How local distillers are fighting to get their small-batch liquors in PA stores

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For years, a small whiskey distillery based in the Strip District in Pittsburgh has been aiming to expand its sales to Philadelphia. Just this year, Wigle Whiskey’s rye whiskey hit eight stores in southeastern Pennsylvania, but not without a lot of work with the state and a high level of competition with other companies.

This year, they’ve got a chance. But it won’t be easy. Small, craft distilleries in Pennsylvania like Wigle can get their spirits in state stores through a new Liquor Control Board program where local companies can submit their beverages for review without having to go up against the Smirnoffs and the Tanquerays and the Johnnie Walkers of the world.

“The state store program is, I think, a huge, huge development in terms of the way the buyers and the higher-ups at the PLCB are thinking about craft spirits,” Meredith Grelli, Wigle co-founder and co-owner, said. “It shows a commitment that is really heartening to us.”

The PA Spirits Program is a new way for a small distilleries to sell their products in state stores in Pennsylvania, traditionally made much more difficult in this state because it remains one of the only with a state-controlled liquor system. So far, 11 distilleries from across the state submitted 35 spirits for review to be included in the program during the first round this spring. Winners will get chosen by a panel of buyers based on taste, availability, price and potential marketing plans.

Before the program launched earlier this year, when a local, craft distillery wanted to get their product in a Pennsylvania state store, they’d join giants like United Spirits, Suntory/ Beam and Bacardi in what’s called the “listing” process.

The Liquor Control Board reviews regular stock listings twice per year — there were 1,000 submissions last spring, and more than 360 of those were spirits — analyzing business plans, marketing strategies and the like. The local distilleries with smaller budgets could almost never stand up to the massive marketing plans of the larger companies.

LCB spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman said that even if local distilleries are able to get listed along with the big guys, they’re required to produce a certain amount of product every month — some small operations simply don’t have the ability to produce spirits at higher levels.

“A lot of times it’s a production issue, so if they get listed, they have to supply the stores with adequate supply,” she said. “So this is really a foot in the door for them.”

In order to stay on shelves with the PA Spirits Program, one case of each spirit must be sold every month from each store.

So the state developed the spirits orogram, and answer to the PA Wine Program that had already existed. The program, which will be selecting its first entrants in August, allows for limited distilleries that make less than 100,000 gallons a year to submit up to 10 different spirits and have them put in 10 different stores, with an application fee of $150 per product.

Grelli said Wigle hopes to get more products in stores around Philadelphia, and plans to submit its bourbon for review. She also said the company wants to submit newer products like vermouth and absinthe down the line.

She added that the program is indicative of growing trends in the craft distilling industry, which could follow the upward trajectory in popularity that the craft beer industry saw over the last decade.

“In Pennsylvania, it’s just a legacy that our state has,” she said, “and we’ve lost (it) collectively as a country, and it’s exciting to bring it back.”

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