team then analyzed each of the resulting spirits twice, once as raw distillate and once after two years in barrels. “And we did find that there were some pretty interesting differences with essentially the same whiskey, made by the same distillers on the same stills, [aged] in the same barrels and stored in the same place,” Greill reveals. “The largest variable was where the rye came from.” Isobutanol, the compound that delivers distinctly fruity elements and flavors that people generally associate with rye bread, was particularly assertive in the Pittsburgh batch. In the batch made with Canadian rye Wigle sourced from the same farm that grows Whistlepig’s grain, the presence of isoamyl acetate— known to impart some banana-like elements—was much more pronounced. “Historically, Pittsburgh rye has been described as spicy and robust, so maybe there is something to the notion that there’s something in the grain that’s making it like this—where it comes from, the soil it lives in,” Grelli says. In other words, terroir comes in to play for rye, much as it does for grapes in wine. But that’s just one of the contributing factors. The method of distillation also plays a role in the whiskey’s ultimate character. “As we studied [Monongahela Rye], we understood the distillation to be fairly aggressive,” Grelli offers. “When we had the still built, we separated the column from the still so we could do a true alembic. The distillate never touches the column and that is to preserve as much of the spicy, earthy quality from the grains as we can.” She says the distillation technique is a bit “more conservative” for Wigle’s non-rye whiskeys, such as its Straight Allegheny Wheat and Pennsylvania Wheat. Wigle’s portfolio includes several ryes, including its most assertive rye expression, Deep Cut. Co-founder Alex Grelli, Meredith’s husband, says that the distillery targets a mash bill of 70 percent rye, 16 percent wheat and 14 percent malted barley for Deep Cut, as well as a lower overall distillation proof. The distillation retains a more significant quantity of tails to help enhance the whiskey’s robust flavor and full body. Sometimes, the higher concentration of alcohols comes from mixing back in heads and tails from previous batches. “To make this determination and selection, we’ll taste through a variety of different lots and barrels to identify which barrel we believe fits this quality in addition to the overall distillation proof,” Alex Grelli explains. Deep Cut batches are all singlebarrel releases, so the flavor profile might vary slightly from batch to batch. Overall rye whiskey volume in the U.S. is considerably smaller than that of bourbon. But as distillers like Wigle continue to rediscover their local roots, Pennsylvania may soon rival Kentucky as a destination for whiskey pilgrims.
Jeff Cioletti is the editor at large of Beverage World Magazine, creator of The Drinkable Globe website, and hosts the web series, The Drinkable Week. WWW.ARTISANSPIRITMAG.COM