Beyond the Border: Wigle Whiskey and spirited tales of rebellion

Observer Reporter Living Magazine | August 2016

As reported by Barbara Miller in the Observers Reporter Living Magazine  April 2016:

“Washington Countians have ample opportunities to be schooled in the history of the Whiskey Rebellion, generally regarded as the first insurrection to pose a serious threat to the fledgling United States government. In Washington, a life-sized bronze sculpture of a frontier trio, replete with jug and flintlock rifle, stands as a focal point on South Main Street, the scene of an annual summer festival where the reenactment of a tar-and-feathering never fails to delight crowds. The David Bradford House, with its period furnishings, also welcomes visitors who want to know more about an 18th-century lawyer who, legend has it, bolted from a second-story window of his home, escaping on horseback, then boat, to the French Louisiana Territory rather than be taken into custody by federal troops.

The hubbub in 1794 centered on the federal excise tax on rye whiskey, a lucrative commodity that Western Pennsylvanians transported across the Allegheny Mountains to cities on the East Coast. Rebels, including Bradford, so objected to the tax that they staged a revolt. The Washington attorney went so far as to “in violent terms advocate war and the formation of a separate government,” according to Boyd Crumrine’s ‘History of Washington County, Pennsylvania.’

The federal government prevailed, though the anti-tax actions of the whiskey rebels appeals to a broad segment of today’s population.

Integrating the long-ago events of the Whiskey Rebellion with a tour of a craft whiskey-distilling operation has become a mainstay of Wigle Whiskey, located in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The firm takes its name from one Philip Wigle, a German immigrant who was among the whiskey rebels. Wigle was sentenced to death by hanging in Philadelphia for treason, hence the presence of the letter “g” suspended from a noose in Wigle’s logo. George Washington spared Wigle’s life with a presidential pardon.

Philip likely would have introduced himself as ‘VY-gul,’ but at Wigle, those who work at the distillery pronounce the name ‘wiggle.’

It’s easy to learn about whiskey-making from a tour guide who has wooden barrels and shiny, industrial-sized stills as backdrops. Large graphics illustrate key points about the Whiskey Rebellion, and some interesting facts are part of the presentation:

• In Pennsylvania, craft distilleries must limit their production to 100,000 gallons per year.

• A barrel-maker is known as a ‘cooper,’ and coopers really have distillers over a barrel because of the requirement for single use. Regulations dictate that to be called American whiskey, the spirit must be aged in a new, charred oak, American first-use barrel.
‘ The barrel can then be used for other spirits, or to finish aging other whiskeys, or sold to breweries around town – home brewers, too – for use in aging beer,’ according to Jill Steiner, who handles media inquiries for Wigle. ‘Using a new barrel to age whiskey gives the spirit a robust oak flavor, one that American whiskey is very much known for.’

• Wigle focuses on buying local, and sugar cane, the basis of rum, doesn’t grow in northern climates. Pennsylvania buckwheat honey becomes Wigle’s ‘Landlocked,’ which Wigle’s website says ‘falls somewhere between a brandy and rum.’

When it comes to buying local, a name that drops during the tour of Wigle is that of Weatherbury Farm in Avella.

‘Working with local farmers and suppliers allows our whiskey to truly capture the flavors and character of Western Pennsylvania,’ says Wigle distiller David Harries. ‘The team at Weatherbury Farm has supplied a significant amount of wheat, rye and corn for our whiskeys. We worked with them to cultivate an heirloom variety of red open-pollinated corn that went into our first-ever batch of bourbon.’

Nigel Tudor, farmer and miller of Weatherbury Farm, says, ‘I didn’t foresee the growth of the distilling industry, but I find it amazing how it will be growing in the future. Christian Klay of Ridge Runner Distillery was out to the farm (in July) to pick up some grain. I asked him how much more he thought that the distillery market would grow. Christian pointed out that in Pennsylvania, there are around 250 wineries, but only 20 to 25 distilleries. He thinks that the number of distilleries will continue to double every couple of years for the foreseeable future.’

‘While I intend to always sell part of my grain harvest to distilleries, I am working on growing the market for the organic flours I mill here at the farm. Working with home and professional bakers is fun as they give you great feedback about our products and sometimes bring us bread and other baked goods to eat,’ Tudor says.

Just as Tudor likes interacting with bakers, Wigle seeks information from the imbibing public as part of its tour. ‘Every day, we look for feedback from the folks who come into our tasting room,’ Steiner says. ‘It’s the little conversations that spark some of the most significant overall changes in how we do things.’

Wigle also seeks to build customer loyalty by giving visitors many excuses to return.

Each Tuesday, Wigle invites the public to label bottles. ‘We provide snacks, cocktails and conversation in exchange for the help,’ Steiner says. Wigle also conducts focus groups on new products.

Tours of Wigle Whiskey in the Strip District and its barrelhouse and ‘whiskey garden’ at 1055 Spring Garden Ave., North Side, include tastings of its products, so it’s an activity for those aged 21 and over. The barrelhouse tour focuses on Pittsburgh rye and industrialization. Ticket prices are $20 to $25 per person.

Distillery hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Whiskey garden hours are 6-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3-9:30 p.m. Saturday and 2-7 p.m. Sunday.”