THAT WESTERN (Pennsylvania) SPIRIT WRITTEN BY JEFF CIOLETTI
Mongohela Rye has re-entered the whiskey lexicon. But what exactly makes it tick?
s whiskey drinkers get better acquainted with rye—its growth continues to surge in the double digits—they’re ready to take their appreciation to the next level. Consumers have recognized that not all ryes are created equal and are eager to explore stylistic nuances within the category, particularly those that are regional in origin. That’s good news for some distillers in Western Pennsylvania that have been reviving Monongahela Rye, the style that came to define their region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The rye whiskeys produced in Western Pennsylvania at the time were considerably more robust in character than those produced in other major rye-distilling states like Virginia and Maryland, with a pronounced rye grain aroma, fuller mouthfeel and striking peppery spice elements. “Monongahela Rye was born out of necessity,” says Meredith Grelli, co-founder of Pittsburgh-based Wigle Whiskey, a distillery on the forefront of the Monongahela revival. “The Monongahela Valley and River in the 1790s was the frontier. It was the edge of the country as people moved westward and settled in Pittsburgh.” Those early residents farmed rye, brought by German immigrants because of its resilience in colder temperatures. The distillate they made from the grain became their currency. “Bringing whiskey across the Allegheny Mountains was certainly easier than bringing 1,300 pounds of raw grain,” Grelli points out. “Rye whiskey became their livelihood and very much a part of the regional identity and everyday lives here. At its height, one in 10 people were producing whiskey.”
Wigle actually took its name from one of those people, late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania distiller Phillip Wigle. Wigle famously was sentenced to hang, but was later pardoned by President George Washington, for his role in the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s. Eventually the Monongahela style all but vanished as Western Pennsylvania moved on economically. While Kentucky maintained its distilling tradition, the greater Pittsburgh area had shifted toward coke and steel production. In fact, distilling, in a sense, laid the groundwork for those industries, as its how the robber barons learned about manufacturing and infrastructure. One of the most famous names in rye distilling has direct ties to the coke industry. Henry Clay Frick, grandson of distilling icon Abraham Overholt— namesake of the brand now known as Old Overholt—leveraged his own interest in the family whiskey-making business to invest in coke in the late nineteenth century. By the time he died (somewhat coincidentally in December 1919, the eve of Prohibition), he had become one of the wealthiest individuals in American history. Prohibition took an obvious toll on the style, although bootleggers tried to doctor lesser alcohols to approximate its famous flavor, and it pretty much vanished entirely a few decades after Repeal. For Wigle, reviving Monongahela rye has meant figuring out what exactly makes the style tick. A few years ago, the distillery initiated a research project to help do just that. Wigle procured rye from five different farms from across North America and made a batch of whiskey for each different grain source, reducing or eliminating as many operational variables from batch to batch. The Wigle WWW.ARTISANSPIRITMAG.COM
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