Video by Beth Hollerich
When Wigle Whiskey opens this week at Pittsburgh International Airport, it will be more than just a trendy food and beverage spot. The locally-based craft whiskey distillery’s fifth location will embody the airport’s “sense of place” in a way no other concession has.
While the name “Wigle” now adorns the distillery and the restaurant coming to Concourse A, its heritage dates back to landmark events in western Pennsylvanian and American history.
Now, if you’re scratching your head and can’t remember Philip Wigle as a signer of the Declaration of Independence or a member of the First Continental Congress, that’s OK. He was neither.
Wigle was a distiller in the wilderness known as Pittsburgh in the late 1700s. In fact, he was one of many distillers in the area at a time when Pittsburgh was the hub of American whiskey production. He was also a key player in the Whiskey Rebellion, a protest by the distillers that lasted from 1791-94.
The protest arose after a new tax became law in 1791 at the urging of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who saw the levy as a way to pay off debt incurred by federal and state governments during the American Revolution. It applied to all distilled spirits, but because whiskey was the most popular alcoholic beverage at the time, it became known as the “whiskey tax.”
It was the first tax ever levied on an American domestic product, and distillers believed it placed a higher burden on smaller producers of spirits than larger ones.
Farmers on the western frontier of the young country – i.e., Pittsburgh – were not happy with the tax, and when federal representatives showed up to collect, they were met with death threats, beaten up and occasionally even tarred and feathered.
Sensing the situation was getting out of hand, President George Washington sent a militia to quell the uprising after trying to negotiate peacefully. Although the 13,000 troops put down the rebellion with very little violence, it was the first time in the nation’s short history that the federal government intervened with force to impose a new law.
After the rebellion ended, two distillers – John Mitchell and our hero Philip Wigle – were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged. Washington, however, gave both men full pardons. The tax was repealed in 1802 during the Thomas Jefferson administration.
Now, 225 years after the end of the rebellion, the Wigle name is associated with the most-awarded craft whiskey distillery for four years running by the American Craft Spirits Association.
Meredith Meyer Grelli, co-owner of Wigle Whiskey, says that kind of quality is what can be expected when Wigle opens this week at the airport.
“It’s a full-service bar and restaurant,” Grelli said. “There will be tasting flights where passengers can taste whiskey made from scratch. There will be a full food menu built to complement spirits and cocktails.”
Just no rebellion, please.