It’s a question many drinks lovers have asked themselves at one time or another: How do you start your own spirits brand?
Well, Jan and Marsh Mohktari of the Golden State Distillery, makers of Gray Whale Gin, have at least some of the answers as that’s just what they decided to do in 2015. Neither of them had any previous experience in the distilling business.
Two things you need upfront are commitment and cash. It was three years before their first product, Gray Whale Gin, came onto the market, and another year before sales started to take off with distribution on the east coast as well as in their native California.
And cash? Distilling at anything other than a hobby-level is not cheap. “A decent craft distillery will run you a minimum $1.5 million,” Jan and Marsh point out. They sold their family home once they’d decided to go for it, and got investment money through a family friend. The funding bought them time to perfect their recipe and to learn everything they could about the distilling industry.
“Ask your fellow distillers questions,” say Jan and Marsh. “What have been their pain points? What do they wish they would have known before starting a distillery? They are an incredibly open and uplifting community.”
The couple’s next tip is that you don’t immediately set about making a great spirit and then selling it, but rather the other way round.
“Spend time developing your brand. Most of us want to dive right into the craft of making wonderful spirits, but we all need to remember that this is a business, and customers buy with their eyes first. Develop a unique brand story, then create the juice that represents that story.”
Also, before you embark on making your gin, the Mohktaris recommend looking into the issue of trademarks.
“Lockdown trademarks,” they say. “It sounds like a difficult and expensive thing to do, but, in fact, it’s not very expensive, and it’s quite simple. Start by searching the USPTO website for trademark names. If you are thinking about spending significant time, effort, and energy in starting a distillery with a specific name or trade name, then it makes sense to protect it. Think of a trademark as a stake in the ground so that others know you are claiming your mark. This will deter most folks, prompting them to choose another route. But you are expected to police your own trademarks. If in doubt, we highly recommend hiring a trademark attorney to help with registrations.”
The Mohktaris decided to name their first spirit Gray Whale Gin, after the California Gray Whale, which journeys along the California coastline as part of its annual 12,000-mile migration from Baja California in Mexico up to the Arctic Ocean. A portion of the profits from each bottle sold is donated to OCEANA, a non-profit organization that helps protect the world’s oceans. As well as being a worthy cause they believe in, this also helps confirm the brand’s identity.
Jan and Marsh also stress that you shouldn’t necessarily try to do everything yourself.
“Outsource what you’re not good at doing yourself. We outsource our accounting and compliance. These are essential tasks that neither of us is great at doing, so it makes sound business sense to outsource this to professionals who do this day in, day out.”
Finally, when you have your trademarked name, your brand identity, including logos and label designs and bottle shapes and website design, and you have your ideal recipe, then it’s time to start selling the stuff and generate some cash flowing in instead of constantly going out.
What about finding a distributor or doing it yourself? “Self-distribute at first,” says the couple. “We chose to do that to prove our concept to potential distributors. No distributor is going to want yet another fill-in-the-blank spirit. They have a portfolio of hundreds, sometimes tens of thousands, of products. So we found that the best way to get their attention was to show demand from a grassroots perspective.”
One final piece of advice for someone thinking of starting a spirit brand is to “follow your gut. When we first started, we heard a lot of, ‘That’s never going to work.’ This was from industry experts and trusted advisors. Whether it was our distilling approach, the botanicals we used, our package design, our distribution approach, or our marketing, we heard a lot of feedback that our approach ‘wasn’t the way it’s done.’ We always listened, and thoughtfully considered their advice. Ten percent of the time, we followed our gut and went against that advice. And those choices have been integral to our success.”
Check out Grey Whale Gin in our Gifts that Give Back Guide.