the modern distiller

Professional Distilling

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Professional Distilling

Postby Kapea » Tue Dec 25, 2012 1:24 am

Being that we are fortunate enough to have professional distillers as members of our forum, I would like to ask, what's it like to make distilling your day job? Is it the realization of a dream? Did you screw up a perfectly good hobby? Something in between? Something else entirely?

I have to say, I enjoy distilling tremendously - all of the aspects of it: Equipment fabrication, fermentation, recipe formulation, stripping, spirits collection, aging, blending... I have not done the marketing part, for spirits, but I am a successful business owner and understand marketing and commerce. I also understand the commitment and dedication it takes to make a business succeed, and the risks involved - that despite your best efforts, a business might not succeed.

It is an enjoyable exercise of the mind to dream about making this hobby into a legitimate business. I believe that the market is there, and that I could sell everything I make. I also see the three tier system and wonder how much of a drag on business that is.

The biggest drawback,it looks like to me, is having the governments' microscopes so far up your ass all of the time. Especially in the beginning while getting the licensing to be a distiller.

I used to dream about opening a brewery. I have guest-brewed at quite a few pro-breweries. I know a few people who have opened breweries and are successful at it. I see them work their asses off, and not get anywhere near the return on their efforts that you can get by being in other businesses. Mostly they do it for the enjoyment of making a living doing what they love. I decided that being a pro brewer was not for me.

I love distilling. Is it worthwhile taking it to the pro level, or better left as a very enjoyable hobby? How do you think being a pro distiller compares to being a pro brewer?

One of the attractions is being a member of the distillers' fraternity. Should I be happy with being a member of the home distillers' fraternity and leave it at that?

I realize different people have different ideas about the same subject. I'm just wondering how the good folks who walk the walk everyday feel about it.
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby the Doctor » Tue Dec 25, 2012 5:48 am

Well Kapea I am now in the position of being a winemaker, brewer and recently licensed distiller, my initial thoughts as regard your post is that, winemaking is easy, the less you do to the wine the better. There is a great maxim from Burgundy which sums up wine making perfectly, it hangs in my lab area it says " sometimes you have to have the courage to do nothing". Good grape makes good wine. The brewing is very enjoyable but can be time consuming, I have trained my wife to be a very competent brewer, she and I work shoulder to shoulder every day. But distilling is the thing I get very passionate about...my days distilling are somehow more contemplative and peaceful. The atmosphere is un hurried and we always have great music playing as a soundtrack to the day. I always look forward to work and especially love developing new and more interesting products. As for the returns wine is very profitable, if you have a market. I know a lot of winemakers who are going out of business at the moment. Wine is all they sell, and in Australia the wine market is depressed, wholesale prices are down and some cannot even recoup their costs. Right from the start we took a very different path to selling wine. We refused to wholesale any wine. everyone pays the same price. But as the reputation of our best products grew they carried the whole range with them. So it is important to have signature products which by their excellence carry the range and build reputation. Our signature wine is called Evolution Shiraz, we only use the best fruit for it, but what makes it spectacular is that I throw out half the juice within hours of crushing. The resultant wine has double the skin contact of any other shiraz, and is something to behold. I price this flagship wine at $47, which is a lot but it carries the reputation of the whole winery in every glass. As we do not whole sale this is the price the restaurants in Sydney have to pay. I know of it being priced up to $150 at the best restaurants. Which is way above what most people will pay, but it's reputation lifts the whole range to the point that out regularly priced wines are snapped up, when people get the chance. We now sell out of everything we make in the winery and some blends such as Pinot, Pinotage, Merlot are often pre sold before they are even made.
Beer is a whole different ball game. To sell our beers we have a bit more fun. We market them with a lot of humour...Beer drinkers do not take themselves anywhere near as seriously as wine drinkers so we have a line of beers with names like "Cunning Stunts, Fudpucker, Sick Puppy, Old Trout (named after my mum) etc. we write a backstory to every beer and generally take the P##$. What is good about beer is that grain can be consistently sourced and priced so the profit is a known thing. We have developed a system of using cold cubing ( holding unfermented wort in pasteurised plastic cubes) so we brew when it is quiet in winter and only ferment as and when we need it. This method works brilliantly for us.
Distilling is the best though, it is a very reliable product with well defined costs. Excise is very high but is factored into each bottle. The reputation of the other products we make carries the distilled product through to the market. Also having our own outlet, with our restaurant and bar really helps. Recently we had a whole weekend with hundreds of guests and we sold only 4 bottles of beer which were not our own, all other drinks sold for the whole weekend were our brand. Our restaurant is excellent and we use amazing and expensive produce, we do not make money from food. It is the honey pot which we use to sell alcohol, which is the main game for us.
I remember the words of a very wise man named Ray Croc, he was the founder of McDonalds, he asked a group at a conference what business they thought he was in, the predictable answers of "Hamburgers, Fast Food etc " where bandied around the room...He paused at the lectern...and the said something I have never forgotten... He said no! you are all wrong, I am in the Real Estate business I own more real estate than the catholic church, and in better positions The lesson being that if you do decide at some point to become a distiller, that selling spirits may be your main game...but may not be the thing that gets customers through the door initially.
1...Always have a signature product which carries the company name to the public, gets superior reviews and is very visible, for our spirit range it is a Rose Vodka which is very unique and is very expensive to make (fresh rose petals are $50 to $80 a kilo) but it gets a lot of attention.
2...Never forget your main game, be prepared to take a loss on a product which attracts your customers. You cannot sell to someone if they do not come in to buy!
3...Be Different...to make something the same as others and expect to sell it is bulls&%t. You are going to be lost in a world of pain if you try to compete, as there is always somebody who can make it cheaper than a small operator.
4...People do not buy wine, beer, and spirits. They buy a story, they want to brag to their friends about the amazing new product they got and how it is different and better. They do not for instance buy wine for a dinner party just on how good it tastes. but often on the cache it carries. you have to develop that cache.
5...be prepared...your business may tank for a couple of years before you get the main game right...it is easy to go off on tangents, be strong ...Never, never forget the main game.

Lastly keep it light. Do not lose sight that life is short and we only get one go at it. As your business grows, never forget that what is really important has nothing to do with business. The really important thing is your family loved ones and friends...so don't get so busy that you cannot give back to those you love.
I hope that these words are of some value to you. Should you decide to take the plunge I will be happy to mentor you through the licensing process...which is daunting but definitely not impossible.
Take care have a great Christmas
Stephen
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby rossco » Wed Dec 26, 2012 7:28 am

Interesting read Doc.

But I expected that given the quality of your marketing :mrgreen:
So many small business people I know say " got so many orders I can't keep up, but I'm not making any money"
They understand their trade, but lack understanding of basic business principles.
You have accomplished what most people can't-
That is to decide what you want to do with your time, and get someone to pay you to do it.
I think most chopper pilots understand this ethos.

Looking forward to meeting you and having a look at your place in the not to distant future. :grin:

Anyway Happy New Year
Rossco
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby WhiskeyD » Sat Jan 05, 2013 4:31 pm

Life is short. Do what you love. If you are happy, you are way better off and doing better than most people. The world does not need another bitter and miserable person. Have you spent much time around any rich people? Guess what, about 20% are the nicest, most well adjusted people you will meet. Lovely people. The other 80% are miserable and incredibly unhappy. They gave up something for the money that they regret and it did not make them truly happy.
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby the Doctor » Sat Jan 05, 2013 5:07 pm

WhiskeyD wrote:Life is short. Do what you love. If you are happy, you are way better off and doing better than most people. The world does not need another bitter and miserable person. Have you spent much time around any rich people? Guess what, about 20% are the nicest, most well adjusted people you will meet. Lovely people. The other 80% are miserable and incredibly unhappy. They gave up something for the money that they regret and it did not make them truly happy.


So true Darek...so true... working in Hollywood I met many, many people who were a lot richer than me, and had a lot of power...but I met few who laughed as often as I did, and few who were as happy as those I knew who were living their dream...no matter how modest that dream is. We only get one go...make it count.
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby Kapea » Sat Jan 05, 2013 7:26 pm

I work with very rich people, some of them quite famous. Your 20% figure sounds about right. I also work with some people that don't have much money at all, but are living the life they choose and are as happy as can be. Money ain't it. Living life in your own way is true success.

I would really like to become a professional distiller. I know I can make it work. I think it would make me want to jump out of bed every morning and take off for the distillery. The days I run my hobby still I'm up and in the shed an hour or two before sunrise. I have several businesses now that are enjoyable, but have lost their luster. I am handing them off to family as they learn how to run things. Slowly taking my hands off of the wheel.

There is a lot of cachet in products that are made here, just because they are made here. I like to joke that you could wrap up a trail apple in a nice package marked Made In (here), and it would sell just because of where it was made. Quality spirits made here, tropical fruit eaux de vie, purple sweet potato shochu... will sell every drop, I have no doubt. I have researched the market. It is there.

What gives me pause is the goverment intrusivness that one has to endure to be an ABP here. I am a bit of a libertarian and find goverment intrusion into my life quite unpleasant. The older I get the less I like it. I'm concerned that that, and the three tier system imposed on spirits here would take all of the fun out of it.

If I could just ferment, distill, age, bottle and not have to worry about the rest I would place an equipment order tomorrow. I'd love to run something larger than a half barrel sanke keg boiler.
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby WhiskeyD » Sun Jan 06, 2013 10:30 am

If you do not like government intrusion, distilling professionally will be a real pain. However it is only a small part of the time.

Also there are other aspects of the distilling community to consider. I think there is going to be a small boom in micro malting facilities. Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts is doing really cool stuff and getting a lot of praise. They deserve it. If I was a better metal smith I probably would have opened a company making stills. Making stills is almost more fun than distilling.
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby Odin » Thu Jun 27, 2013 7:37 am

I am working my daytime job. That's like 40 hours every week. Not a bad job. I am glad I have it.

I also have what we might call a second job. If a job it is. Developing the iStill organisation, selling SPP, distillation equipment, having talks to clients ... Well, that takes another 40 hours per week. If not 50 or 60.

Next to managing iStill, I am also developing my own micro distillery plans. NDC will probably be out on the market place in half a year time. Another 10 hours per week? Maybe, I don't keep count.

But I love that part of my "work week". iStill, NDC. It does not take energy, it gives energy.

I think the best thing that can happen to a working person, is when he or she can turn his hobby into a living. And maybe "turn" is not the right word. Sometimes an opportunity arises. Most people around you will try to explain how you should make a very careful, well thought off, well thought out decisiion.

Hmmm ... the older I get (and I am not that old yet), the more I learn: if the heart says yes, it usually does not talk, but SHOUTS at you. Do it. Immediately. The others, trying to give you their "best advice", do not hear that voice, don't live at your heart beat.

Regards, Odin.
"Great art is created only through diligent and painstaking effort to perfect and polish oneself." by Buddhist filosofer Daisaku Ikeda.
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby FullySilenced » Thu Jun 27, 2013 11:06 am

Odin, Everyone Dies! but not everyone lives.... sounds like you might be living.... :handgestures-thumbupright: :grin:
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby just sayin' » Tue Jul 08, 2014 12:54 pm

I just discovered this older post and I was taken to another level while reading. The dream to make a living doing what we love has such a strong pull. Reading those who have taken the leap of faith and now are living the dream gives hope that I might not be quite as crazy as my better half, of forty years, thinks I am. Thank you all for keeping the dream alive!
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby Odin » Mon Dec 07, 2015 11:40 am

Starting up a pro distillery as we speak. Next to the other business. Daytime jobs? Quit a year ago to do and only do what I like.

Just Sayin' any updates on your plans?

Odin.
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby just sayin' » Wed Dec 09, 2015 11:13 pm

Mighty Odin,
You are an inspiration. I remember your your first posts here and else where, you are truly living the dream! I appreciate your question.
I continue to dream, research and experiment. I hope to retire in the next year or two. I am thinking a locally sourced barley malt whisky. I have yet to find a source of West Virginia peat from the headwaters of the Potomac river. The flavor profile will not be Islay, but it will be what it is, a Potomac Highlands malt, local barley, local peat, in house malting, and local white oak. It may remain a family heritage dram or if it can be truly excellent I will see where it will go. I hope I live to see it, I will continue to dream, research, experiment and maybe get it started for my son and his sons. A locally sourced malt whisky from the West Virginia highland headwaters of the mighty Potomac should be marketable if it is excellent.
That is my dream! Thanks again for asking, I am honored by your concern. I wish you well in all of your endeavors.
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Re: Professional Distilling

Postby Odin » Thu Jan 14, 2016 7:55 pm

Here's a picture of the second big rig I put up in the new distillery!

Regards, Odin.
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