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With a crystal glass, a beaker of red-gold whiskey and a fragrant spiral of orange, served on an elegant silver salver at the Omni William Penn Hotel, I propose a toast to the soft-spoken godmother of Pittsburgh’s boozy history. While supporting her nine children with a popular – albeit highly illegal – bar in 1888, widow Kate Hester actually coined the term “speakeasy,” hushing the customers to keep the cops from the door. So this afternoon, I’m day-drinking in her honor. An upscale Old Fashioned, made to my exact written order, seems appropriate.

At the confluence of three famous rivers – the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela – Pittsburgh is a city that has never gone thirsty. But the city clearly prefers whiskey to water. Its current craft cocktail boom inspired its own sold-out weekend talkfest last August, Three Day Blow. Critics from around the country flocked to debate and report on local ryes, grappa, cider, vodka and beers at the Hemingway-inspired festival.

The current national buzz about the local spirits scene builds on a tradition that dates back to – anyone? – America’s Whiskey Rebellion. Since the 1790s, western Pennsylvania’s whiskey business has gone underground twice. One downtown joint where it has resurfaced is the Wigle Tasting Room, a new tasting emporium that opened at the end of April at the century-old Pittsburgh property in the Omni collection of hotels.

Wigle, an upstart distillery, is a natural addition to the Omni William Penn Hotel, a grand dowager that has been on the cutting edge of hospitality innovation for more than a century. When it opened in 1916, it launched with a long list of lavish, high-tech firsts – like telegraph service, en suite bathrooms, the first commercial radio broadcast, even bandleader Lawrence Welk’s bubble machine – that made it downtown’s undisputed tastemaker.

At the sleek, marble-topped tasting-room bar, I find a fellow Kate Hester fan. Meredith Meyer Grelli, the 32-year-old cofounder of Wigle Whiskey and an organizer of Three Day Blow, comes to the craft liquor business with degrees in business and urban history. She tells me that her 21st century distillery, the first in Pittsburgh since Prohibition, is just a dram of the region’s first mega-industry.

“By 1808, Allegheny County was producing half a barrel of whiskey for every man, woman and child living in America. There were 4,000 documented stills” locally, she tells me. Wigle (pronounced “wiggle”) makes its organic Monongahela rye in copper pots, same as the farmers who made Pennsylvania the country’s first whiskey capital. It’s named for Phillip Wigle, a rebellious farmer who tangled with tax collectors. Convicted of treason, he was pardoned by George Washington.

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While supporting her nine children with a popular – albeit highly illegal – bar in 1888, widow Kate Hester actually coined the term “speakeasy,” hushing the customers to keep the cops from the door.

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Earthy and spicy, the Monongahela rye is Wigle’s flagship, an essential element in its offerings at the bright and contemporary Omni William Penn Hotel – and across town. “Rye is peppery and assertive,” says local spirits and dining critic Hal B. Klein. “It adds that extra, bracing bitterness to classic cocktails like the Manhattan.” By 2013, the whole city was celebrating Pittsburgh Cocktail Week, and Bon Appétit magazine hailed its inventive mixology scene the following year when it called Pittsburgh “The Next Big Food Town.”

Grelli’s distillers are fueling the trend with softer wheat whiskies, bourbon, ginevers, apple brandy, organic bitters and other experiments, labeled “whims” on the tasting-room menu. An elaborate glass fountain on the bar fuels an absinthe drip, trickling drops of chilled water to dissolve sugar into a Swiss-style louche. The cloudy result, with notes of mint and fennel, packs a sneaky, Euro-style punch.

Sneaky was the rule for Pennsylvania distillers and saloons from the 19th well into the 20th century. As the cost of liquor licenses skyrocketed, cheap speakeasies like Hester’s were the norm; by 1890, there were at least 700 around town. But as the city grew, even millionaires were stashing their booze.

One of those millionaires – perhaps the toughest, inciting steelworker strikes and even an assassination attempt – was Henry Clay Frick. His grandfather’s local still produced Old Overholt, a classic rye. When Frick laid plans in 1913 for the grandest hotel between New York and Chicago, the 1,000-room William Penn, he worried that if advocates of Prohibition were successful, the ban might curtail his offerings. He shrewdly stockpiled a massive mini-bar. After the 18th Amendment passed in 1920, the hotel opened the least-secret bar in the city, and Frick pal and business partner Andrew Mellon inherited Overholt. Garnishing its offerings with a fig leaf of “medicinal purposes,” his distillery flourished, despite the fact that Mellon was also U.S. Treasury Secretary at the time.

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Wigle Whiskey
House Cocktails

Click on a cocktail to see the recipeTAP TO SEE THE RECIPE

drink 1
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Old Fashioned

drink 2
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Mellon’s Maple Elixir

drink 3
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Hester’s Sazerac

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Old Fashioned

drink 1

INGREDIENTS

2 ounces Wigle Small Cask Rye

1/2 ounce turbinado simple syrup* 

3 Dashes aromatic bitters

3 Dashes pomander orange bitters

DIRECTION

Combine; stir; serve over large ice cube; garnish with orange twist and luxardo cherry.

*Turbinado simple syrup

sugar

INGREDIENTS

1 cup turbinado sugar

1 cup boiling water

DIRECTION

Combine; stir; dissolve

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Mellon's Maple Elixir

drink 2

INGREDIENTS

2 ounces Wigle Barrel Rested Ginever

1/2 ounce maple sage and thyme simple syrup*

6 dashes rosemary lavender bitters

DIRECTION

Combine; stir; serve over large ice cube; garnish with lemon twist and fresh herb.

*Maple sage and thyme simple syrup

sugar

INGREDIENTS

1 cup boiling water

5 sage leaves

5 thyme sprigs

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup white sugar

DIRECTION

Steep sage and thyme in boiling water; add sugar after 10 minutes; stir; dissolve; strain.

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Hester's Sazerac

drink 3

INGREDIENTS

2 ounce Wigle Small Cask Rye

1/4 ounce absinthe

1/2 ounce sarsaparilla simple syrup*

3 dashes rosemary lavender bitters

3 dashes pomander orange bitters

DIRECTION

Combine; stir; serve over large ice cube; garnish with lemon twist.

*Sarsaparilla simple syrup

sugar

INGREDIENTS

1 cup boiling water

1 teaspoon sarsaparilla bark

1 cup turbinado sugar

DIRECTION

Steep sarsaparilla in boiling water; add sugar after 10 minutes; stir; dissolve; strain.

Grelli’s distillers are fueling the trend with softer wheat whiskies, bourbon, ginevers, apple brandy, organic bitters and other experiments, labeled “whims” on the tasting-room menu.

After my conversation with Grelli, I find a windowless snug. It’s delightfully dark, with spotlights pooling on wine-colored lounges and antique whiskey bottles. I find, or rather feel, my way to a bar stool. This is the Omni William Penn Hotel's restored speakeasy, with a nice conspiratorial vibe and some recipes on the wall. I look closer: They’re actually handwritten prescriptions. One’s dated 1926, when a local doctor ordered “a pint of whiskey” for symptoms of insomnia. Bartender Dawn Young clues me in to a narrow door that led to a side street, once a quick getaway for the city’s elite in case of a police raid.

Young’s drink menu is old-school: the only place in town with a real sidecar on offer. She’s stocked the bar with rarities to infuse her creations. When she offers to make me a Summer Punch, her riff on a Singapore Sling, I can’t resist. She marinates fresh pineapple in Monkey 47 gin from Germany, adding lemon and lime juice. She snaps a manicured fingernail against an orange twist, “to wake up the essential oils,” she explains. Then she tops the rosy result with a skewer of blueberries. I take a sip: It’s a long weekend in a glass.

Dawn takes a professional interest in Pittsburgh’s new crop of cocktail bars and recommends a few favorites. “Try Butcher and the Rye,” she suggests. “They have a terrific selection, right down Sixth Avenue. And Kelly’s” – a mid-century favorite in the East Liberty neighborhood – “it’s a dive, and it’s classic. And Acacia on the South Side – look for the unmarked door.”

Armed with my drinking assignments, I pause at twilight in the hotel lobby. Its Gatsby-esque Palm Court, a quarter-acre of crystal and mirrors, is still the city’s see-and-be-seen crossroads. Afternoon tea service in the Terrace Room is segueing into cocktails and music. It’s elegant and hushed.

Kate Hester would approve.

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