1460 days into my distillery

1460 days into my distillery

I own and operate a very small craft brandy distillery located in Lakewood, WA USA. My journey started in early 2015 when I was returning home from work and sitting at the bus, I was pondering what I would do next.

My thoughts went to my parents, both self-employed their entire life. Farmers and masons that worked with their hands all their lives.

Almost 20 years ago my dad started inheriting some winemaking equipment from his dad, and that’s what sparked the idea for him to start making wine.

His winemaking “hobby” became one of the family’s main sources of income as he transitioned from being a mason. Greek laws are somewhat relaxed when it comes to winemaking and even to some extend distilling as its part of the culture to see pot-stills running during the months of September through November distilling Tsipouro (grape pomace brandy or Grappa).

During those years, I remember my dad was emerged into winemaking. Even planting his own small block vineyard at our house to produce Cabernet Sauvignon and a white Greek variety called Roditis.

My Dad

My dad at the home vineyard. Unfortunately passed away in 2018 from cancer and we pulled the vines a few months later.

Every September the whole family would be on high alert, getting prepared for harvest by cleaning barrels, fermentation tanks and getting everything ready to receive that years yield both from our vineyard when it reached maturity and sourced grapes, mainly from Patra a town by the northern coast of Greece.

Those first initial years, where the most fun. After fermentation was near complete we would all get into the big open top fermentation tanks to empty them, while fighting away hungry bees that loved the fruit. Even thought as the years passed his process improved, I still remember those days as the most fun I had, pressing on grapes with my feet and making fart noises.

His style of winemaking was very simple, with really no prior knowledge or formal education, he was using open top fermentation with wild yeasts, although he was adding SO2 during that initial crush. Once the grapes started primary fermentation and be almost complete he would transfer to big barrels to finish, and stay there until they are ready for consumption.

While he's approach was very basic, he was always taking samples throughout the process and sending them to a lab in Patra, to analyze the stability of the must/wine, and see if he had to do any additions based on the recommendations from the lab, which I thought was pretty special especially for a guy that didn't study the matter.

At the time I did not know it, and for me as a young kid it was just another thing that my parents made me do. But years later, on that bus ride home is when that initial seed that was planted many years ago, started flourishing and coming to life.

Just like my dad, I became obsessed with the idea of running a Greek craft distillery here in the States, and using wine grapes to produce Tsipouro, Brandies and Ouzo and over the next months I went deep into research mode to figure out what I would need to do to make this happen.

In November of 2015, I flew to Greece to talk to my parents about the path I wanted to take but also observe the distillation of Tsipouro that is happening all across Greece, learn and understand the logistics.

I still recall my dad’s expression.

He smiled and told me that it’s a dirty job.

But now looking back I do believe deep down he was very proud that I made the decision to pursue this. A few days later I started contacting the company that I would purchase my first pot still for quotes, it was an exciting day.

Upon returning to the United States, I immediately filled for my LLC and started looking for commercial space that would fit the budget. While talking and visiting other small craft distilleries in the Seattle area I realized that this could be achieved on a small budget and without the requirements for fancy equipment. That journey lead me down to trying to pursue a contract distillation option which failed miserably mostly because of my fault for not being clear with my expectations and not having written down a clear contract, never again.

That failed opportunity, made me understand that due to my size, budget and knowledge (which was and is still very limited) I had to do this on my own.

Hunting for commercial real estate to house a distillery is no easy task, I’ve seen beautiful distilleries that are so well polished and funded, but I have also seen distilleries that operate in the back of a house (yes legally!).

My approach was to find space close to where I live to minimize commute times, as I was planning on keeping my day job as its less risky and you can afford to make some of the initial mistakes while I try to establish a brand and market for my products.

Unfortunately, this lead to over a six-month hunt with no real outcomes, spend hundreds of dollars and countless hours working with various cities to understand their policies and requirements for a distillery (Hint: They had no idea, so they always defaulted to the most expensive option in hopes to turn me around).

It worked, after I lost hope, I decided to expand my scope and find a city that is willing to work with a small business. One day while browsing on Craigslist for small commercial space, I found my current location. It was perfect, within my budget, met my requirements (sprinklers along with the square footage) and just felt right for what I wanted to achieve.

After talking with the leasing company and property owner, I started contacting the city of Lakewood regarding the ability to operate a small craft distillery on that premise, they where open to that! Once that initial business license was kicked off, I immediately signed a one year lease and moved in to the unit on January 2016, which kicked off my building and fire inspections, while at the same time I was trying to understand the requirements to fill out my TTB DSP application and WA liquor control board license.

Mastrogiannis Distillery
Right after I started moving some IBC totes into the unit.

All which was done by me. My approach was that every night I would spend 3-4 hours completing and gathering all the required paperwork and submitting the various applications to the different departments. Lots of mistakes, but each department was open and very nice to dealing with people like myself, which I’m very grateful.

Over the next 6 months, I waited for the TTB permit to complete, while keeping busy with installing the still, figuring out the logistics, finding wineries that would go out of business for second hand equipment and in general getting prepared to run a small craft distillery. August 2016 is when I finally was able to legally distill, so I started with an Ouzo distillation from a Red wine base (Tempranillo was the wine).

Since then I have learned a lot, and while I’m still very early into the process I wanted to write my learnings in hope that I can look back one day, to reflect on those early days, but also not to forget as its important to see all of your wins and not get discouraged by the current failures at hand.

1. Don’t use other people’s “wine”

While I consider myself a brandy distillery this metaphor can be applied to all sources for raw material. I learned the hard way and after of thousands of dollars spend that using someone’s else product to craft something that I could call mine, it does not work. In specifics to winemaking, when a winery approached me about a “good deal” I took it, simply because of the cost of entry when we talk about grapes, and the fact that I could only harvest once a year. So, my thought process was that once I’m done with my grapes and distillations, I would purchase wine from winemakers and distill into various products, it’s a win-win, but it didn't quite work that way.

Since then I understood that fermentation has to happen at the distillery, that way I can control the process as much as possible, even if it means not being fully utilized throughout the year.

2. Selling the product is harder than making the product

My father-in-law first mentioned this to me, and I ignore it. In my own head I knew I will be creating something good and different for the region and that once the local Greek community finds out, I won’t be able to keep inventory.

All false assumptions, and thats why I started being more active with accounts, reaching out to more people and improving my sales.

Although there is no magic bullet, and lots of ways to go about it, the current focus is for the few select customers that do stop by or purchase to exceed expectations and overdeliver in value and service.

3. Networking and showing up

Always keep to the basics, this means that never allow for yourself to be fancy but not doing an event, renting that booth that will allow you to talk to customers. Understanding that meeting people, even when its simply to pour in front of 10 students that are studying distillation, it will somehow turn around sooner or later.

This is always something that I constantly have to remind myself, and I struggle a lot but its on my list to improve.

4. Start Small

This is quintessential for a business that does not want to take on investors right away and allow for the brand and distillery to finds its path. This does not mean that you cannot start with the proper size equipment, which later avoids the high cost of rebuilding and resizing equipment, but again for me its alot safer to not owe anybody anything and if I fail, at least I'm clear and I don't bring anybody down, expect myself.

The Winemaker
A great reminder from the book "The Winemaker" by Richard Peterson.

5. Know your true "why"

For me it has taken several attempts to answer this, but it boils down to creating the best possible spirits, by paying tribute to my family heritage and Greek traditions.

This although sounds like it can incorporate a lot, but it actually keeps me grounded. For example I was always very close to purchase NGS to make my Ouzo and Rakomelo, but it would defeat that original why.

Another example I use a lot to remind me of that direction, is that if I talked to my dad about purchasing ready spirit and making into an Ouzo, he would look at me with confusion. While if I was to explain I take grapes, I ferment and distill them into a base for Ouzo, he would understand it.

Staying true to what I would understand, even though it sounds a bit crazy, is what has helped me though the years to be in business.

6. Always say yes, but also always say no

In the beginning you will always want to say YES to everything, its our nature as humans and as a new business you want to get as much exposure as you can, and its OK to say yes to a lot of things. But as you grow into your brand and identity be OK with saying NO to business, relationships or new opportunities. Its a fine balance, but its important if you want to focus and grow.

7. Its OK to change direction

Are you a Gin only distillery that wants to do bourbon 5 years into your business, well if you think you can make better bourbon than what's currently on the market go for it. Are you a Brandy distillery that also wants to make Gin, well go for it if you believe you can make a better Gin than what's currently on the market.

Understanding that you can change your mind, and not be defined by that original vision is OK. We have to learn to adapt our business but also understand doing so, will create distraction that could potential hurt the business, unless it all fits into your original "WHY".

8. Looking for secondary market opportunities

For me, this translated to a few different markets. One was a podcast. I was so frustrated with not having resources on how to open and what to really expect when started that I played with the idea of going around an interviewing the local distilleries for advice, which I did as an informal way.

That translated into why not create an audio version of those questions, and have people that are starting into the same business benefit and hear those stories. September 2015 is when I launched The Distillery Nation Podcast with three interviews, and it has been one of the greatest things that has came out of this entire process...plus the brandy :)

I also started looking how to automate my TTB monthly reports, the results of that was a Software As a Service application that runs on the Microsoft Azure cloud that keeps track from source to bottle and excise tax along with filling the three critical monthly reports for my distillery.

Always look at secondary market opportunities with your business, you might think that its easy for you to do, but you would be surprised how many people struggle with what you think is considered easy or straight-forward.

9. Taking care of yourself

The importance of taking care of ourselves is so very important. Without our health we really cannot be successful, regardless of you much you raised in your crowdfunding campaign, or how many investors you have behind the brand.

This business, like most small businesses, is a mind and body business.

Being healthy, in body and in spirit is very crucial. This is the only thing that will allow you to go pass the negativity, bad reviews, bad days, long days, missed birthday parties, missed vacations and the list goes on and on. Being healthy, and staying healthy is one of the most important aspects.

Final thoughts

Getting starting into this business has taught me alot, not only from a operational prospective but also at a personal level.

Keep working towards those goals, always learning and be humble.