Distilleries, Entrepreneurs

The perfect startup cocktail

One of the biggest entrepreneurial trends in the US is the startup of craft breweries and distilleries. I recently had the privilege to attend the Chicago Independent Spirits Expo – what an amazing experience. Not only did I get over my 20+ years fear of Gin but I was also reminded that all entrepreneurs and startups experience many of the same challenges, regardless of the industry.

Entrepreneurs and startups experience many of the same challenges, regardless of the industry.

Over the 2 days we had the opportunity to connect with over 50 distilleries and sample everything from Bourbon, Scotch, Rye, Vodka and Gin to new spirits I had not experienced before like Pisco, Mezcal, Feni, Absinthe and one very odd drink call Molart. The distilleries represented everything from well established brands to brand new startups. There were distributors, bar & restaurant owners, bartenders, and industry influencers on hand to share their thoughts and opinions on the different brands and what makes each one of them standout from their competition.

Tasting glasses

Even though we had a great time sampling, this was no boondoggle. In fact, the roundtable that was facilitated by Louisville’s very own Fred Minnick, provided an excellent reminder of practical business tips that not only apply to craft distilleries but to all entrepreneurs and startups.

  1. Do something you love and have a real passion for it. At the event I met a guy by the name of Josh Morton. He stood behind a simple table with brightly labeled bottles with a curious bright yellow mixture inside. Before I could ask a question he told me I had to taste it first. Given my previous experience with the Molart (yuck) I was someone hesitant. But I took a leap of faith and sampled the full flavored ginger liqueur called Intense. Wow what a flavor! I quickly learned that Josh was quite a character, was the embodiment of his brand and brought his own personal story to life. He shared how even today, with a growing brand, he continues to have a very hands on approach to making his elixir and personally makes sure that every batch meets his high standards for quality. As you build your brand, continue to remain genuine and true to who you are and what your brand was built upon. Keep the passion alive by staying engaged in the one thing that got you started in business in the first place. This will help get you through both the highs and the lows of starting your new business.
  2. Be a good partner with all those that touch your brand. What if you had the best product in the world, but it never got used because the packaging was wrong or the user didn’t know how to use it? In the liquor business this happens all the time. Someone gets creative and “sexy” with their brand, investing big dollars into beautiful packaging and a unique bottle design that won’t even fit on the average bar. At the industry roundtable, the Barrow Distillery talked about how before they go into full production with a product they get feedback and support from not only the one making the initial buying decision (i.e. restaurant or bar) but follow up with the end user (i.e. the bartender) to get their input and ideas on how to use the product. Regardless of who makes the buying decision, if the end users are not fans, it will not get used and eventually will be put on the back shelf.
  3. Total world domination takes time and focus but ultimately starts with a really good product. Pappy Van Winkle did not get where they are overnight, the brand was built over time. In fact, Julian Van Winkle bought Stitzel-Weller in 1972. The Pappy frenzy did not begin until just a few years ago when they started to be recognized with multiple awards over multiple years. A startup needs to have big aspirations, but also be realistic about how and when they can achieve total world domination. Getting there takes time, patience, commitment, sweat and sometimes a few tears. There are going to be times when you win and times you are going to lose. In the end, if you have a really good product that appeals to the right audience, it will prevail.

Use a combination of these 3 things, and you’ll have a great startup cocktail!

Linda Ruffenach

Customer experience guru, original Whisky Chick, and strong believer that roadblocks are not meant to stop you but to help you find a better path.

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