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Wigle Whiskey focuses on fans, not simply drinkers

| Tuesday, March 17, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Meredith Grelli leads a team meeting at Wigle Whiskey Wednesday, March 4, 2015 in the Strip District.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Meredith Grelli (third from right) leads a team meeting at Wigle Whiskey Wednesday, March 4, 2015 in the Strip District.

Meredith Grelli was celebrating her new master's degree in business administration when she and her family decided it was time to “roll the dice.”

Since then, she's become a co-owner of Wigle Whiskey. Her marketing skills have helped the company grow from a handful of family members to 36 employees. It also has outgrown its original headquarters in the Strip District by adding the Barrelhouse storage/event/tasting center in Deutschtown on the North Side.

“She and the rest of the family were able to help us tap into an audience that was developing a taste for spirits,” says Mark Meyer, her father, the co-owner who holds the distiller title of the company also known as Pittsburgh Distilling.

To accomplish that end, Grelli, 30, has guided marketing events that include regular bottle labeling get-togethers, parties for product releases at both sites, even a performance by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the Barrelhouse.

Suzanne Perrino, senior vice president for education and strategic implementation for the symphony, says Grelli's imagination brought the two groups together in a way both could “interact with smaller groups.”

At the Barrelhouse, three symphony musicians performed Igor Stravinsky's “The Soldier's Tale” at an informal, tasting session. Gloria Mou, the symphony's director of musician and community-engagement programs, says the program was a success because it reached Wigle fans and Deutschtown neighbors.

Wigle Whiskey, the first distillery in Pittsburgh since Prohibition, produces about 12,000 proof gallons a year, about 10 percent the amount Kentucky's Jim Beam makes daily, Grelli says.

It began in 2012 as the maker of white whiskey — a polite term for moonshine — and now creates rye, wheat whiskey, rum, gin and bitters for cocktails. A bourbon is on the way in May, she says.

Grelli says the gestation period for the company goes back to 2010 when she, her husband, Alex, and her parents were at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, celebrating her earning her master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

Mark Meyer, a lawyer, was retiring, and tours of the wineries in that area of Ontario made him interested in starting some sort of business like that in Pittsburgh.

But, she says, this area does not have a great grape heritage; however, it does have a whiskey legacy that dates back beyond the rebellion in 1794.

But Grelli saw a marketing problem: At that time, whiskey producers couldn't sell on site the way vintners could.

“We had to change that, or it was a no-go,” she says. “There was no Plan B.”

While putting together the Smallman Street headquarters and buying distilling equipment, the whole Meyer clan worked on getting that law changed. It was constant work for Meyer, his wife, Mary Ellen; Meredith and Alex; and sons Eric and Jeff, he says.

A state law allowing onsite sales at smaller distilleries went into effect in February 2012, followed quickly by Wigle's first production.

Since that time, the Wigle crew has pursued “taste pioneers” who were interested in the development of spirits, not necessarily traditional whiskey products.

The work has led to an ever-changing line of alcohols and the steady production of its core products. Grelli says the secret to the growth and acceptance has been “relentless community engagement” that has focused on a down-home form of marketing aimed at fans rather than simply drinkers.

“We are not trying to replicate was the big distillers do,” she says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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