“The people of Pittsburgh appreciate makers and the craft that comes with it. We feel very lucky to be so embraced by our community and to be a small part of this region’s vibrant whiskey history.”
Pittsburgh’s whiskey roots run deep. The stage for the infamous Whiskey Rebellion in the late 18th century and the birthplace of American whiskey, most people don’t realize that whiskey was the main economy before Pittsburgh became a steel town. Meredith Meyer-Grelli and her husband, Alex Grelli, always knew they wanted to pursue a business venture with alcohol and after a trip to Canada and a weekend of drinking ice wine with Meredith’s parents, it was settled: they were going to help revive the regional whiskey identity and open a distillery to celebrate Pittsburgh’s past and innovate its whiskey future.
Their story didn’t start in Pittsburgh, however, they met attending the University of Chicago where Meredith studied urban geography and Alex studied political science and went on to get a law degree. While he was studying how state laws impact craft distilleries, Meredith attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to sharpen her cooking chops. Though she’s the North Hills native, it was Alex who convinced her that Pittsburgh was the right spot to start something and they moved to the city in 2008. After holding a few different roles at Reed Smith and Heinz, it was the fateful trip in early 2010 that jumpstarted their whiskey adventure. “Ice Wine in Canada is how we got here!” Meredith laughed. “We started wondering what Pittsburgh’s version of that was and digging into the history of our region and we knew immediately that we wanted to start a distillery.”
They knew they wanted to be in the Strip District because it’s a manufacturing hub, a major thoroughfare for food and drink and so widely visited – it was important to them to be in a visible space. Shortly thereafter they had a space, they had a custom still from Germany, and all the while, they weren’t legally allowed to create and sell directly to customers based on PA law. “The whole time we were planning the distillery, taking classes and reading everything we could about distilling, and eventually putting whiskey in barrels, we just said ‘we’ve gotta keep moving forward and hope this works out.’” Thankfully in March of 2012, the law was pushed through and that’s when they opened to the public.
The Wigle brand and culture is “relentless curiosity and spirit of exploration.” “When we started, there weren’t many craft distilleries so we didn’t have places to learn and conferences to attend. It made it more challenging, but it allowed us to really make the process our own. It’s fairly easy to tell a Wigle product in a blind tasting because of our method,” Alex noted.
So what makes Pittsburgh unique for this business venture? “We wanted to create a business that was deeply embedded in the community and feeds back into the social and economic ecosystem that we’re a part of.” From a supply chain perspective, the bounty of agriculture in western PA is a phenomenal local asset and Wigle is now the largest consumer of organic grain in the state. The manufacturing legacy of the region has also been instrumental in setting up the supply chain from start to finish and they believe, contributes to the local support for the brand: “I think there’s a psychology to a city that’s been at the top and fallen. We’re always going to fight above our weight because we’ve got something to prove. There’s a pride in Pittsburgh that you don’t find everywhere and when people see locals making goods that are reflective of their community they get behind it in force.”
When Meredith and Alex aren’t busy creating the latest Pittsburgh beverage sensation, they are busy spending time with their daughter Effie. They love their Point Breeze neighborhood and appreciate the very 1930s feel it has of young families and people who have lived there for 60 years and know the history. They spend a lot of time in Frick Park and enjoy the cultural amenities that are so accessible from their home. As for food favorites? Their dining choices are mostly driven by their 7-year-old and her love of carbs, which makes The Porch in Oakland, Park Bruges in Highland Park, and Silk Elephant in Squirrel Hill family favorites.
Recently nominated for a James Beard Award, written up in food magazines and the New York Times, among other outlets, the couple remains humble. “We allow ourselves to bask in the attention for an hour and then get back to work. We know if we’re going to succeed we have to succeed at home, so we focus on Pittsburgh and creating great products and experiences for our local communities.”