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North Hills Monthly

City Primed for Distillery Businesses to Grow

Jul 31, 2017 08:30PM ● By Shari Berg

Pittsburgh, along with the rest of western Pennsylvania, has a storied history in the distillery business. Part of that history includes Pittsburgh’s participation in the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, in which thousands of armed farmers in the region took up opposition against a new federal law that instituted an excise tax on distilled spirits.

Sparking the rebellion was Pittsburgher Phillip Wigle, who ended up in a tussle with a local tax collector over the excise tax, which encouraged others in the industry to take up arms and defend their right to distill. For his trouble, Wigle was sentenced to hang, but later was pardoned by President George Washington.

At one time, western Pennsylvania boasted about 4,000 documented stills. It was a bragging point that died off during Prohibition. But the distillery business is making a comeback in the region and includes the likes of Wigle Whiskey, Boyd and Blair, and Maggie’s Farm Rum.

Tim Russell, founder and head distiller at Maggie’s Farm Rum, said he first became interested in the business about 15 years ago through his home-brewing hobby. It remained a hobby until he decided to leave his job as a project manager with a government defense contractor. The name of his distillery—inspired by the Bob Dylan song Maggie’s Farm—reflects that career change. 

Craft distilling was still in its infancy when Russell launched Maggie’s Farm Rum in the Strip District in October 2013. He decided to focus on rum because at the time, no other Pennsylvania distillery was selling it, and it would be the first time since Prohibition that any distiller locally produced rum. “Most distilleries in the state focus on whiskey, but rum is our passion,” said Russell. “It’s an under-appreciated spirit and the most versatile of the spirits.”

What makes Russell’s rum award-worthy—in fact, it is one of the most award-winning distilleries in the U.S.–is its source. “Most rum is made from molasses, but our rums are distilled from turbinado, which is a raw sugar cane,” said Russell. The turbinado is pot-distilled to add body and flavor in 100 percent copper, Spanish-made stills using Caribbean-derived yeasts that allow for longer fermentation times. 

The distillery’s most popular rum is the Queen’s Share, which is made exclusively from the tail runnings of the normal cane rum distillations. This unique process, Russell explained, uses a “Queen’s Share” technique he learned from a Grand Caymans' master distiller. The end result is a more flavorful and complex rum. 

Russell said that he is always open to new product creation, and lets his own taste buds lead the way. “I consider myself a good rum consumer, so I like to make what I like, while keeping it traditional,” he explained.

Meredith Meyer Grelli, co-owner of Wigle Whiskey in the Strip District, said she loves to collaborate with other distillers and brewers in the area to create unique products. Two of their most recent items in the Brewer’s Series this summer is the Malty Baere, made in partnership with Draai Laag Brewery in Millvale, and the Wry Whiskey, a joint effort with the Grist House in Millvale. In the last three years, the distiller has created 35 unique spirits. “We have this sort of endless curiosity in wanting to test the bounds,” said Grelli. 

The family-owned distillery pays homage to the famous Phillip Wigle, and they like to have a lot of fun with that history in their day-to-day operations. Pieces of Wigle’s influence during the Whiskey Rebellion can be found throughout the building. 

Two other aspects that make Wigle Whiskey unique are its focus on creating a “taste of place” and its public programming, which aims to educate the local community about the distillery business. Wigle established a supply chain consisting of local farms, which provide the ingredients for each of their creations. Last year alone, the distiller sourced 328,000 pounds of local grain.  

“Our emphasis is on local ingredients that make a rye whiskey that’s unique to Pittsburgh,” said Grelli. “And our primary mission has always been to build the smartest spirits-drinking community that we can in Pittsburgh.”

Wigle’s excellence is recognized nationwide. It won more awards–16 total–than any other craft distillery in the U.S. at the 2017 American Craft Spirits Association awards. 

Barry Young, co-founder and head distiller at Boyd & Blair of Glenshaw, said that when he opened his business in 2008, it was only the second distillery to open in Pennsylvania since Prohibition. Because the laws in Pennsylvania were prohibitive in how distillers could sell and distribute their product at that time, he believes that it may have prevented others from launching here. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) eventually relaxed those laws, thanks in part to the lobbying of Young and others in the business who wanted to be able to sell their product directly to consumers, rather than just through the state liquor stores. 

“I never thought the laws would change so drastically in Pennsylvania for the better, but they have, and it’s been a positive change for distillers,” he explained. 

Boyd & Blair has won numerous gold medals, several 95 ratings and five-star ratings for its quality vodka, which Young attributes to their attention to detail and emphasis on quality over quantity. Boyd & Blair is not only a local brand, but is sold in 40 other states plus Singapore, Hong Kong, Alberta, Canada and France. 

The distiller only makes two brands of vodka, and just recently ventured over to producing rum with the introduction of its BLY Silver Rum. The new rum won’t be available at state liquor stores until 2018, but currently can be purchased online directly from Boyd & Blair. Like Wigle’s, Boyd & Blair also sources locally, and uses a single 1,200-liter copper still in production. The vodka is created from local potatoes because they produce a slightly sweeter vodka, said Young. 

Those in the industry believe that Pittsburgh is a great place to do business. 

“People who live in Pittsburgh are really adventurous,” said Grelli. “The makers here are really supportive of each other, which helps to make this a great place as well.” 

“We have a really great scene,” agreed Young. “The restaurants are using local products, including food and spirits, which puts us ahead of the game in the distilling business compared with other states.”