What is it REALLY like to start a distillery?
By: Sean Anger on April 1, 2021
It’s so early, your head is in a fog.
At 2:15AM, it seems to take more energy to turn off the alarm than to roll out of bed. Once I force myself to wash my hands and pop in my contacts, the cobwebs start to clear. The pursuit takes over. It’s vodka day. I’ll be at the distillery until 8:30PM.
Even though our equipment is semi-automated, this isn’t the Showtime Rotisserie. We can’t leave anything unattended during production. This is because ethyl alcohol is considered a Class IB Flammable Liquid by NFPA. We could hire someone, but cash is tight and I have to buy botanicals and our next batch of grain next week. It looks like I’ll just tough it out and pack a big lunch…and breakfast…and dinner.
That wasn’t in the business plan. Our business plan looks like all the rest – a period of red before rocketing into the stratosphere with amazing, profitable months! We weren’t naïve enough to think it would come without effort, but we weren’t supposed to be working 20 hour days. In fact, we were supposed to distill only on weekends and keep our day job and benefits, right?
The reality is that ANY startup is tough. It’s even more challenging in an industry where regulatory compliance is the end-all, be-all. There are Distillery Management software programs out there for $200+/mo – they ensure you meet most regulatory audit points. Most are very good products, but again cash is tight, and we’re too small to fit in their massive program(s). So, we built our own. No one warned us of that, but at least we save that monthly fee in exchange for hours every week ensuring daily volumes, transactions, marketing dollars, and tax reporting are accurate in our 20-tab workbook.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot – I need to be creative. Let’s design a gin. How do I do that, again? These are a few snippets into the world I now live. It’s been a leap from my past of building pipeline infrastructure; that role came with a fully staffed team, tools, and access to other needed resources. As a startup, we need to build all of that from the ground up. I don’t lay this out to scare anyone considering a distillery. I would love to see Houston filled with as many craft distilleries as possible, but there is a certain level of awareness that I want to slide in front of anyone considering this as a business. We’re all a little naïve when we start. We wrote our business plan in 2017 and reading it now is a little comical. I think the weather man has us beat, this time.
Passion is step one. Awareness of naivety is a close second. It’s inherent in all of us to dream big, but if the dream doesn’t account for the friction of startup it will wear away quick. If I have one piece of advice to aspiring distillers it’s this: make a budget and take current distillers to lunch – over and over again. Your time and money is most effectively deployed this way and you’ll build relationships that far exceed the dollars spent. At the end of the day, the core of this business is about people, anyway.
Of course, you can do a ton of research, Google every article (including this one), browse the forums, and have a robust plan on paper, but without physically interacting with the great people in this industry, it’s so early, your head is in a fog.