April 01, 2019
Alumni Spotlight: Meredith Grelli Crafts Experiences
The roots of the United States Whiskey Rebellion can be traced to Western Pennsylvania’s Philip Wigle, who punched a tax collector in 1791 in protest of Alexander Hamilton’s much-maligned whiskey tax. George Washington charged Wigle with treason for tax resistance — though Washington would pardon him a few years later.
Wigle’s act of rebellion inspired Meredith Meyer Grelli (MBA 2010) to honor Pittsburgh’s vital place in the history of whiskey in the United States. She launched Wigle Whiskey in 2011 with her husband and family, and since then has grown the most awarded craft distillery in the country —twice named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Producer.
“When we started, everyone was driven by a passion for the company,” Grelli said. “We were surrounded by people who are insanely passionate about the company and the product. If you believe in it, others will too.”
Grelli recently spoke as part of the CONNECTS series at the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, a set of workshops that highlight many aspects of the entrepreneurial journey. She was invited by the Swartz Center to speak on “Creating an Experience Around a Product,” illustrating how developing personal relationships with consumers helps to improve the reach of a brand.
“I loved hearing from entrepreneurs about what they do. I was ravenous for that kind of content,” Grelli said of her time at the Tepper School of Business. “As a non-technical person, I feel some obligation to bring my perspective. There are always two or three people at these talks who are looking to start a business like this, with a lot of physical assets and slow growth potential. I’m trying to do my part to validate their ideas.”
Grelli has remained connected to the Tepper School throughout her post-MBA career. “At Tepper, you are in this place where you can try new things alongside some of the smartest people in the world.” In 2016, she received the Tepper Women in Business “Alumna of the Year” award in recognition of her continued contribution to the Tepper School with her time and expertise, as well as her career success.
“It’s such a great boon for the school that we have these incredibly engaged alumni like Meredith who are willing to give of their time and expertise to help our students find their own paths to success,” said Dave Mawhinney, Executive Director of the Swartz Center and Associate Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship.
Grelli titled her presentation “Winning Relevance Through Programs and Partnerships.” She discussed how Wigle is building awareness for its brand by inviting consumers to interact with its products in a personal way. One highlight for many of their customers, she said, are weekly labeling parties, which invites dozens of people to the distillery to affix labels to the bottles that are then shipped to liquor stores for sale. “You get to feel a part of the making of it,” she said. “It creates a pride and a connection to the brand that’s really important to people, we’ve learned.”
This kind of outreach was difficult for Grelli to put into words. “It’s so reflexive to me and so reflexive to the personality of the company,” she said. “I don’t know any other way to operate.” Wigle’s marketing is devoted to programming — celebrating the history of whiskey in the region, inspiring personal connections with the brand, and deepening the company’s connection to the neighborhoods they have entered.
Throughout her professional career, Grelli has remained committed to supporting the communities around her. Before coming to the Tepper School, she had worked at a Carnegie Mellon University research center designing redevelopment plans for old industrial sites. Her first venture, Burgh Bees, promoted beekeeping in urban areas and has led to several community apiaries throughout Pittsburgh.
One newer venture for Grelli and the company is Threadbare Cider & Mead, located in the Spring Garden neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Grelli joined Mis.Steps founder Laura Zurowski last summer to create an event exploring the many public outdoor staircases in Spring Garden. The program ends with a tour of the Cider House, which sits on the second floor of an old tannery building and can be accessed via a long wooden staircase.
Wigle partners frequently with local organizations to participate in events and even to create unique products. For the 2018 Picklesburgh event, Wigle developed Eau de Pickle, a limited-run pickle-flavored spirit. “It captures this very specific regional identity,” she said, which she admits can be a risky endeavor to pursue without the promise of broad appeal. “I don’t believe in building businesses for investors.”
The next undertaking for Grelli will be launching a Whiskey Rebellion Trail to complement the Bourbon Trail running through the American South. “With this Trail, we want to reclaim the part one of American whiskey history,” she said. Expected to launch this summer, the trail will include at least 75 sites throughout the eastern U.S., with new sites added every year.