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Prohibition no more: Wigle Whiskey set to open in Strip District

By Zach Brendza
On February 8, 2012

  • Duquesne senior wide receiver Dave Williams (center) tries to evade a swarm of Monmouth defenders Saturday afternoon. Monmouth intercepted six passes from Duquesne quarterbacks and returned two of them for touchdowns en route to a 44-17 win over the Dukes. Tony Pimpinella
  • Wigle's tasting room is the first room you encounter upon entering the distillery. All tours held at the facility end with a tasting of their whiskey. Jenna O'Brien/Photo Editor
  • Wigle Whiskey, run by the Meyer family, produce thier own whiskey on site. They make white rye whiskey and a white wheat whiskey. Jenna O'Brien/Photo Editor

Eric Meyer became interested in the eloquent drink of whiskey around the same time he was a management assistant for the city government of Tacoma, Wa.

One of his main responsibilities in that job was to field citizen complaints, many of which were the typical "fill this pothole" and "stop this dog from barking" problems. As a result, Meyer became quite acquainted with a certain stress reliever: whiskey. Here begins the story of Wigle Whiskey.

The new distillery, located at 2401 Smallman St. in the Strip District, is slated to open in late February or early March. According to Meyer, it is the first distillery within city limits since Prohibition. It is currently open only for tours, which are currently sold out through March.

For Mark Meyer, 60, of Squirrel Hill, father of Eric and master distiller at Wigle, the distillery brings together many of his goals.

"I wanted to do something with my retirement other than nothing, and I wanted to do something with [my] family that would help to add to Pittsburgh's rich cultural mileu," Mark Meyer said. "We thought that bringing whiskey back to Pittsburgh is a fun, interesting and worthwhile thing to do."

Along with the combination of his retirement from practicing law and his son Eric's desire to move back home to Pittsburgh, Wigel Whiskey was born.

During Memorial Day weekend of 2010, Eric, who was still living in Tacoma at the time, took a series of trains and buses home, visiting 20 distilleries along the way to get caught up to speed. By July, the family was going "full force" and had a location picked out by August.

The distillery is named after Philip Wigle, a German immigrant, who lived in what is now Fayette County, who was sentenced to death during Whiskey Rebellion in Dec. 1794 and later pardoned by George Washington.

In Wigle's time, Western Pennsylvania was the whiskey capital of the world.

"We were the Kentucky before Kentucky," Eric Meyer said.

"If you look at whiskey now, everything about it screams exclusive, lonely, old man. But in Wigel's day, it was the drink of the people," he said. "Whiskey was the drink people gathered around. They had it at meals, weddings, funerals."

The distillery will produce two types of whiskey: a white rye, which, if compared to beer, resembles an IPA, and white wheat, which resembles a wheat beer. People who drink beer more often prefer white wheat, Eric said.

"Whiskey is just distilled beer. [It's] the older more sophisticated brother of beer," Eric said.

Currently, Wigle is only open on weekends for their two types of tours, the Distillation tour and Whiskey Rebellion tour. Both tours end with a whiskey tasting.

"Half of what we make will be kettled and made white whiskey. The other half will be aged in barrels for a couple years and turned into dark whiskey," Eric Meyer said.

The distillery has enough equipment and space in their 5,000 square foot building to produce 250 bottles of whiskey a week in their Smallman Street facility, according to Eric Meyer.

The Meyers said most modern drinkers are interested in dark whiskey. To answer these needs, Wigle sells small one and two liter barrels of white whiskey, which age faster because of their size and reach a "sweet spot" of dark flavor around three months, turning white whiskey into dark whiskey. Wigle will also sell 700 milliliter containers, or fifths of whiskey.

The distillery will host cocktails classes taught by bartenders from the Pittsburgh chapter of the national Bartender's Guild, the first of which are scheduled for Valentine's Day, and is already sold out. The second is scheduled for St. Patrick's Day. Wigle will allow their space to be rented out for private events.

Wigle is trying to restore whiskey as a drink people drink, and not take shots of and chug, Eric said.

"We're putting a lot of care, time and effort into process, resulting in a product that is a complex taste," he said.

The Meyers' understand preconceived notions of whiskey, but they believe drinkers' tastes can be refined.

"A lot of people have had the experience of drinking too much, too fast," Eric said. "Well-made whiskey should be drank slowly and more carefully, and [those who drink it] will have a much more positive opinion of it."

Mark Meyer stressed the importance of the quality of the distillery's product itself, especially at this juncture.

"Right now, the focus is on quality, but we will look into efficiency issues," he said.

There are three other distilleries in Pennsylvania, and less than five distilleries in the U.S. located in urban environments that do the whole process from scratch like Wigle, Eric said. Most distilleries are found in rural areas or suburban parks.

Wigle hopes to set itself apart from other distilleries in other ways than its unique location.

Anne Chen, principal at Edge Studio, an architecture and interior design firm in the Strip District, has been working to bring the Meyer's vision to a reality since 2010.

"They had a very clear vision for the kind of image [they wanted]," Chen said. "What he [Eric] told us what they wanted was a contrast between a smoking room and raw production space."

The building, which was once a bottling facility for Otto Milk, went through a tremendous amount of cleanup, and kept an "interesting continuum occupying this space that has this bottling lineage to it," Chen said.

The design is "going to resonate with a young audience" and even with "those not familiar with whiskey," Chen said, calling Wigle a clean, bright, modern facility that is both "gorgeous" and "precise."

With the element of transparency to the building's design, the Meyers took away the veil of production in distilleries.

"A lot of production space [in distilleries] is behind-the-scenes. They were very interested in de-mystifying production, [and] have people understand how whiskey is made," Chen said

The earliest opening date for Wigle is Feb. 22, but a more realistic date would be the beginning of March, Eric Meyer said. Once open, Wigel's tentative hours of operation are 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

"I expect we will be seeing a lot more Wigle drinks in the future," Chen concluded.


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