Western Pa. distillery banking on a new law

It will sell unaged white whiskey directly to the public. Other versions are planned.

Posted: March 12, 2012

PITTSBURGH - A new state law allows small whiskey distilleries to give samples to visitors and sell bottles directly to the public, and that's big news for Wigle Whiskey.

The distillery, which opened Friday, is named after Philip Wigle, who burned down the home of a federal tax collector in the 1790s and helped lead the Whiskey Rebellion, a test of George Washington's presidency.

The rebels objected to one of the first federal taxes - on distilled spirits.

"We were Kentucky before Kentucky," said Eric Meyer, one of an extended clan that's trying to bring back a once-flourishing Pennsylvania tradition. Wigle is one of five active distilleries in the state.

Mary Ellen Meyer said the idea for a distillery came after the family visited a winery in Canada.

On the long drive home, the family researched possibilities on their mobile devices and learned that white whiskey can be bottled and sold immediately after distilling. Brown, or aged whiskey, sometimes sits in barrels for years before bottling.

The family spent months looking for a suitable space and finally found one in Pittsburgh's Strip District, known for its food markets.

"We wanted something very light and open and friendly" for the public, Mary Ellen Meyer said of the space that features modern fixtures, exposed steel beams, and a room with tables and chairs.

Eric Meyer said it takes about 1,000 pounds of grain to produce 250 bottles of whiskey. The unaged white whiskey is "the way Wigle would have drunk his whiskey back in the 1790s. You taste the rye, which has a spicier taste."

The organic grain is milled into a fine powder, mixed with water, and stirred to get an oatmeal-like substance.

"Whiskey is just distilled beer. A lot of people don't realize that," Eric Meyer said.

The company also is making a wheat whiskey, which is smoother and creamier, and a whiskey that will be aged in oak barrels. Meyer said the familiar brown whiskey color actually comes from the wood, not the brewing process. "Really what you're tasting is the wood," he said.

So far the family is encouraged by the buzz around their distillery, the first to operate in Pittsburgh since Prohibition. They also hope to open a small museum featuring the Whiskey Rebellion, which was considered an event of national significance at the time.

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