Pittsburgh’s craft distillers channel the city’s past while charging into the future
It will always be known as Steel City, but Pittsburgh’s original industry was alcohol. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Allegheny County distillers used local grains to keep the fledgling country awash with a delicious whiskey known as Monongahela rye. Today, a bold new crop of distillers is emerging, taking inspiration from Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage while forging an identity that complements its high-tech future.
Meredith Grelli, who launched Wigle Whiskey with her family in 2012, found inspiration in history books. “We read about Pittsburgh’s alcohol past and began to appreciate how central whiskey was to the economy, culture and history of the region,” she explains. “On (one) weekend family vacation, we all decided to quit our jobs and start a rye whiskey distillery where people could learn how spirits are made and taste what we produce.”
Grelli found that the biggest obstacle facing them wasn’t materials, labor or even competition. It was the law.
“We worked with a couple of other distilleries to change Pennsylvania state law so we could operate in much the same way as a craft brewery,” Grelli explains. “When we were able to successfully lobby for that legislation, we opened our distillery in the Strip District.”
Today, the company produces a flagship rye and bourbon along with several “idiosyncratic little expressions” it calls whims. Demand has been brisk, with Wigle now operating three tasting rooms and a barrelhouse/whiskey garden.
“We also have relationships with close to 100 bars in town that do quite a bit with our spirits,” Grelli adds. “Some are such fantastic storytellers that they can leverage it to talk about the Whiskey Rebellion and the history of Pittsburgh whiskey.”
Tim Russell, who founded Maggie’s Farm in 2013, found the key to spirit success in rum. Why rum? “Because nobody else was doing it,” he says. “We were actually the first rum distillery in Pennsylvania since Prohibition and possibly the first in western Pennsylvania ever.”
Maggie’s Farm produces eight different types of rum, all made with Turbinado sugar from Louisiana, which gives it a smooth, dry flavor with grassy notes. Its uniqueness among more widely available rums requires some consumer education.
“People didn’t appear to be introduced to rum properly,” he explains. “A lot of the marketing was coming from commercial rums, so with a craft rum that’s not really sweet and sugary, people had certain expectations that I had to talk them through.”
Maggie’s Farm has a tasting room and cocktail bar, and its spirits can be found at upscale Pittsburgh restaurants as Cure and Union Standard.
At Quantum Spirits, an ethos of “respect the past, drink to the future” is embodied in its approach to vodka and gin, according to Ryan Kanto. Kanto, with his wife, Sarah, opened the doors of their company on St. Patrick’s Day, 2018. Both spirits are made with traditional rye grain, but the self-described nerd at heart uses his engineering background to fine-tune the process and “push the boundaries” to a level rarely seen in craft spirits.
“We do things as a smaller distiller that you don’t see unless you go to a major industrial factory,” Kanto explains. “Each of our spirits has several dozen unique parameters to it, so we’re able to turn the knobs and see what the outcome is. It’s a fun approach.”
As with the others, Quantum hosts tours and has a tasting room, and its products can be found in upscale local spots like Bar Marco. “You name your spirit and they’ll whip up this incredible concoction,” Kanto says. “Jason Renner, the bartender, has done some amazing things with our gin.”