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Tuthilltown Spirits

by Gavin D Smith, 06/08


(go to part I)

In the first part of this feature we examined how Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee established Tuthilltown Spirits in New York State. Having produced the actual spirit it is obviously imperative that sales are maximised, and Ralph explains how he set about that task.

hitting the Big Apple

"I think we have spent a total of maybe $10,000 over the last four years on advertising and marketing. The rest resulted and continues to come from my personal efforts. PR and 'drawing attention to myself' (for better or worse) seem to be my best talents. We decided to focus on the nearest and most upscale market in the US, right in our backyard, namely New York City and the Hudson Valley.

"No distributor would even return our calls so I packed the stuff in the trunk of my old Saab and drove up and down the valley stopping at every upscale restaurant and spirits shop I could find and personally seeing the owners, who without exception were thrilled to meet the guy who actually made the stuff, rather than a line up of 'liquor' salesmen. It helped enormously to be the first distillers to make whiskey in New York since Prohibition, and that our products are totally different from any others on their shelves.

"Our principal market is the highest level restaurants and spirits shops and the new breed of mixologists who are very happy to finally have something new to work with. For now, this is still a good way to market. But we are starting to spread out, so more promotional materials will be needed, and marketing and PR expenses will begin to become more significant as we produce materials for our clients to promote with. We also made a deliberate effort to sell into upscale markets in Europe, which is turning out to be quite interesting.

Ralph secured 65 restaurants and retail clients in the Hudson Valley before discovering a distributor who specialised in small chateau wines. "They understood the type of production we do," he explains, "and we were their first spirit product. My work in advance of their taking us on allowed us to bring a whole raft of new potential clients for their wine portfolio as well. Now that we have national distribution we are also beginning to sell to other US markets, beginning with Los Angeles and San Francisco. We've been greeted with great enthusiasm., and our only problem is we can't make it fast enough."

reviving lost skills

   When it comes to staffing the distillery as it works to satisfy demand, Ralph notes that "No one knows how to do this anymore except retired and bored distillers from big distilleries, and they cost too much money for a small start-up operation to hire, house and employ for a year or two while product is developed and aged.

"We brought in my son, Gable, and started him drilling holes in concrete and digging ditches. He quickly learned, and is now our Production Manager. He brought on two of his cousins and a third fellow his age (28), recently out of the army. They formed their own little team that is very happy doing this work. It is, after all, very high on the 'cool scale.' It is invaluable to have someone involved (my partner Brian) with an engineering and scientific background who can fix machinery and figure things out. If you have to hire someone every time a pump breaks down or some new problem arises, the costs are ridiculous - and it happens every damned day."

do it yourself

Ralph says in conclusion that "We started this with the mindset 'There are people with half a kindergarten education and no teeth back in the mountains who have figured this out. We can do it.' This first distillery of ours is a proof-of-concept. Contrary to common belief for the last 80 years (fostered by the big spirits producers who want to discourage competition) it is not impossible to do. It is not some deep dark mystery how to make spirits.

"The difficulty is getting to it and sticking to it till you figure it out. We saved perhaps a million dollars by doing 99 per cent of the construction, steam and electrical and control systems, the digging, tiling, welding, plumbing and paperwork ourselves over two years. Our whole cost out of pocket was under $500,000, including all money spent from revenue, which we put back into equipment and such. Others who are paying contractors and lawyers to do the work are spending from $1million up. I like to quote the lyric 'the difficult we can do right now, the impossible may take a little time.'"

Tuthilltown Spirits
14 Gristmill Lane
Gardiner, NY 12525
Tel. 845.633.8284

go to part I


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