By: Donald Snyder
Ask any established craft distiller what they would have done differently and you will get a common answer, “How much time do you have?” For most new distillers starting from scratch in the last few years, it was a learn-as-you-go venture paved with blood, sweat, and tears. The promise of high margins in an exciting and rapidly growing industry with local laws now changing to be more “craft friendly”, the draw to join the liquor industry today is almost intoxicating. Today, new craft distillers are starting up following in the footsteps and standing on the shoulders of those who came before them to bring something new and unique to the market.
There are over 800 active micro distillers in America and dozens more opening every month. Domestic and international consumers have developed a palette for unique distilled spirits and have not seemed to quench their thirst for all things different and local. If that wasn’t a big enough reason to join the party, there is now a wealth of resources available to get started without repeating the painful road paved by others.
An aspiring distiller today does not need to look very hard to find resources to help them start up a new distillery. There are distillation classes across the country offering everything from a hands-on introduction to the distilling industry, chemistry-based fermentation and mashing lessons, blending and product development classes, to advanced distilling techniques classes for those looking to sharpen their craft. As a lecturer at both the Moonshine University in Louisville, KY and at the Six & Twenty Distilling class in Greenville, SC, I get to give people a taste of the industry before they decide to jump in with their hard earned money. Being able to touch, look, and feel for a few thousand dollars can be well worth it.
Another hands-on and immersive way to learn about the spir its business are the annual craft distillery conferences with break out informative sessions for all levels of experience. The American Distilling Institute (ADI) and the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) both have annual conferences where all the players in the industry converge to discuss current market trends and distillation issues of the day. For new players in the business, the biggest advantage of these conferences are the vendor booths which are a literal one-stop-shop for all the suppliers you will need to start a craft distillery. Imagine having every major glass bottle supplier, chiller and equipment vendor, grain sources, and even the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) all represented and able to answer your questions in one space. I hear the established craft distillers groan every year having had to research and hunt them all down one by one.
However, even before an aspiring distiller books an air plane ticket to a conference or to a class, there are now vast repositories of information available on-line. There are several popular and active forums and blogs on-line with communities of distillers sharing their experiences and responding to questions. One of the most active is the ADI Forum where new and established distillers talk about the issues du jour and share techniques. There are active home distilling forums with resources as well but I’ll remind everyone that distilling spirits without a federal permit is currently against the law.
Finally, once a person is ready to start a distillery, there are now a plethora of consultants with years of experience in the distilled spirits industry. There are consultants for every specialty, issue and budget. There are consultants like Richard Wolf of Wolf Consulting who can help prepare a solid business model including cash flow, cost of good sold (COGS) and profit projections to help articulate capital needs and find investors. Consultants like Jim McCoy, who retired from the TTB after 32 years, can help navigate the licensing, federal permitting, or audit headaches and assist with label or formula approval. Sherman Owen of Artisan Resources can help with developing a mash bill, fermenting, distilling, equipment sourcing and may other tactical operational issues. There are retired master distillers who worked for the large distilleries who can help teach the up and comers how to make a high quality product while leveraging their connections in the industry. Nancy Fraley of Fraley Nosing Services can help with blending and differentiating your product in a crowded market space. There are even “one-stop-shop” consultants who act like a general contractor that can walk a distillery from concept to reality while bringing in specialized consultants and network resources as needed.
With all that said, even with all the incredible resources available, it can still be a hard and expensive road to travel. A typical new craft distillery will require hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and investment. Older buildings will need expensive renovations to be both visually appealing and up to local code to operate a still. A green field distillery built from scratch sized to expand could easily cost a half million dollars or more. For distilleries hoping to make an aged product such as a bourbon, they must prepare to spend a thousand dollars per barrel in raw materials, labor, and other conversion costs and see no return on that capital until it is dumped and bottled. Cash flow and operational reserves for a startup distillery can easily trip up even the best business model. It is possible to start a distillery on a “shoe string” budget, but it is a tough road to travel.
If you are considering opening a craft distillery, know that there have never been more resources at your disposal. It is not an easy or cheap road to go down but the return can be big. Reach out to a local craft distiller, make a connection with a consultant for an introduction, or be an active participant on-line and you will be well armed to decide if your next business card will say Master Distiller.