varieties. You won’t find anything for sale that wasn’t made on site (except maybe the T-shirts), but you will find much more than just whiskeys.
Their new dark rum tastes almost like a fine Reposado tequila, but with the definite sweetness of a smooth rum. The Ginevere gin is based on a 600 year old Dutch copper pot recipe; it tastes so clean and fantastic, I think it should be served neat, under a Magnolia tree overlooking a summer sunset, if at all possible. This is high praise indeed, I generally can’t stand any type of gin. Got sick on it as a kid, just can’t do it.
Wigle is constantly bringing out new blends and barrels of organic spirits, and today was an eventful release. It was standing room only, so there was no time for folks to sample all the flavors inside the distillery before buying, but thanks to our good friends, Greg and Joe, we all bought a little something and shared for a tasting that included each one of the different wood barrels used in the new batch. We then headed back to the homefront for a fine-spirits tasting. Each one of these whiskeys is listed as 92 proof, aged 11-12 months in 15 gallon casks.
Wheat Whiskey finished with Red Oak Wood: Wigle describes its flavor as “walnuts and black tea”. the first boozy whiff warns you of its sting; it is viscous and dark, like the type of southern bourbon that a ‘Real Southerner’ wouldn’t just share with anyone, especially a Yinzer Yankee like myself. I don’t sense the walnuts they mention, but the black tea is unmistakable, especially on the finish. “Dark”, “robust”, and “thick” were words tossed around our little round table discussion. “Bourbony” I think sums it up nicely.
Rye Whiskey finished with Hickory Wood: My first impression when I pulled my nose into the glass was memories of my days doing oil paintings on canvas…the subtle scent of the wood oils in the paint, mixed with a wafting aura of muted alcohol. Opposed to the bourbon feel of the red oak, the hickory tastes like a lighter, younger type of scotch. Wigle described it as “tobacco and cloves”, which was noticeable in the aftertaste, like a mellow wiff of a cigar store, with a woody hint. We agreed though that perhaps sensing tobacco was more the power of suggestion from the description, rather than a flavor we would have picked out on our own. “Woody”, “sharp”, and “Scotchy Scotch Scotch” were also some of the terms tossed around.
Wheat Whiskey finished with Cherry Wood: The cherry wood was also reminiscent of scotch, but with the clearness of an unaged whiskey, as if we’ve moved one more step further down the spectrum from the heavy, bourbon style feel of the Red Oak. Surprisingly, both are wheat based whiskeys, despite their stark differences…the aroma is not sharp or overpowering; the heat of the spirit floats gently up your nose with very little ‘burn’. “Gentle”, “understated”, and “fresh” were mentioned.
Wheat Whiskey finished with Maple Wood: The taste and smell of maple is present, but rest assured, although this is sweet, it is not an overly sweet whiskey. I suppose it’s not a coincidence that this tastes distinctly like a quality Canadian whiskey. Conventional and balanced, without the tingy bite of scotch or the heavy burn of bourbon. It has a sweet finish, but not syrupy sweet, more like blooming honeysuckle. It is a mellow, subtle flavor with just the vaguest hints of maple. The best way we can think to describe it is “inoffensive” and “balanced”, even going so far as to call it a “generic, but high quality” whiskey.
Rye Whiskey finished with Yellow Birch Wood: At this point, I can sense the similarity with the other rye in the bunch. A darker kind of sugar, that reacts to cooking differently than the wheat. It is unmistakable in the aroma. the yellow birch has a sharpness behind it, more so than any of the other whiskeys. As we sipped, we all sat silently looking into our glasses, trying to figure out the best way to describe it. I then blurt out, “this would make an awesome Manhattan.” Everyone agreed enthusiastically. It has a twinge of bitters behind it, like a frontier whiskey. Wigle suggests flavors of “cherry and hay”, and much like a Manhattan, did have a cocktail-cherry-like sweetness to it above the dark and bitter undertone. What was strange was, for such a bold liquor, it finished quickly and clean. Very little aftertaste or sticky mouth feel. However, no one claimed to taste the hay at all.
It was a great morning with the missus and some fun friends. Wigle is a great example of the local businesses that are making it in Pittsburgh, and making Pittsburgh great while doing it. The entire staff at Wigle is warm, charming, and falling over themselves to teach an eager public all about their great products. They can get a little pricey; the bottles today were $26 for a 375ml bottle (half a fifth), but this was REALLY GOOD liquor and this was a specific, rare batch. Again, cocktails start at $5, and the average cost of a 750ml fifth is between $26-$34. Not to mention, all that money goes to Pittsburghers with a dream to build something here in Pittsburgh. Their booze is definitely “the good stuff”, and worth the extra costs in my opinion. It also makes an awesome, easy gift idea for the holidays. Yinz should really come down n’ be part of a growing Pittsburgh institution.