Pittsburgh-based small-volume distillery Wigle Whiskey is expanding its operations into a third facility. The new venture, which will be called Threadbare, will delve into the world of mead and hard apple cider.
Jill Steiner, Director of Events and Public Relations at Wigle, said that the seven-figure investment was spawned out of research into Johnny Appleseed.
John Chapman, the man known as Johnny Appleseed, has a folkloric reputation in America. But he was a real man, who spread through the Midwest planting wild apple seeds. These wild orchards provided a staple that became invaluable as people moved into the frontier. But few people know that his base of operation was near Pittsburgh, according to Steiner.
The company researched Chapman while putting together a background story for the release of Walkabout – a flavored whiskey that gets its natural apple flavors from using Applewood staves in its maturation and Pennsylvania apple cider instead of water to bring the spirit to proof before bottling. (Tasting notes below.)
Chapman was a “really quirky character,” Steiner said. He was Wigle’s “inspiration to take it one step further and explore [cider as] a fermentable alcoholic beverage.”
So the Meyer-Grelli family – owners of Wigle Distillery – purchased a former industrial lot in the Spring Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s North Side. The new cider house will be constructed 0.25 miles from the current maturation facility, which can hold 700 barrels. In the past, the area was known for meat processing and a tannery once stood on the lot where the cider house will be built.
The investment was well thought out. Steiner said cider as a category is the fastest-growing in the market. It is being utilized as both an alternative to wine and beer, but is also carving out its own occasion with today’s drinker.
“It made sense,” Steiner said. Pittsburgh is “a great area for innovation and exploration… We believe our customers are ready to embrace the new product.”
Steiner said it was too early to get into the specifics of production. Decisions on yeasts, apple varieties and maturation techniques – as well as the final storage capacity for the on-site barrel house – have not yet been finalized. In fact, Wigle is currently crowdsourcing its research and development.
“Right now we’re experimenting across the board,” Steiner said. “We’re looking at playing with apple sourcing and varieties, also exploring different world styles – Spanish, French, German ciders.
“A new, emerging category is this new American Cider that is very craft and utilizes heirloom varieties. [We’re] thinking about using those techniques as well.”
All this talk of cider lead to the question of apple brandy. After all, most historical 18th & 19th century cider presses that Chapman would’ve come across would also have been the site of Applejack production come winter.
But Steiner and company beat me to the punch. They said they already had apple brandy – made in a Calvados style from local cider that was fermented in-house – laid to rest in their standing barrel house. She expects it should be available in the fourth quarter of 2016. Steiner said future brandy distillation would depend on cider supplies.
In addition to cider, Threadbare will also make mead. Steiner said that idea came to them while creating their Landlocked Honey Spirit – distilled from a fermented mash of honey, i.e. mead.
“[Wigle] started doing experiments in fermentation a couple of years ago and found all these potential flavors in the fermentation process” that didn’t necessarily make it into the finished spirit.
“Honey reflects the general region,” Steiner said. “It tastes of the sources. The taste of plants and the environment they’re living. By sourcing local honey, we can capture the essence of rationality and terroir of Western Pennsylvania.”
[Editor’s note: This article gave me a great opportunity to review two Wigle selections I had recently obtained. No segue necessary.]
Tasting Notes: Wigle’s Walkabout Whiskey with Natural Apple Flavors and Wigle’s Rounder’s Share Wheat Whiskey
Walkabout Whiskey with Natural Apple Flavors
Nose: White-dog. Spicy barrel wood. Hint of fruit.
Tongue: Acidic. Caramel. Baking spices. Cinnamon. Cider.
I am breaking my rule against doing tasting notes for flavored whiskey. This one is just too apropos. This spirit is great as a chilled shooter, or in a tall cockatil using Vernor’s Ginger Soda.
Rounder’s Share Wheat Whiskey
Eye: Amber/Caramel. Cloudy.
Nose: Oak. Pecan. Vanilla.
Tongue: Barley. Coffee. Not very complex.
Finish: Almonds. Brief.
This whiskey is aged 9 months. It undergoes a second maturation in used barleywine barrels from East End Brewing in Pittsburgh. It is non-chill filtered, which leaves it very cloudy.
The wheat mashbill makes for what would be a simple glass, if it weren’t for the barelywine notes. Most of the flavor comes from the beer – not the grains or the wood. The flavor is not overwhelming, just very dominant. A unique flavor profile.