CO-OWNER, PITTSBURGH DISTILLING COMPANY | PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
When Meredith Grelli started Burgh Bees while at the Tepper School of Business, it was in part to remain true to what she saw as her original home in community work. Grelli had come to the business school from her work at a Carnegie Mellon University research center designing redevelopment plans for old industrial sites. Her startup nonprofit worked to promote beekeeping in urban areas, a venture that has led to apiaries throughout Pittsburgh.
Grelli’s pride as a native Pittsburgher permeates her current venture, Wigle Whiskey — pronounced “wiggle.” Tours at the original distillery in the Strip District, where all the company’s spirits are produced, tell the tale of the Whiskey Rebellion in Pittsburgh. Guests at Wigle’s Barrelhouse & Whiskey Garden learn about the whiskey roots of the city’s steel industry and its industrial titans. Grelli is parlaying this significant interest in whiskey’s history into the development of a “whiskey trail” from George Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery in Washington, D.C., to a museum she plans to open in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh has influenced alcohol history in the United States in more arenas than just whiskey. Grelli plans to feature the region’s history in cider production when she opens Threadbare Cider this summer.
What is your elevator pitch?
Wigle Whiskey is hell-bent on creating a vital, educated community around the highest quality, most inventive, bursting-with-terroir distilled products in the world.
What is the story behind the company name?
We’re named for Philip Wigle, who was a German immigrant in Pittsburgh. In 1791, he took it upon himself to punch a federal tax collector over the country’s first excise tax — on whiskey. His punch set off four years of protests and riots that became known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
Before Pittsburgh was a steel town, it was a whiskey town. We produced “Monongahela Rye,” which became famous around the globe and made Pittsburgh the country’s whiskey epicenter. We became so good that by the mid-1800s, the region was producing half a barrel’s worth of this rye whiskey for every man, woman and child in America. Whiskey was truly the economy at the time. The whiskey tax was the first excise tax in American history, levied by Alexander Hamilton, who is quite the commodity right now. The country had just come out of the Revolutionary War, and he was trying to think of a way to bring it back to solvency. But when whiskey was taxed, it really pissed everybody here off.
Our robber barons all trace their industry back to whiskey: the Mellons, the Fricks. Andrew Mellon became Secretary of the Treasury at the same time that Prohibition began, which made him chief Prohibition Agent at the same time that he owned the largest whiskey distillery in the country. So really, the first part of American whiskey history is a Pittsburgh story, before Kentucky gets off the ground.
What was the “a ha!” moment?
My husband and I went on a trip with my parents to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada to visit ice wine vineyards as a celebratory trip for my graduation from the Tepper School. We started talking on the way up about craft beer and the emerging industry of craft spirits. I knew at heart I was an entrepreneur, and we started throwing around the idea of a family business around craft beverages. We had talked for a while before the trip about doing something in beer, but we believed that the market was too crowded for craft beer, and there wasn’t room for another brewery in Pittsburgh. We were so wrong.
We had checked into our hotel and were waiting for my parents when we thought, “It’s really cool how they’ve created this regional economy around this very particular kind of wine.” And we said, “What is Pittsburgh’s version of ice wine?” We knew there was a whiskey history, but we didn’t know much about it, so we started researching on our Blackberrys (this was seven years ago). We read about the Whiskey Rebellion and this heritage of whiskey, and we said, “Eureka! Pittsburgh’s alcohol is whiskey. We need to bring this back.”
What skills did you have to learn to get this off the ground?
I’m still learning this: We had to learn how to deal with uncertainty. You will never have all the information you want. You will never have all the data you want. You will never be able to see into the future. But you have to jump anyway. That remains my biggest challenge. I like to be able to see where we as a company are in the broader picture, and at times it’s difficult to tease that out.
What were your pivotal moments?
Every two years, we’ve achieved a new legislative victory, which has expanded our market. We first needed to change a state law to be able to open at all. We wanted to build a destination tasting room, where we could sample and sell directly to consumers and own our own distribution network. That happened in March of 2012.
We needed to get the right to ship directly to consumers in Pennsylvania. We distribute throughout Pennsylvania through the PLCB [the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board]. We’ve added on external states as well: Now we’re distributed in 11 states, and we continue to add a few states every year to the list. Each state has been its own learning curve, and certainly a significant milestone every year.
We had been lobbying for some legislation in the past couple years to be allowed to put satellite locations across the state, and that actually just came to pass last year. So we are gearing up to open some satellite locations in the near term, which expands our on-site sales opportunities.
How about growth?
We started working on Wigle seven years ago, in 2010, really right after I graduated. We opened our doors to the public for the first time in March 2012. Since then, over the past five years, we’ve grown in a number of ways.
Our product portfolio has grown tremendously but sustainably. Whiskey is a pretty unique industry in that there’s a big time lag and a lot of inventory you have to sit on as it ages in barrels. We went from immediately selling everything we could make to now being able to produce four years’ worth of inventory in a year, which we can age over years, and that’s a big jump to make. So our portfolio has evolved significantly. We’ve gone from white spirits to having now straight spirits and even four-year-old bottled in bond whiskeys. So as we get older, so too does our whiskey.
We started with just three paid staff members — myself, my husband and my brother — and we’ve grown now to about 50 folks on payroll. We’ve also stepped up training and the processes really every year.
What skills did you have to learn to keep things moving?
After business school I went to Heinz, where I was in brand management on a few brands. I loved my time at Heinz, and part of what I loved about it was the entrepreneurial feeling that you get in brand management — having your hands in everything: the financial, the operations, the marketing. I certainly spent my time at Heinz learning a ton about how to effectively manage all these different inputs that a business owner has to keep in mind.
What is next for your company?
In July we will open a ciderhouse and meadery called Threadbare. Here we will produce naturally fermented ciders, and we will tell the story of Johnny Chapman — “Johnny Appleseed.” He moved from New England to Pittsburgh during the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s. He would collect apple seeds from the apple mills along the Monongahela and then take those apple seeds and plant them on the frontier in Ohio and farther west. Planting apples from seeds produces terrible apples for eating, but produces great cider apples, so he was responsible for planting all of the cider industry on the frontier. So we produce our cider and mead, and we get to tell the story of this legendary Pittsburgher.
What key piece of information gets overlooked when getting started?
I think it’s better not to know. Going in a little blind is really helpful. You can drown in knowledge before you start up. It’s one thing to deal with challenges once you’re in it and fully invested. If I knew what I know now before we started, it would be harder to make the jump, because it all seems bigger when you’re not in it.
How did the business school help shape your companies?
We have this saying here: “Scrappy, not crappy.” I think Tepper has a similar spirit: It’s a smaller community in the business school landscape, and it has some humility about it, but it’s a powerhouse and it punches above its weight. I model that behavior here at Wigle. We’re a small distillery, but we do our best to punch above our weight.
What’s the best advice you received?
I have this mantra that I go back to from a T.S. Eliot poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
What “big ideas” would you like to pursue next?
We had this notion of creating a museum in an effort to tell Pittsburgh’s whiskey history. We originally imagined the museum as the trail head to a whiskey trail that would connect Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. and George Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery there. We’re now focused on opening our satellite locations throughout the state, so what we ended up doing was flipping the order: We’re going to work on the trail first — a national whiskey trail to rival the bourbon trail. And then we’ll return to building out the museum trailhead.
We’ve started to build out a demonstration exhibit that we’re going to install in the barrel house. It’s a robotic floor malt that we’re building in partnership with CMU. Chris Moehle [Associate Director for New Ventures at the National Robotics Engineering Center] connected me to a really talented roboticist at CMU named John Choi [senior computer science and arts student]. John is building a malting robot for us that we’ll install in the barrel house so people can understand what a traditional floor malt looks like, but in a very Pittsburgh/CMU way — done by a robot.