By: Donald Snyder
Consumers are thirsty and they want something new. Increased demand for all things local and unique have helped pave the way for a surge of craft distilleries across the country. For those interested in starting a craft distillery today, there is a wealth of resources available to help navigate the unknown. Many toes have been stubbed by those who have been through the startup gauntlet and came out successful on the other side, lighting the path that new distillers can follow. Finally, let’s look at some of the proven, key attributes of a successful craft distillery.
Find Your Niche, Strengths
Every craft distillery is different. That is what makes this industry so exciting. Every distillery starts with different goals, aspirations, skill sets, strategic strengths, and weaknesses. What is your story? What makes you different than the other 900 craft distilleries? If your sales representatives are in front of a new account, how will you get and keep their attention after they leave? Are you the first in your area? Is there something special about your grains or recipes? What does your background and strengths give you as a competitive advantage? Whether you have a business, marketing, technical, accounting, tasting, bartending, packaging, or engineering background, identify and capitalize on your team’s unique skillset to make a lasting mark in the industry.
Understand Your State
Not all states are craft distillery friendly. Some states permit craft distilleries a great deal more flexibility than others. Colorado, as example, permits self-distribution and sales direct to retailers or bars, bottle sales direct to consumers, and sales by the drink out of the distillery tasting room. Washington State has similar distillery-friendly legislation. For these reasons, there are more craft distilleries in these states than any other. States, including some control states, can have very restricting laws making turning a profit very hard. Successful distilleries have come from restrictive states but their struggle is uphill. If you have flexibility in deciding where to open a new craft distillery, research the laws and find a state and a region that is distillery friendly.
Foot Traffic is King
The most successful craft distilleries leverage their location. Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg, TN handles thousands of thirsty tourists each week, all lining up for free tastings of their flavored moonshines. Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines, Alaska has cruise ships dock 500 feet from their distillery that unload 2,000 thirsty passengers right into their backyard. Hotel Tango Distillery is turning into the hangout bar for locals in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. Dancing Pines Distillery in Loveland, Colorado is in the middle of a Denver suburb and has gained a significant following. Is there a successful brewery or winery near you that draws a large crowd? A new craft distillery in the area can offer exciting opportunities for co-branding like bourbon barrel aged beer or a wine barrel finished rum. Urban distilleries can require expensive real estate but the opportunities for distribution and loyal foot traffic can lead to big returns.
Quality is the Only Option
First and foremost a successful craft distillery must have a high quality, great tasting product. If a consumer is going to spend $35-$70 per bottle on a local craft spirit, it better taste good. If the spirit does not meet expectations, the risk is a bad mark on the entire craft industry. Take your time on your formulation. Get feedback from professional tasters, bartenders, distributors, and consumers before you release the product. For example, finding the right combination of gin botanicals does not happen on the first batch. For aged spirits, don’t rush bottling your product if the spirit is not ready. Time, experimentation, research, blood, sweat and tears go into a successful brand and it does not happen overnight. The even harder challenge is making a high quality product in a process that is scalable to meet increasing demand.
Do the Math on Still Size
The most common question I get asked when consulting on a startup is “How big of a still should I buy?” My answer is, “How much money do you NEED to make?”
Here is a simple example:
Distilling a batch of spirits from grain on a 60 gallon pot still will make you about four 12pk cases a day (about 7-9 Proof gallons), depending on the mash bill. If these bottles retail for $40 per bottle, you can probably sell those bottles to a distributor for $20/bottle. That is a total possible revenue of $960/day.
Assuming a healthy 40% profit margin after Cost of Goods Sold for raw materials, you can net $384/day.
Assuming you distill Monday to Friday for 250 days per year, can $96,000 per year after material costs cover overhead, rent, other expenses, and payroll?
Assuming reasonably similar labor inputs and profit margins on materials, a 600 gallon pot still will produce 10x the spirits in the same number of working days.
At that production level, a distillery can both sell unaged products and lay down spirits for aging. Estimate your revenue needs to cover your overhead and back into how many cases you need sell. Reasonability account for year over year growth and calculate how big your still needs to be to keep up with demand.
Source or Not, but be Transparent
Large distilleries know they can make vodka from scratch for $15-$35 per proof gallon. They also know they can buy beverage grade Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS) that can be used for vodka, gin, liqueurs, or “moonshine” for $1.50-$4.50 per proof gallon. Instead of aging spirits for years, if available and cost effective, sourcing aged spirits from established distilleries can allow start up craft brands to add aged whiskey to their portfolio immediately. Without debating the pros and cons of sourcing spirits, it is important to follow all labeling guidelines and regulations. If you take pride in making it from scratch, let the world know. If you don’t distill the spirits at your distillery, do not imply as such on the label.
Sales and Marketing
Once you’ve distilled or blended an award winning craft spirit, you have to get the consumers’ attention. The most successful craft distilleries with growing market share know that marketing dollars are key. Tasting events, radio promotions, print advertisements, and social media blasts are not only expensive, but take up your time.
Distributors can be great partners to help open new markets but the ultimate responsibility is on you to provide boots on the ground support for your brand. Convincing brand-loyal consumers to try your product is hard and expensive. Sharing the cost of promotions, samples, and incentives with your distributor is common, especially for new brands, but can take a big piece out of your margins. A rough estimate for a marketing spend budget is 10% or more of your annual revenue.
As a new generation of craft distilleries open, standing on the shoulders of those who opened before them, they have an incredible opportunity to be a part of rapidly growing industry. The path has been lit by history’s pitfalls trying not to repeat themselves.
The time is right to start a new craft distillery while learning from the most successful in the industry. No matter what your background, find your strengths and create your story. Find a location that is both craft-friendly and draws visitors. Make smart business decisions about equipment and marketing. But most of all, embrace your responsibility to ensure your product tastes good and be a positive reflection of the craft community.