Tour Pittsburgh’s Smallman Street Distilleries
Posted on March 20, 2022
Wigle Whiskey, a 10-year-old distillery in Pittsburgh, is making Western Pennsylvania’s historic Whiskey Rebellion even more legendary. The 1794 rebellion was a local uprising of farmers and distillers protesting taxation without representation (sound familiar?) of their whiskey. The region had plenty of bootleggers who actively resisted this first luxury tax, including Philip Wigle. You’ll have to visit the distillery to hear an animated version of this namesake’s contribution to history.
While the 18th-century rebellion stopped some distillers, Prohibition stopped the rest. It wasn’t until 2011 that the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill establishing a new distillery license that permits craft distilleries to sell their own products onsite. Viola, the rise of craft distilleries.
Wigle was one of the first, starting operations in 2011 and opening to the public in 2012. Main operations are on Smallman Street in the culinary Strip District on the east of the city. Since then, two new distilleries have been located on the street – Kingfly Spirits and Maggie’s Farm Rum.
The three distilleries are completely different and worth the short drive from Northeast Ohio. That’s why my sister Jamie and I packed up our overnight bags and visited in frigid January. I highly recommend waiting for warmer weather.
We left Chardon at 7 a.m., and after two pitstops, arrived in the Strip District by 10:30 a.m. We have principles, so we couldn’t start drinking before lunch. But we could shop an array of specialty food stores on Penn Ave.
We warmed our credit cards at Enrico’s Biscotti Café – a bag of perfect cookies for mom and a box of discounted broken pieces for our second breakfast. A few blocks away I introduced Jamie to Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, a 120-year-old Italian grocery store that carries everything from anise oil for pizzelles to cuttlefish ink for pasta. We stocked up then trudged through the snow to deposit our heavy bags in the car.
The next stop – Mon Aimee Chocolat — took 30 minutes of careful consideration. The store carries single-varietal, single-origin chocolate from around the world as well as bulk dark, milk and white chocolate from Callebaut. They have chocolate bars with familiar and exotic ingredients including rose petals, cardamom, pink peppercorns and green tea.
At noon we dropped our bags at the seven-story AC Hotel Pittsburgh Downtown. The lobby is on the top floor and parking is across the street in a public lot for $5 per day. That’s a deal for a metropolitan hotel.
We were on a mission, so we kept lunch simple, a mushroom pie from Enrico’s. If you like mushrooms, this is the holy grail. It’s a true pie crust base with dense mushroom duxelles and cheesy filling.
Finally, we were ready for our raison d’être in Pittsburgh – distillery hopping along Smallman Street. About one mile from our hotel, it was too far to walk in winter’s single-digit temperatures.
Kingfly Spirits is a three-year-old craft distillery, tasting bar, and event venue. The 1906 building, like many in the district, has a utilitarian history. It started as a carriage house, became a home goods store and transitioned through more iterations.
Distiller Raoul Segarra is from New York City and spent time in the wine and essential oil distilling industries before moving into spirits. This unusual beginning sensitized his palate to subtle flavor components in the variety of spirits he composes.
His first spirit, an American-dry gin, includes local sumac in its mix of botanicals. In addition to traditional spirits, Segarra makes limoncello, chamomile liqueur and parfait amour. He distills grappa from the must of freshly pressed grapes supplied by a local winery. Must is basically the skins and materials that remain after pressing grapes for wine.
A few blocks east is Maggie’s Farm Rum Distillery which opened in 2013. Look for a blue building and small sign or you’ll miss it., Maggie’s Farm is an urban distillery that makes only rum. If you’re interested in the name Google lyrics to the Bob Dylan song Maggie’s Farm and know that founder/distiller Tim Russell decided to work for himself after being laid off from a corporate job through no fault of his own.
Russell makes nine rums including white, dark, spiced, pineapple and sherry-cask aged. He also makes two rum-based liqueurs, coffee and falernum. While the word “falernum” sounds medicinal this classic tropical mixer is delicious. It’s made by adding fresh ginger and lime zest as well as toasted whole cloves and allspice berries to white rum and lightly sweetening with turbinado sugar.
In just nine years, Maggie’s Farm’s portfolio of spirits has received 100 medals and commendations from national craft and international spirits competitions. The rums are available onsite and at retailers, including some in Ohio. My sister was impressed that $1 from every core rum sale is donated to animal rescue charities.
We saved Wigle Whiskey for last because they have a restaurant where we could relax and recharge. A paid Saturday tour of the distilling facility is a must-do that culminates in a whiskey tasting. Distiller Heidi Nagle and her team go beyond their portfolio of whiskeys made from local, organic grain. You could stock a bar with their whiskey, flavored whiskey, rye, bourbon, liqueurs and bottled cocktails. Wigle’s Eau du Pickle won the American Craft Spirits Association’s Innovation Award in 2019. Other flavor-ites are rhubarb liqueur, saffron amaro, five-year apple brandy and so much more.