In 2012, my wife, Jennifer, created a birthday experience for me surrounding my new found obsession with whiskey (…or whisky for those of you Scotch and/or Canadian enthusiasts…) and based in our love of Pittsburgh and its burgeoning beers, bars, boozes, and bites.
We started at Industry Public House where I had an apple-wood-smoked bourbon over a Rubik’s-cube-sized, crystal-clear block of ice.
Back in the car she presented me with my own hand-held smoker with a variety of woods.
We then had a “Tonic tonic” at Tonic, which remains one of the best proprietary cocktails I’ve ever consumed. We’ve tried to recreate the unique mixer and the absolute perfection of balance between fizz, sweet, bitter, and sour…but to no avail. Fortunately, it’s always there at Tonic.
Next stop, a tour of Wigle Whiskey.
She handed me an article she’d printed and then explained that we were touring Pittsburgh’s first whiskey distillery since approximately Prohibition. By the time I finished the article we were pulling into a small parking lot adjacent to the distillery.
We entered a large tasting room, neat and clean and decked out in shiny blues, warm whites, dazzling chrome, and a stunning de facto art installation of a coral-blue fiberglass drop ceiling studded with hanging bottles.
We met Mary Ellen Meyer first, and we felt like we’d encountered a friend, a kind distant family member. (Notably, I had worked distantly with her in the past as we both had backgrounds in pediatric therapies….me communication and she occupational.) Every Meyer and Grelli we encountered in this family-business were positive, enthusiastic, warm, and obviously proud of the environment they’d both envisioned and established.
Eric Meyer gave the tour. We were blown away. The tour included wry humor, cheekiness, and full engagement while also building a historical thread between whiskey making in Western Pennsylvania and the politics surrounding the Revolutionary War and the subsequent decades. The weaving of Pennsylvania rye whiskey and its namesake rebellion was outstanding. The tour included an initial cocktail and a closing tasting. We talked about distillation and barrel aging. We learned about The Battle at Bauer Hill and the fact that our ancestral Yinzers were quite close to seceding and forming a new country, “Westylvania.” Stunning, I thought, in its lack of any creativity. Though, I’ve encountered “Steeler Nation” all across the U.S. and abroad and perhaps I shouldn’t be terribly stunned at the decisions and behaviors of those Scots, Irish, and German distillers who would eventually become the very Yinzers I encounter seemingly everywhere I go!
I came to Wigle with no expectations, and I left among their biggest fans.
As the barrel-aged whiskeys matured and release dates were set, I planned and executed cold mornings standing in lines of hundreds to get a few bottles of the first wheat and rye releases. These early releases sold out within hours, and I always made sure I got mine. Jennifer made cookies for me to bring and share with the crowd. On one occasion I was interviewed by a documentary film-maker. Another time I was the absolute first in line and was rewarded with my very first Wigle tasting glass. (These, by the way, are the absolute best vessel from which I’ve tasted spirits.)
The Winter and Spring of 2012-2013 were spent in this fashion, our love affair with Wigle growing as we got to know the spirits and the people even better.
One fateful afternoon in the early Summer of 2013, several weeks after Jen and I had toured Tröegs Brewery in Hershey and experienced a wonderful tour guide whose passion and skill prompted Jen to say, “Greg, you should do that for Wigle,” I found myself in a Pittsburgh coffee shop several tables from our Wigle tour guide, Eric. I popped over to say, “Hi,” we chatted for a few minutes, and I shared our positive experience at Tröegs. Before I could approach Jen’s suggestion, Eric interrupted, “You should come down and be a tour guide.”
Not being one to ignore the confluence of serendipity, coincidence, and karma, I began my training regiment just days after the Karmfluendipitous encounter with Eric.
I’ve been a tour guide at the Wigle distillery since.
The spirits at Wigle, both human and liquid, are exceptional and unimpeachable. One need only look to the media/press tab on the Wigle website (here) or reference this article lauding Wigle’s showing at American Craft Spirit Association Conference in Austin earlier this year, here. Six medals including a gold for the mind- and palate-blowing organic deep cut rye. Hell, just Google search “Wigle Whiskey” and read through the first page of links, including Yelp and Trip Advisor…both of which have their share of trolls. (Along with being awesome in every possible way, Wigle also appears to be relatively troll-proof. As well they should.)
My shelves are full of Wigle…the variations on the distilled honey spirit “Landlocked” (white, spiced, and oaked), rye-whiskey backboned Dutch style ginever (white and oaked), Pennsylvania Wapsie Valley corn Bourbon (the Kentucky corn enlightenment has spread and, in the case of Western Pennsylvania, returned to its rightful origins), whims (hopped, smoked, four grained, apple-infused, and beer-inspired mash-billed whiskeys), and of course the plethora of rye and wheat whiskeys.
All are, of course, well worth enjoying neat or with just enough filtered water to open the spirit and accommodate any palate.
However, the cocktail possibilities are as endless as your imagination, ability to learn the absolute basics of mixology (…and really that ain’t much…), and willingness to fail as much as necessary as an amateur mixologist in the pursuit of your own liquid perfection. (And believe me, you will fail…but less and less regularly as you go and ultimately rarely. The journey of a hundred mediocre sips begins with one grimace and is worth every sublime cocktail variation you invent.)*
*Note: Starting with the “Tasting Whiskey” podcast on June 19th, and moving forward over the upcoming two weeks with “Highball” and “Cocktail” mini-courses, you can easily start your journey of becoming a rockstar home bartender.
Wigle is a shining pearl, filled with exotic and intoxicating nectars, in the landscape of Pittsburgh art, craft, service, and sensory excellence.