“All I was trying to do was meet some girls,” admits Tito Beveridge on the phone from his distillery outside Austin. “I just thought that if I could do that, I was a genius.” Indeed, Beveridge is a genius — and we aren’t taking about with the UT co-eds when he launched his vodka company, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, in 1995. He was smart to be the first person to realize that alcohol consumers would respect a product made independently, and in small batches. And by respect, we mean spend millions of dollars a year on the 700+ independent products being produced annually. Tito’s was the first, growing today into an operation that employs 72 and ships “hundreds of thousands” of cases a year to all 50 states, approximated by the metrics-shy Beveridge.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council Of The United States, this falls outside the realm of “craft spirits” by exceeding more than 40,000 nine-liter cases a year. But as we find out in our interview, Tito’s is still made by a guy named Tito — who was holding test tubes filled with his namesake liquid moments before our call. If that isn’t handcrafted, what is?
When you started selling this product, what was your main goal? Did you want to sell like a million cases and be a really rich man?
At the start, all I was just trying to make was around $1,200 a month. That was my initial plan and I had no idea what I was up against. Once I got into doing the business, I realized there’s the ATF and the ABCs and regulatory stuff. There were all these hidden expenses. It’s like deciding you’re going to build a car. I was thinking it would be like getting into the hot sauce business. You go and make some hot sauce, then go to a store and convince them to start selling your hot sauce. It ends up that it’s more like getting into the automobile business. It is more regulated than the oil business.
Do you still consider yourself a craft distiller?
We haven’t changed the way that we do business. We have more stills, but we still cook everything in pot stills. We don’t have a mass spectrometer or gas chromatrograph or anything like that. We do it the way that we have always done it and make vodka that we like. I was just walking around and had two test tubes sitting right in front of me, and I’m just sitting there sucking on them. The problem is that agricultural products are constantly changing. Even if you get them from the same field, year-to-year, they are different — just because of the number of days of sunlight and cloud cover and rains.
This is the corn you’re talking about?
Yeah. I kind of look at corn like it’s grapes. I don’t know how anybody else does it in the industry, but I’m kind of a self-taught guy and do it the way I do it. I always look at it like it’s great-grandma’s kitchen. Whatever comes in the back door tastes pretty damn good by the time it goes into the kitchen and heads out to the dining room table.
How many cases do you aim to produce in 2013?
I don’t know. Everybody wants to buy, I’m hoping. I keep building more stills. One year I tripled and one year I doubled. It’s always changing. We’ve never gone backwards and have always grown, but besides that I have no idea. I’ve kind of gotten to where my brain is always five or six years down the road.
Who do you admire in the craft spirits world?
That’s kind of interesting, I hadn’t really thought of it.
Do you have any mentors or people you’ve met at trade shows or industry events?
When I started doing this and tried to get a permit from the ATF, they just weren’t small distilleries. There was Brown-Forman and Jim Beam and there were like big rectifying plants like Sazerac, but there weren’t any craft distilleries. I was talking to Fritz Maytag later on and I think that maybe he had done a barrel of whiskey that he was aging or something like that. But I bought this land in February of 1995 and got my permits and started cooking. Hangar One was the only one that I had heard of, though later on. I think they started in 1998 or something. I had gone through all the literature and when I read all these CD-ROMs in the library, there wasn’t a single craft distillery in the country. Mistakenly, I had thought that Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek — those “small bourbons” — were small micro-distilleries. [He goes on to tell the story about how a marketing executive from Jim Beam broke the news to him that those brands were, in fact, created by the corporate behemoth Jim Beam.] I then asked him who the other little distilleries were and he replied that he had been in the business for 30 years and I was the only one he had heard of in his life. At that time, I felt like the world had opened up and I had just fallen down to China. I thought, “Man, I am just the stupidest son of a bitch.” I had built my whole business model after these small bourbon distilleries, and it turns out that they were just Jim Beam bottled a different way.
Have you been offered buyouts from the Jim Beams of the world?
What’s your stance on that?
I just tell them that I’m happy to make some new friends in the industry but that I love what I do and that I’m not interested in selling any of it. I tried to sell part of it for the first six or seven years and nobody would invest in it. Then I got it up and running, and now I’m kind of used to not having board meetings and investors and I can go do whatever I want.
What kind of advice would you give to craft brewers or craft distillers who are just trying to break into the business?
First of all, I would tell them to make something that they enjoy drinking. I would tell them to not do it for the money, but to do it because that’s what they enjoy doing. I would also tell them that the hardest thing will be distribution, because it’s super competitive. But it’s the hospitality industry and it’s a great bunch of people and a whole lot of fun.
What’s it like being Tito of Tito’s vodka in a town like Austin?
It’s fun. I went to college here and moved off for a long time then moved back here twenty-something years ago. There wasn’t anything going on in Austin when I moved back here — it was like boarded up; the savings and loans crisis was going on. But now the city keeps growing and I really enjoy it. My wife doesn’t like it so much. She’s just like, “Oh, my God. You go out and all you talk about is vodka!” But I was at a Super Bowl party last night and we talked about vodka a bit, but then we talked about other things — traveling, fishing, kids, just everything.
You just have one product, right?
Yeah, just one thing. Vodka.
Are you thinking about another product?
Oh my God, man, I drive my people crazy. I’m always thinking about another product and always experimenting. I came close to doing a gin and then came really close to doing a whiskey. I was going to do some flavored vodkas and a 100% agave. I’d always just work on it and cook it and age it and buy everything on the shelf. We’d taste-test everything and come up with what we thought was the best and work on those until we consistently beat it. We’d be ready and I would talk to my distributors and get everybody on board, and then I would kind of slap my hand before I pushed the button and just wouldn’t do it. As the years have worn on, I’ve realized this business is very competitive. At some point, I just kind of decided to leave some on the table for somebody else.