Hi guys, Happy May(!?!)
Every once in a while I get an email from someone asking what I did, how I did it, what worked, what didn’t, etc. etc. in relation to starting You & Yours. I don’t always have time to answer each one thoughtfully but thanks to our current quarantine situation, I sure do these days. While replying to one such note last week I figured this might be a nice post idea so that anyone – myself included – can direct other aspiring distillers here in the future! Without further ado, my advice for an aspiring distiller —
***Quick post update! It occurred to me it might be worth mentioning this post is naturally best suited for someone looking to follow a similar path to the one I went down with Y&Y (not that it was by any means straightforward or obvious to me at the time lol), seeing as that’s where my knowledge and experience lie. There are several potential roads to becoming a distiller or finding a career in the craft spirits industry, mine is just one of them.
First off, I would commend you for taking your dreams and putting them front and center. Not an easy task. It’s quite common for seasoned distillers to urge aspiring newbies to reconsider their distilling dreams. I can imagine how discouraging that must be as I felt similarly dissuaded when someone suggested early on that I simply white label my product (have another distillery make it for me) instead of launching my own operation. Lucky for me that route to market never interested me in the slightest.
I will, however, preface all the below my saying that starting a distillery from scratch is without a doubt the most difficult thing I have ever done. I often say if I knew then what I know now there is a very real chance I would not have moved forward with Y&Y, truthfully. Actually getting a distillery up and running aside, this industry is incredibly difficult to navigate and “make it” in… You will need infallible conviction and perhaps a certifiably-insane amount of perseverance, but if you have those two things I would never deter anyone from trying.
JUST GETTING STARTED…
To begin I recommend purchasing a small perfume still on eBay or the like. They are small glass versions of the “real” thing and do the trick when just starting out or tinkering. I still use one to this day to begin any new R&D project I dream up. They will be listed as a glass still, perfume still, or essential oil still and shouldn’t cost you more than a few hundred dollars at the most. Botanicals can be purchased in small quantities on Amazon via Starwest Botanicals or other similar suppliers.
If you haven’t already, begin to politely infiltrate your surrounding community of distillers. Reaching out to the Guild President in your region/state/city/county is your best bet if you don’t know where to start. It may not be easy nor particularly helpful in the beginning but a huge reason why Y&Y was able to open on the timeline it did is because a fellow distiller I eventually befriended allowed me to learn and work on his equipment in the very early days. Just keep showing up to meetings/events and introducing yourself. Someone will eventually take notice.
As soon as you can financially and otherwise, sign up for Moonshine University’s 6 Day Distiller Course in Louisville, Kentucky. Without a doubt the most helpful and practical distilling education I completed. Beyond just knowledge and practical skills, I gained contacts there that I wouldn’t have opened Y&Y if it weren’t for them. I simply wouldn’t even consider spending money on any other course/workshop offered by a distillery (in my experience they are taking advantage of this wave in popularity and simply taking your money).
There are a LOT of steps to fulfilling your distilling-related goals between the previous and following paragraphs and your experience will, of course, depend entirely on you and what your goals are. I would encourage you to take your time discovering and exploring these steps. By all means, fail fast and often but what the craft distilling industry – in my opinion – desperately needs above all is more professionalism, thoughtfulness and intention. This is a precarious industry still in it’s infant stages and simply put, quickly churned out operations lacking the necessary skills, safety measures and attention to detail are not going to further the industry’s growth in a positive way.
ONCE YOU’RE UP & RUNNING…
This is perhaps the best advice I could ever give: Figure out what parts of the business you are best at and that bring you the most joy. Whatever those answers are, do those things and hire someone for all the others.*** I urge you to give this an enormous amount of thought. Get rid of any and all ego (an important step it would seem several distillers like to skip 😉 ). Ask those close to you the same question about yourself and see what they say.
For example… In the beginning I did the distilling myself (and even then with ample help) but quickly realized running a distillery of the size and scale I was after does not leave much time for actual distilling (hah). So a few months in I hired someone to help out on a more regular basis and guess what? – I’ve been largely removed from the actual day-to-day production ever since. I have always known that one of my greatest strengths within this business is creating our signature flavor profile and developing the bright, fresh, ingredient-driven spirits we’ve come to be well known for. Therefore I maintain full control of all recipe development and scaling up of new products or formulations, but I leave the eventual day-to-day production of those products to our production distiller so I can focus elsewhere when I need to. I still deeply love the art and process of creating spirits but personally, I know that apart from crafting our brand’s unique flavor profile, my time is best spent keeping crosshairs on the bigger picture and growing the company by helping to sell the product and building/managing my team.
Seeing as You & Yours is just a little over three years old, I’m still figuring things out every day. Perhaps we’ll do a part two! Any specific questions you have or parts of my journey you’d like me to elaborate on? Let me know in the comments.
I skipped around a lot but I hope something in there was helpful for you. I wish you the best of luck and hope you achieve all your dreams and then some! Send me a bottle when you do – LKJ
***Every operation is different and I believe what defines a “successful” distillery is purely subjective. This is simply what I would advise someone looking to start a distillery with the desire and intention of growing it into a profitable, viable business.