How Wigle Whiskey Paved the Way for Modern Distilling in Pittsburgh
Meredith Grelli co-founded Wigle Whiskey in 2011, but it took another year to open the doors to the public as she negotiated with Pennsylvania lawmakers to allow on-premise sales in the taproom of a craft distillery. Her success in changing policy solidified Wigle Whisky as the first distillery to open in Pittsburgh since Prohibition. Since then, Wigle Whiskey has also become the most-awarded craft whiskey distillery for four consecutive years by the American Craft Spirits Association. Meredith is a two-time James Beard Award Semi-Finalist, an Imbibe 75 Beverage Professionals to Watch, and the author of The Whiskey Rebellion & The Rebirth of Rye. Meredith strives to make great whiskey, while reviving the history and culture of distilling. Her distillery is named after Phillip Wigle who, in the 1790s, unknowingly started the Whiskey Rebellion, a conflict between Western Pennsylvania distillers and George Washington’s troops. By 1808, Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County was the whiskey capital of the country. Wigle Whiskey honors this history not only in name, but through the use of traditional techniques and educational efforts. Meredith works with organic regional farms and mills grains on site at her distillery. She also founded the Whiskey Rebellion Trail, which stretches across four cities and includes more than 40 distilleries. You can catch Meredith in conversation with Greg Benson, host of HRN’s The Speakeasy, on Sunday, June 21st – or read her Q&A below. Greg Benson: Tell me about how you started Wigle Whiskey and landed on a business model. Meredith Grelli: Our ultimate goal remains the same as when we outlined it in 2010 – to create the most bursting-with-terroir, highest-quality spirits in the industry and to develop a company whose value grew with consumer knowledge. When we entered the spirits space, we felt that there was a good bit of margin built on consumer confusion. We wanted to bake education and transparency right into every interaction with consumers. That sentiment informed every part of our operations, from how we designed the physical space in our distillery, to changing the Pennsylvania law, so that we could sell directly to consumers (rather than rely on a traditional distribution model, which would have significantly impeded our education and innovation capabilities). GB: What are some things you’re most proud of accomplishing so far as the leader of Wigle? MG: First and foremost, the quality of our spirits and our unabiding commitment to innovation. Every day, we prioritize quality above all else. And we remain relentless in our pursuit of continuous product improvement and innovation. Secondly, our commitment to community. We express this commitment in a number of ways. We have hosted thousands of community fundraisers at our sites and have partnered with hundreds of local organizations throughout the years. We were the first company in Pennsylvania to sign onto the Governor's Voluntary Living Wage Program for our staff members. We have developed a significant local supply chain (we are the largest purchaser of organic grain in the State, for instance.) I am also proud of how relatively sophisticated our small business is. Every small business owner knows that building the infrastructure of the business is oftentimes the most challenging and critically important. Developing and integrating those systems in a complex enterprise that includes manufacturing, hospitality, tourism, retail, and distribution requires a lot of backend work and leadership development. We have an incredible team that functions at an extremely high level. It's also been rewarding to grow with many of our partners, including companies like Square, whose capabilities have grown as our needs have. GB: What has the shutdown been like for your distillery? What steps did you take to adapt your business, both on the production side and the promotional side? MG: Covid came to us at a particularly inopportune time. After two years of work, we opened up our newly expanded tasting room, bar, restaurant and mini-museum at our nearly ten-year-old Strip District distillery on Friday, March 13. That date should have been an omen. Grand opening night was beautiful; panic had not yet hit. The next day, though, reality set in across our state and our sites as people started staying home. All of our sites immediately declined 65-85%. We announced the closure of all of our Wigle and Threadbare sites the evening of Sunday, March 15. Our tasting rooms and bottle shops are the lifeblood of Wigle Whiskey and Threadbare Cider, so we of course could not sleep. We stayed up all night planning how to keep our staff safely and gainfully employed, and how to keep producing Whiskey. At that point, it felt to us like an ethical imperative to keep people employed. On top of that, while production is expensive, any production stoppages now put us completely out of business in 5 years, if we have no aged whiskey to sell. We were coming up with all sorts of creative financing strategies to fund continued production. On Monday, we started seeing online orders roll in. I hand-wrote thank you notes to every customer that placed an order. We continued to focus on online orders for the next eight weeks and we saw a huge, albeit short-lived, jump in demand for online sales when the Pennsylvania Governor shut down liquor stores. In 72 hours, we converted a group of 30 staff members, including tasting room, sales, kitchen and event staff into a full time production, e-commerce, fulfillment and shipping team. We piled all of the new restaurant's velvet chairs and leather bar stools in the back and converted our new marble dining tables into shipping stations! We also shifted our production operations to producing hand sanitizer to donate to our region's first responders. We have two pot whiskey stills (very traditional types of stills that are built to deliver flavor in whiskey). Our stills are not built to efficiently produce 190 proof spirit which is what we need to produce sanitizer. Distilleries with vodka stills are better equipped to produce sanitizer in this respect. But we are able to get there. It takes days of redistilling to produce each batch. Our production team worked through all of these hurdles and we have been able to donate sanitizer to the first responders in our region. We are so grateful and thrilled that we had the means to help in our small way in this crisis. Earlier in the pandemic, we were receiving thousands of desperate calls and emails each day regarding the sanitizer. For several weeks, we had two full-time staff members dedicated to answering phone calls and emails about sanitizer. The demand was far greater than we alone could supply. GB: Wigle is a very interactive brand, and you’ve taken pride in educating and talking with your consumers. What have you done to adapt to this time when actual face-to-face contact is impossible? MG: Yes, we are all about ‘edutainment!’ We've been actively engaging with our audience digitally through social media and our eblasts. Meanwhile, we're also scaling our in-person engagement plans to a more intimate and covid safe model. In some ways, I think this will benefit guests and our team, as we're forced to rethink every one of our experiences. Instead of 24 person distillery tours on Saturdays, for instance, we're developing more small group, deeper engagement programming. GB: What are your plans for the future and where do you see Wigle going now that parts of the country including your home state of Pennsylvania are tentatively reopening? MG: We are working on re-opening each of our seven sites in phases. We're focusing on one site each week, which of course means developing a site specific service plan; bringing back team members, training them, and getting the sites physically prepared for guests. A piece of that planning is how we handle payments in ways that keep customers and team members safe and confident. Our Square POS has enabled us to offer touchless transactions which has helped to make guest experiences from beginning to end fairly seamless. Before we opened our expanded distillery location in March, I told our team, “After this don't worry, we're going to take a couple years off of opening new sites.” Now, here we are opening 7 in as many weeks! It just goes to show, the only constant is change.