One of the stills where the in-house  spirits are produced.

    One of the stills where the in-house
    spirits are produced.

    A hot and rainy summer afternoon was the perfect time to take a distillery tour at Wigle Whiskey on Penn Avenue in the Strip District. Wigle Whiskey is the very first whiskey distillery in Pittsburgh since the days of Prohibition, having opened in 2012. I took the tour with 19 other folks, including a woman from Ireland and a bachelor party from Philadelphia.

    Before we started the one-hour tour of this grain-to-glass distillery, the bartender offered us a choice of four cocktails, ranging from sweet to bitter: a rum Old Fashioned, a rye Old Fashioned, a Bird in Hand, a Negroni and/or a Manhattan. Being born with an incessant sweet tooth, an obvious choice for me was the rum Old Fashioned, complete with an orange slice to balance the sweetness and provide a bit of tanginess. “It burned going down but it was sweet, fruity, and smooth,” said Lisa from McCandless, who also ordered the rum and was on the tour with her daughter, Zoe.

    Once we were sufficiently warmed up by the distilled-on-the-premises cocktail, our behind-the-scenes tour began. Our guide, Dave Hammer, explained that he was a retired speech/language pathologist who had worked at Children’s Hospital. After he and his wife took a bourbon tour in Kentucky, Hammer decided to pursue a post-retirement job with Wigle.

    Hammer’s storytelling, which weaved both science and history, pleased the lively crowd, as he brought the stories of the country’s Whiskey Rebellion to life, regaling us with tales of the infamous and brutal whiskey-tax protest in the late 1700s that led to mayhem, murder, and destruction over a three-year period, much of which occurred in western Pennsylvania. Everything at Wigle Whiskey is an homage to the Whiskey Rebellion, down to its name. Philip Wigle, who had attacked a tax collector, was indicted for high treason. The entire story could not be told in a one-hour tour, but Hammer provided some highlights.

    The Wigle Whiskey tour guide, Dave Hammer.

    The Wigle Whiskey tour guide, Dave Hammer.

    Hammer explained how in the late 1700s and early 1800s today’s Pittsburgh was known as The Forks area, comprising about 7,000 residents; he described The Forks as a rough and tumble place. “It was important to have currency—it was whiskey,” added Hammer. We also learned that there were an estimated 4,000 whiskey stills in The Forks, equivalent to a half barrel a year for every resident. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, was the one who proposed the tax; it was not well received by whiskey makers, to say the least, because the tax was based on an estimate of how large the stills were. Many smaller distilleries could not afford to keep their businesses running.

    In addition to the history lesson, the tour centered on the process of making whiskey—specifically, how to transform locally sourced grains into delicious spirits. Hammer showed the group the mill room, in which 1,500 pounds of grain are processed every 30 minutes, and he told us what happens next, along with how many employees it takes to manage this operation. He also introduced us to “Benjamin,” one of the tanks that was named after a western Pennsylvania tax collector, and also explained other components of the whiskey-making process. Hammer emphasized that Wigle’s relatively small size and its yearly production (148,000 bottles last year, all by hand) make it a true craft distillery.

    During the tour, Hammer handed out various samples of what was being distilled that week, including cinnamon whiskey and coffee liqueur.

    A tasting at the end of the tour with four samples to try: straight bourbon, straight rye, gin, and spiced rum.

    A tasting at the end of the tour with four samples to try: straight bourbon, straight rye, gin, and spiced rum.

    The tour ended with a sit-down tasting of four spirits: Pennsylvania Straight Bourbon; Pennsylvania Straight Rye (Wigle’s most award-winning product); Dutch Style Gin; and Landlocked Spice Rum. “Rye burns your cheeks; whiskey burns your chest,” quipped Hammer.

    People on my tour were there for different reasons. Matt, the groom from the bachelor party, was from Philadelphia; all but two of groomsmen on the tour were either from Philadelphia or Ohio, but as his in-laws are from Pittsburgh, the group was in town for the weekend. “I’ve always been a whiskey and bourbon fan, so I thought it was a cool thing to check out,” said Matt.

    Helena was celebrating her birthday weekend with her Delaware-based sister; her friend, visiting from Harrisburg, decided on a whim to take the tour when she realized she had run out of whiskey, which she needed to make whiskey sauce to use in a bread pudding recipe. “I was first introduced to Wigle Whiskey during a special event they held via Zoom. I was intrigued by the fact that it was a local distillery,” she said.

    “The appeal of this tour is the opportunity to see Pennsylvania history through a new lens while tasting some delicious whiskey,” says Elise Miranda, Wigle’s director of marketing. She added that while much of the Whiskey Rebellion took place in Washington County, “Wigle chose this location because the neighborhood’s industrious and innovative roots aligned with Wigle’s founders’ vision for the company.”

    Tour-goers were granted 15 percent off any product in the shop, valid for the day of the tour. Most everyone on the tour seemed to have made a purchase or two. “I’m always looking to buy local,” said Helena.

    In addition to a rotating selection of whiskey products offered at the cocktail bar or for purchase, Wigle Whiskey also offers a robust food menu, most items featuring a cleverly named product. For example, the Devil’s Eggvocate appetizer is made with coffee liqueur; the Don’t Forget to Eat Your Vegetables sandwich contains honey bourbon pepper jam; bourbon BBQ dipping sauce accompanies the Cheese Tax appetizer, comprised of Cajun- spiced cheese curds; and Have Your Cake and Drink It Too is a tres leches cake made with Landlocked Spiced Rum. A Sunday brunch menu offers some of the same items as the daily menu, along with a selection of breakfast specialties.

    To learn more about the Whiskey Rebellion, including Philip Wigle’s role and his ultimate fate, along with the whiskey-making process, sign up for a Saturday tour, which is limited to 20 people, but make sure to reserve one in advance. “The tours are so popular that we offer them five times every Saturday, as well as private tours for large groups. We see 75-plus guests come through our doors to enjoy the tour weekly!
    So, also accounting for private tours, annually about 4,000 guests come to visit the distillery,”
    says Miranda.

    For the past decade, Wigle Whiskey has been the most awarded craft distillery by the American Craft Association. The tour is well worth it for the history lesson and for those who enjoy whiskey.

    Hilary Daninhirsch is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh with her husband, two daughters, and two rescue dogs. She can be reached at