By S.D. Peters
PHILADELPHIA, PA. 1795: Local farmer and distiller Philip Vigol (later Wigle) was sentenced to hang for treason. His crime: attacking a tax collector and burning his house. If, like Wigle, you were a whiskey-distilling farmer in Western Pennsylvania, it was no crime, but an act of defiance, the last resort of Pennsylvania’s rye distillers after petitions to prevent the passage of the Washington administration’s Whiskey Tax. Wigle was one of only two men convicted of high treason in connection with what was, at the time of his sentencing, already known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
Wigle was later pardoned by President Washington. Though he considered Wigle to be insane, Washington also recognized that Wigle had not been a willful instigator of the insurrection, but, like the 17 other defendants convicted of crimes arising from the Whiskey Rebellion, merely a participant after the fact.
Nevertheless, the convictions convinced many Pennsylvania distillers to flee to the Kentucky Territory, where they remained safe from a similar fate. They took with them the experience of distilling Monongahela, or Pennsylvania Rye whiskey, and adapted to the use of corn instead. The manufacture of Pennsylvania’s signature whiskey was left to a handful of distillers who remained, and later to those, like Abraham Overholt, who picked up and carried on the tradition for a time.
For decades, Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey and Rittenhouse Rye (both are made in Kentucky) were the only Ryes made in the Monongahela style… until now. Wigle Whiskey, which opened in March 2012 and is named for the convicted whiskey rebel, has revived the unaged Monongahela Rye tradition of Wigle and his fellow distillers, and returned it to the Commonwealth of its origin.
Located in downtown Pittsburgh’s Strip District, this new and welcome addition to the growing number of craft distillers produces Wheat and Rye whiskeys. Like other new distillers, Wigle Whiskey has relied on unaged spirits while awaiting the release of its first small cask-aged batches (which arrived in December 2012), and adapted to the necessity by making up in craft what the spirits lacked in age. Its White Rye is a perfect example of how necessity can turn simplicity into sublime.
Wigle White Rye Whiskey is made with locally-grown organic rye and wheat, and distilled, following the Pennsylvania Rye tradition, in a copper pot still. The White Rye comes in a clear, squat, jug-like bottle with paper labels and a wax-sealed artificial cork stopper. Despite those latter concessions to modern marketing, it’s easy to imagine you’ve stepped back in time to Western Pennsylvania, and just received this whiskey from your local farmer/distiller.
The grain is milled and distilled on-site in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, and bottled at a comfortable 80 Proof (40% ABV) after a day’s aging in oak. Like other white whiskeys, Wigle White Rye looks crisp and clean in the bottle and glass, and the essence of spring water lingers around each stage of the tasting process. An autumnal aroma, redolent of stone ground rye and new leather, precedes a distant scent of a spring hothouse. Summer edges in on an unmistakable new car smell; a dream of hitting the road isn’t far behind. This is a White Rye that begins with tradition, moves beyond it, and sets off to spread the word.
And the word is complex: spicy, cool, and sweet swirl together, piqued by a note of anis. A pleasantly long finish travels through citrus and spice to a refreshing fennel.
This is Philip Wigle’s Monongahela Rye reclaiming it’s rebellious roots. An unassuming, unaged Rye that surpasses the expectations of white whiskey, it sets Wigle Whiskey apart from the ongoing white whiskey trend. It should be ensured a successful and lasting future.
You can get Wigle Rye on the premises of the Wigle Whiskey Distillery, at 2401 Smallman St., Pittsburgh, PA, 15222. It’s also readily available in the greater Pittsburgh area, and at selected retailers in… Oregon! It should go for about $32.
Wigle White Rye Whiskey received the Bronze Award in the 2012 Washington Cup National Spirits Competition.