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Mark Meyer


Wigle Whiskey Distillery

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Past affiliations include  Partner, Goldberg, Persky & White

JD Washington University School of Law

BS Earlham College

Former partner “Wigles his way to success with whiskey

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Mark Meyer could have taken it easy after he retired from his law firm at age 60. 

Instead, he learned how to make award-winning small-batch whiskey, and he and his family opened the first distillery in Pittsburgh since Prohibition.  Last summer they sold the business to the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Meyer recently spoke to ex judicata about aging whiskey, Holland-style gin, and his successful second act as an entrepreneur.

ex judicata:  Before you got into the whiskey business, you spent almost 20 years as a partner at Goldberg Persky & White in Pittsburgh.   Can you tell us a little about the firm and why you decided to leave?

MARK MEYER:  We did plaintiffs-side work exclusively, with a focus on complex tort litigation, including a lot of asbestos cases and a major groundwater contamination case.  We also did specialized product liability cases. I enjoyed it. But I just decided when I turned 60 that it was time to move on and do something else.  I didn’t really have any plans in terms of what exactly I would do.  But I just thought that I had done everything I wanted to do as a lawyer, and it was time for a change.  I wanted to try different things while I was still young enough and had the energy and capacity to do that. 

ex judicata:  Had you thought about starting your own business?  What made you decide to take the leap?

MARK MEYER:  Back in 2010 we took a vacation with my adult daughter and her family to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada for the Shaw festival, and while we were up there, we visited some of the local ice wineries. There was one in particular I was enamored with.

It wasn’t necessarily because of the quality of the wine.  I was impressed by the fact that it was a family-run operation. And they just did a very, very good job of explaining what they did, and they obviously had a passion for it, and the entire family was involved.  So, after we made that visit, I began seriously thinking that it would be fun and exciting to do something like that as a family.  So that was the real attraction initially–the idea of doing a project that would engage our entire family.   

ex judicata: So, you started out thinking you might want to open a winery. How did you go from wine to whiskey? 

MARK MEYER: We knew we wanted to do something that was consistent with the history of western Pennsylvania.  We didn’t know what that was until we started the research. Once we did, we discovered a whole forgotten history of 

whiskey in the area.  It turned out western Pennsylvania had been the birthplace, really, of whiskey-making in the U.S. back in the days of Washington and Hamilton, and it was also the epicenter of the anti-tax Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790’s. 

So there was a very strong tradition that had died out after Prohibition.  

I’ve always been interested in history and thought, ‘Wow, what a great backstory’ and what if we could weave that into our marketing.   That really helped convince us that starting a distillery would be a great thing if we could do it.  And we eventually decided to name the business after Phillip Wigle, a western Pennsylvania distiller who helped spark the Whiskey Rebellion.  

ex judicata: Your timing was good, given that it was the beginning of a craft distillery boom.  Were you aware of that at the time? 

MARK MEYER:  Right, this was 2010.  And when we looked around the country, we found that a number of small distilleries had just opened in the western part of the country, mainly in Washington state.  And there were some being opened in New York state.  The fact that it seemed to be the beginning of a trend made it more interesting.  

At the time, my oldest son, who had a master’s in public policy, was on a fellowship working for the city of Tacoma, WA, and was about to finish that up and move to Washington, D.C.   We asked if he would consider putting D.C. on hold for a while and help us start this whiskey enterprise, and he said he would give it a go. So, he took a long train trip back east, and on the way stopped and spoke with the owners of some of the new distilleries that had opened as part of our early due diligence.  

ex judicata:  Starting out, I’m guessing there was a lot to learn about the distilling process. How did you get up to speed? 

MARK MEYER:  That was really the first big challenge.   I was still working full-time as a lawyer through 2010, and I would get up really early in the morning and read as much as I could and then I started developing protocols for making the spirits.  We got some help from Michigan State, which had started a program to nurture small craft distillers and offered seminars and other resources.  We actually made a few trips up to their campus in Lansing and they helped us with our first batch.  But getting a handle on the technical aspects of making a good stir was just the first step.  

ex judicata:  It sounds like the next step—getting your business up and running–was an even bigger challenge.  How did you go about that? Did you have to line up financing? 

MARK MEYER:   From the start, my wife and I decided we wanted the business to be self-funded.  We didn’t want to rely upon lenders for money, so we invested our savings in it and funded everything, and it was a pretty big bet.  But actually, the bigger bet was that we would be able to sell directly to customers.  At the time, a lot of state legislatures around the country had started passing laws allowing direct-to-consumer sales at local wineries and distilleries.  We put in a lot of time and effort lobbying to get a similar law passed in Pennsylvania. 

In the meantime, we were also looking for a location for our distillery, and then looking into and ordering all the machinery we needed and starting to work through all the state and federal regulatory and permitting issues. So, we had a lot going on those first couple of years.  Initially, it was mostly me, my wife Mary Ellen, and Eric, my oldest son, working on it.  A little later my daughter Meredith, who was a brand manager at Heinz, joined us, along with her husband Alex, who was a corporate associate at Reed Smith.  My other son, Jeff, was with us for about a year before he moved to Iowa to take a job as a library director.  But at one point we had everybody involved.    

ex judicata:  And your lobbying for the new law paid off?

MARK MEYER:  Right, the governor signed it in late 2011 and it went into effect in February of 2012.   Once that happened, we felt pretty good about being able to make our way.  So much in life is timing, and we were the first distillery in Pittsburgh since Prohibition, so there was a lot of novelty to it and we had great community support. 

And because Pittsburgh has gone from being a steel town to a real hi- tech and medical center, there were a lot of young professionals we could cater to. We also had the advantage of having my daughter, who was a tremendous marketer, on board, and she really helped expand our customer base.  Whiskey historically was sort of an old man’s thing with cigars and all that.  We decided to try to shake up that image a bit and use bright colors and market more to young people and especially women who might want to try something different. 

ex judicata: What were some of the other early challenges?

MARK MEYER:  Well one huge challenge was trying to manage the complexities of the new law and the whole regulatory regime, because we were new to this, and we were

trying to figure out the rules as we went along and trying to figure out how to stay on the right side of them and at the same time aggressively market our products so we could stay in business. The other big thing was that whiskey has to be aged of course.  Our typical aging process is four years, so we really had to figure out how we were going to sustain the business until we actually had a product to sell. 

And so, what we had to do initially was sell unaged whiskey, which is pretty feisty.  And we sold it with the story, and it’s true, that when people made whiskey way back in the days ofWashington and Hamilton, they didn’t age it.  They sold it as what’s called a white spirit.   The other thing we did is we decided to make a spirit that you didn’t have to age.  And we spent about a year developing a formula for what’s known as a Holland-style gin, which means that it has a light whiskey as a base and then we infuse it with different botanicals.   And so that also helped keep us going.  But we were fortunate that we had the resources to get through the first few years.  Initially it was very hard. 

ex judicata: You ended up with a pretty extensive list of craft whiskeys, gins, rum, and other spirits.  You also built a fairly big operation, with a restaurant and distillery tours and a hard cider brand, along with over 100 employees.  

Was that all part of the original plan? 

MARK MEYER:  No, we started out thinking it was just going to be a small project, almost like a vanity project.   So, the question early on was whether we could do well enough so that our family members could support themselves and their families. And then we were able to move beyond that and the next question was whether we could take on employees. 

We waited two or three years before we made our first outside hire, and it was a huge step for us. But by that time, we were starting to feel we had a good base and that we could really turn this into a very sustainable business.  And then it just grew, and once you get on the roller coaster it’s hard to get off and so we just had to ride the roller coaster, and we’ve done that, and it’s now been ten years.  

ex judicata:  Last August you announced that you were selling Wigle to Robert Nutting, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates.   What made you decide it was time to exit? 

MARK MEYER:  You know most businesses can only grow so much without taking on outside debt, and we felt like we had gotten to that point.  We really didn’t have the resources to take it to the next level, and we decided that we didn’t want to take on outside debt, so we just thought it was time to find somebody else that could help the business move forward.  A lot of our employees have told us they’d like to stay involved with Wigle.  This helps ensure they’ll be able to do that and be part of the growth. 

We feel like we found the right buyer in Bob Nutting. 

He’s been a fan of Wigle for a long time.   His company has a hospitality group, with restaurants and a hotel and a local resort, and of course they also have the Pirates, and they decided there’s some nice synergy with what we do.

And so we’re very happy with how it worked out, because it’s a local company, and they have experience and resources and a real interest in and passion for the hospitality business. I think they’ll be able to help the company continue to grow.  

ex judicata:  Can you share any specifics about the sale price?

MARK MEYER:  We signed a confidentiality agreement on the terms of the deal, so we can’t disclose that.   But we believe it’s a fair deal.  

ex judicata:  Getting a new business up and running is a huge thing to take on, especially later in life, as a second career.  Are you glad you did it? Do you have any regrets?

MARK MEYER:  No, I’m glad we did it. It was such an incredibly different experience, and we met so many interesting people and got exposed to so many different parts of the community that we would not have been exposed to otherwise.  And we had this wonderful family project.  And it was a real adventure.  You know going in I don’t think we really understood what we were getting into, because there were a lot of challenges and there were many times, I wondered why we did it. 

But I didn’t want to retire. I wanted to do something different and   I actually preferred that it be hard so I would be challenged, and it would help keep me sharp and focused. We didn’t know exactly what all the challenges were going to be, but that was part of the adventure.  You don’t know how it’s all going to turn out, and that’s part of the excitement of it and part of the reason for doing it. 

ex judicata:  Can you sum up how starting a business compares with being a lawyer? 

MARK MEYER:  Well as a lawyer if you lose a case, you lose, and your clients have lost.  But the stakes aren’t as high personally.  When it’s your own business there’s a lot more on the line, and if you screw up the consequences can be severe. So it is totally different from the law in that way, and in a lot of other ways.  But at the same time, the skills and tools that I used as a lawyer were a tremendous help. The fact that my son-in-law Alex and I both had legal backgrounds meant that we could do the filings ourselves

and deal with all the regulatory issues and handle most things without having to hire outside counsel.  That was extremely valuable.

ex judicata:   Well thanks so much for your time.  In closing, do you have any advice for other lawyers who might be thinking of starting a business?    

MARK MEYER:  My main piece of advice would be to make sure that any business you get into is something that you really enjoy and have a passion for and that you want to spend time learning about.  It’s important to have a business that can sustain itself and hopefully do well financially.  But I don’t think money should be the primary motivation.  If you’re going to jump in, it really needs to be something you have an interest in and are willing to dedicate yourself to.  Because I think that’s what will sustain you.

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