A new state law allows small distilleries to give samples to visitors and sell bottles of their spirits directly to the public.
That's big news for Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh, which opened to the public on Friday. The distillery 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 major test of George Washington's presidency.
The rebels objected to one of the first federal taxes — on distilled spirits. Revenue from the taxes was meant to provide the poor and weak national government with funds to pay off debts from the Revolutionary War.
"This guy, Philip Wigle, was almost hung here 200 years ago because he wanted to make a little whiskey," said Eric Meyer, one of an extended clan that's trying to bring back what was once a flourishing Pennsylvania tradition. Wigle is one of just five active distilleries in the state, according to federal data and Meyer.
"We were Kentucky before Kentucky," said Meyer, 31, who notes that the famed Jim Beam family was originally from Pennsylvania. After Washington raised an army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, part of the peacemaking process was Kentucky's offer of 60 acres of free land for any family willing to move west, and grow corn. Meyer said many small distillers took the offer, and started brewing with the new crop.
Washington eventually gave an official pardon to Wigle, who had been charged with treason.
Mary Ellen Meyer said the idea for a distillery came after the family visited a winery in Canada.
She recalled their adult children saying, "We could do something like this," but they didn't want to do wine. 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.
When they got home the children said, "White whiskey. That's what we've got to make,'" she recalls.
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, she said, of the architect-designed space that features modern fixtures and exposed steel beams, and a room with tables and chairs.
Eric Meyer said it takes about 450 kilograms (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," 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 colour 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, which is 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.
Rich Lancia was so enthusiastic about the new distillery that he volunteered to help put labels on bottles.
"Everyone talks about doing it. They're actually doing it. To take that first step, that's what it's all about," Lancia said.
Wigle also offers tours of the distillery and bookings for special events.
Wigle Whiskey: http://wiglewhiskey.com/