Phillip Wigle is not a household name, but he was one of two rebels convicted of treason following the unsuccessful, anti-taxation Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794). President George Washington is the hero of that episode in American history: He put down the rebellion largely without bloodshed — and he pardoned Wigle, who had been sentenced to hang.
Wigle might have a second shot at notoriety as the namesake of Wigle Whiskey, a relatively new Pennsylvania producer of spirits, predominantly rye whiskies like those produced in colonial times.
"Rye is a sturdy grain that can grow in terrible soils," says Wigle co-founder Meredith Grelli. "It produces spicy, rich, robust whiskey, which has a wonderful backbone for cocktails."
Under a Pennsylvania law they pushed for, Alex and Meredith Grelli opened Pittsburgh's first new distillery since Prohibition. The law allows them to offer samples and sell drinks and bottled liquor on the premises. While flagship products like its Organic Pennsylvania Deep Cut Rye are offered in eight states, they sell a significant amount of booze directly to visitors, including experimental small batch spirits such as beer-influenced hopped whiskies and a mocha porter whiskey, and gin aged in barleywine barrels.
"We have a totally unwieldy and inefficient portfolio," Meredith says. But Wigle is exploring all sorts of local terroir flavors in its experiments.
Bourbon dominates the American whiskey category, but ryes have come back into fashion, and they're featured in several tasting rooms and seminars at Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits and mixology-focused conference and festival in New Orleans July 13-19. Meredith discusses rye whiskey at the seminar "Monongahela Rye: America's Original Whiskey" (3 p.m-4:30 p.m. Thursday, Hotel Monteleone). An array of ryes are presented in tasting events, including Heaven Hill's traditional Maryland-style Pikesville Rye and tastings of various aged Redemption Ryes.
While all sorts of spirits are sampled and discussed at seminars (See "Social Science," p. 5) and tasting rooms at Tales, dining events and tasting parties are expanded this year.
"Spirited Dinners" have long been a Thursday night component of Tales. Like wine dinners, they feature multi-course meals with cocktail pairings at local restaurants. Drinks are curated by renowned craft cocktail bartenders, spirits writers, liquor company brand ambassadors and others. While in the early years of Tales, the dinners typically involved fine-dining restaurants, the concept has spread across the gamut of local eateries to include barbecue and more. One dinner this year features Creole soul food from Willie Mae's Scotch House with upscale takes on cocktails with Southern roots.
Tales' Restaurant Week series is a Spirited Dinner spinoff that features special multi-course menus and a cocktail, and the menus are available to diners all week, without Tales registration or ticketing.
Locals also can sample drinks made by some of the visiting bartenders at a series called "Dynamic Duos." Visiting and local mixologists work the bar together during designated happy hours Tuesday through Sunday. Esquire drinks writer and Tales regular David Wondrich joins New Orleans' Paul Gustings at the Empire Bar at Broussard's from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday. Admission is free, cocktails are not.
There is a full schedule of events, participating bars and restaurants and guest bartenders on the Tales website.