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The Hard Right, Part Two of Three

As I mentioned in previous blog posts, young whisky sucks. Even if you start with a 159 proof, near grain neutral spirit, you'll find that with less than six months that it's harsh. Harsh is probably a kind word. I think one of my louder than life uncles used the term wildcat piss for young whisky (moonshine). Between a year and 2 years you have color, vanilla, oak, and hints of caramel, but that is just about where the complexity stops and branding begins. 

Let's take Ole Smoky Charred Moonshine, which is grain neutral spirit aged in oak barrels for 3-4 months. It's a heapin helpin of good ole fashioned Americana on the surface. Founded by college friends and situated at the foot of the Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg Tennessee, it sounds like the American dream come true. The bottle (if a mason jar could be called such) just states that it is bottled by Ole Smoky. That means that the liquor could probably come from Indiana or nearby Kentucky. It tastes like oak and rubbing alcohol. Seriously. I don't think I would even disinfect an open wound with it. However, with a few million, you can manage to get national distribution, marketing, POS displays, and celebrity or big brand endorsements (a la Harley-Davidson).

Personally, it pisses me off. Not because of the success; not because they didn't live on hotdogs and ramen while they were crafting a superb spirit. I root for all things that Ole smoky says it is. What pisses me off was that they didn't take the hard right. They didn't put the quality first, They didn't hunt down the best local ingredients. They don't sell what they make. What I'm getting at here is that it has never been a quality centric product. Perhaps the ma and pa kettle packaging will pay off and they will keep making money hand over fist. It's hard to say. 

What this comes down to for me is that they didn't take the hard right and by God we will. I know that this sounds like a rant, and in a way it is. However, really I'm not complaining but instead just sharing my thought process of what I think a great brand should be doing. Really, I'm documenting this process of how Ozark Mountain Distilling is becoming one of the most valuable brands in the U.S. Yeah, I said it. Mark my words; we will be one of the most valuable brands in the U.S. I honestly don't know if we will be the most profitable, but by drawing this line in the sand I think we are doing what is right, what is ethical, and what will make the greatest product. Chances are, it's going to take years for this to happen. Look at Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, Laphroaig,  etc. These companies grew organically, over time, and grew because they made a great product. I'm patient. I don't care if it takes me until I'm 80. I only care that it happens. Think these other "craft" guys are looking a quarter century down the road? Probably not. It's a hard right and we are taking it.

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Corn, Time, and Taoism

Today was extremely crappy in terms of productivity. I had one goal: fix this god forsaken grinder and get it out of my distillery bay. Did that happen? Definitely not. I picked up this 1970s piece of vintage machinery from one of the local Amish farmers for 200 bucks with no guarantees of anything. The hammers looked ok so I figured what the heck. I don't have the money to buy a new one so I better have the time to fix an old one. It needed a bearing on one of the augers and the screen un-stuck on the mill. After about 6 trips to the local farm supply store, all of my parts were sourced, the busted up rim replaced, and I was in business. I thought. Misty and the girls were all feeling a little under the weather. My infant is cutting teeth, so add that on and you have one cranky (and needy!) baby. I helped around the house and with the girls with interruptions of fixing the grinder basically. At 830 pm, Misty looked miserable so I told her to go on to bed and I'd take care of the girls. At that point, I gave in and decided to enjoy the rest of this day. I rocked the youngest to sleep, put her on the bed, and then me and a 4 year old made a chocolate cake before brushing teeth and a bedtime story. I was a hero, and truly enjoyed the rest of my day. Sometimes we need to appreciate the moments that we have and actually live in them. Most people are present physically in the present, but are mentally in the future or past. Sometimes, maybe most times it would be best to just actually live now and realize that yesterday is gone and tomorrow can only happen tomorrow.

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The Hard Right- Part one of three

Disclaimer: this is a long blog post! 

So what happened? For about six months you saw us everywhere. I was hitting it every day on twitter, instagram, Facebook, youtube, and this blog on the whisky holler. Then the online content just DROPPED. Well, here is the truth: I think that I was taking this business down the wrong path. There were a couple things that really pushed me to put all of this on a hold. I'm going to cover the first one in this post. The first was the crushing financial/time drain from promotions. You see, everybody wants to trade their space for your dollars. We did whiskey fest, sugar rush, grand openings, tastings, and the list goes on. Some of it costs money, and some of it cost me my time. My hopes on all of this was that it would translate into sales, and for a brand that already has a marketing budget that would be correct. However, we are an unknown and wherever we went we were just interesting and that was about it. Interesting doesn't sell young whisky in the long run and for the most part all I managed to do was give away a lot of whisky. It was fun, but didn't really create a return on investment- and it cost me a lot of time. I mash, distill, barrel, bottle, sell, account, and somehow manage to help my wife with out with our two young daughters. My cash flow is basically nil. This endeavor has been on my own dime and credit so at the end of the day, my profits from sales cover putting up whisky in barrels as well as payroll, excise taxes, and my personal mortgage payment. After we got the building, rick house, equipment, and barrels set up, there wasn't a hell of a lot left. I met with some "investors", but what they were after was different from what I was after. Here is what I'm getting at: young whisky sucks. A big sorry to all of my fellow craft/micro distillers (seriously, I feel your pain). I started selling whisky that was less than a year and it wasn't anything that I really liked to drink. I decided it was wrong. I haven't distributed (wholesale) any aged whisky since April because it wasn't ready. I tried advanced aging techniques, and it was good, but it wasn't phenomenal. I know in my heart of hearts, and my pallet confirms, that there is nothing better than OLD whisky. The only problem here is that we started distilling in July 2016. The MINIMUM age of good whisky, and ask any true afficionado, is four years. It just takes that much time in the oak. Period. You can't cheat father time. There is no short cut for fantastic whisky. I'll say it again: THERE IS NO SHORT CUT FOR FANTASTIC WHISKY. 

Also, let me be frank. That thirty to fifty dollar bottle of craft whisky is a rip off in some ways. Look, I'm not saying that they are actively trying to cheat you, but they really can't afford to sell it for any less than that. They have the same problems that I do. They need to sell in order to keep their doors open and time is money. So what is sitting on the shelf from a lot of small producers is whisky that is under two years old. It's brown and has a lot of the characteristics of great whisky but doesn't have the complexity that comes from good ole fashioned time. I've decided to not push out whisky that isn't ready. If I'm going to charge thirty dollars for a bottle of whisky, it's going to be worth forty. I believe that you should always try to give more- always. Call it an old fashioned background, stupid, stubborn, or whatever you want, but I want to be in the reorder business, not the sales business. 

I'm now back on Active Duty in the Army. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the Army. I have deep, deep respect for the military, serving my country, and absolutely love serving my Soldiers through leadership. The Army has taken me from a nobody hillbilly from the Missouri Ozarks to a Captain in the Army commanding Soldiers and responsible for millions of dollars of equipment. However, all I really want to do is make whisky here in the Ozarks. These are my true loves. I could write pages and pages on both of these subjects but I'll save you for now. In the end, I need to feed this business. I have corn to purchase, and a business loan to pay for. In three years, this business loan will be paid for and more whisky made. Provided I have survived another four years of active military service and haven't been killed by a mortar round in Afghanistan, I will have five year old whisky ready to sell. I think its a good tradeoff.

That is how much I believe in what I'm doing. I have had a few detractors tell me that I'm quitting. No, it isn't quitting. This is hard. I'm leaving a log cabin with a live spring sitting on 30 beautiful acres in the ozarks. I love my family and being able to see my mom whenever I want. I love barbecues on the 4th of July and going fishing. I love not shaving. I love going over to my neighbors and watching them practice roping calves. I love going to my neighbors and getting fresh milk from (still warm, fresh from the udder). I'm trading this to put a bottle of five year old whisky on the shelf. I'm not quitting, I'm digging in. I'm taking the hard right over the misunderstood wrong. I spent most of my first daughters life deployed. I missed first words, first steps, the first bite of ice-cream, and a lot of firsts in desert heat. I'll probably miss a few firsts in the coming years. What I'm getting at is that this is the hard right. White Mule Distillery is going to take it so that you can literally sip on the very best of the Ozarks. I hope you think that it's worth what it costs you.

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The Crown to the Brand

This week I spoke with Leah Hutchinson at TAPI USA. Tapi manufactures closures for bottles, but her depth of experience within the industry reaches far beyond the lids to your bottles. Fill up your Glencairn and learn about this little detail that can make a big difference. 

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You don't know Jack (Daniels)- an interview with Chris Fletcher

Let's be honest with each other here. Most of your micro, or "craft" distilleries are probably buying cheap whisky and spirits, repackaging it, and calling it "hand made". There is a right way, which is usually the hard way, and a wrong way. Jack Daniels, in my mind is impressive. They make their own barrels, they cultivate their own yeast, and they draw their water from an artisan spring (for over 150 years). They make a good product because they control every step of their production process, and that sounds pretty "crafty" to me. In this episode we talk with Chris Fletcher, the assistant master distiller for Jack Daniels and get his take on what craft whisky really is.

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Starting in Missouri

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Starting in Missouri

There is a reason that I wanted to open a distillery in the Missouri Ozarks and it has a lot to do with the State Government. I wanted to be in the Ozarks, for sure, but I did need to narrow it down to either Missouri or Arkansas. Both of these states are near and dear to my heart but Missouri ultimately won out due to the fact that their laws are easier to navigate, understand, and be compliant with. Today I interviewed some very knowledgeable and helpful gents at the MO Alcohol and Tobacco Control branch of the Department of Public Safety. Listen for some real good advice for when you are working on your state application.

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Under Construction

This blog thus far has merely functioned as a rant for my frustration with trying to get this venture off the ground- not like any of the other military blogs that I previously post on or guest blog on. However, great things are coming; each week I will be interviewing industry experts on the craft distilling movement and uploading to a new podcast on iTunes and putting the transcription on this blog. I've already got some heavy hitters lined up- Tom Hogue with the TTB, one of the leaders in MO Alcohol Tobacco Control, a certain MASTER DISTILLER with Brown Forman, just to name a few. Stay tuned for fun and information.

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To business

I feel like opening up a liquor business in the Ozarks has been a real blessing, but not in the way that you would think. I make craft whisky, a product that usually retails between 30 and 90 bucks a bottle in urban venues in the U.S. In the Ozarks, the reality though is that it might as well be a thousand dollars a bottle because this isn't urban and it sure as hell isn't like anywhere else in the U.S. Believe me, I wouldn't have it any other way.

If you can make it in Barry County, you can make it anywhere and I'll tell you why. Any kind of a business around here that doesn't cover basic needs or at least cover them affordably is doomed to failure. The median household income is around 24k. That is 2 thousand a month before you take out taxes. If you have a couple of kids your grocery/household items bill alone will be 500 bucks, and that is IF you cook most of your meals. That means that you probably have around 1300 bucks a month to cover your mortgage/rent, vehicle loans, insurance, gas, electricity, trash, phone, and internet. Then there is the EXTRA school stuff like school stuff, boy/girl scouts, sports, feed for livestock, or repair expenses. Did I mention health insurance? No, I didn't because a lot of people don't have it because they can't afford it. For a lot of the folks around here it's cheaper to pay the annual penalty and go to the urgent care/ER when it's an absolute necessity than it is to pay the monthly premiums for insurance that isn't even close to being comprehensive. What I'm getting at here is that there is always more month at the end of your money. Beer and liquor for a lot of folks a fantastic escape from the harsh reality of living on a razors edge, but you damn well better be able to squeeze it in on a budget that isn't there in the first place.

Really, I understand this. I remember working double shifts mopping floors and being proud as hell that I brought home  a paycheck that amounted to 800 dollars. My idea of a party was 25 dollars worth of cheap beer and a pack of smokes, but I still had to go to work on Sunday with a pounding head from drinking the aforementioned cheap beer.

That is why my whisky sits on the shelf for around 25.00 retail. I make around five dollars on every bottle and that is only  because I self distribute. I have bought all of my grain by the silo and I currently only have part time employees (which is something I have a LOT of guilt over). So at 5 bucks a bottle I better be selling 400 bottles a month. I pay about 2100 a month just in loan and excise taxes, which makes my take home income every month a little less than 2k.  It's pretty spartan, but I'm taking a gamble. I'm betting that if it's hand-made, craft product that the working stiff can afford, that they will actually buy it- that I can make up my margins by selling in quantity. Only time can tell. 

Lets get back to why this is a good thing- at least in my mind. My bet is that if my whisky is within reach of the working stiff or college student, that I will be able to sell enough to keep my doors open. With that in mind, sales will eventually increase. With more sales, comes more demand, comes more revenue, and bingo! More jobs are created. I had a pretty good gig as an active duty Army Officer with 8 years of service. Pay was good, benefits were good, and as long as I did a good job I was guaranteed retirement. However, it wasn't satisfying.

I didn't start this business so that I could get rich or even be comfortable; I started it to create jobs, increase agri-tourism, and invest in the rural Ozarks. This isn't about me, this is about the people around me. I want to create Lynchburg Tennessee right here. Jack Daniels is in Lynchburg, TN. There is literally NOTHING in the area besides Jack Daniels. They make a good product, employ most of the locals in the area and give generously to the surrounding community. It's a pretty good business model.

In all, that is why my product is priced the way it is. It isn't rot gut whisky with a price tag of an 8 year Scotch, but something reasonable that any average Joe could pick up in the store. To me, that is worth the dollars and worth the support. Only time can tell if I'm right or not.

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Why I don't make Bourbon- at least not yet

Can you “Out-Bourbon” Kentucky?

 

            I’m writing this a day after I attended a local whiskey tasting event here in Missouri. It was a lot of fun and I had an opportunity to really get to know the types ofcustomers that I would want as a craft distiller. There were aficionados, regular working stiffs, localvores, and curious attendees. I had the same opportunities that they did to taste a LOT of different whiskies, and it confirmed my belief that I should not be making bourbon whisky and chances are, most distillers probably shouldn’t either.

 

            Let me first give you a disclaimer; I’m a distiller. Notice that I didn’t put “craft”, “master”, or “artisan” in front of the word distiller. I’m an amateur. Yeah, I’ve been making alcohol since I was about thirteen, and yeah, I can tell the difference between heads, hearts, and tails on a pot still, but compared to the nearly 200 years of generational knowledge that sitting in Kentucky, I’d be an amateur in making bourbon no matter how long I’d been doing it.  I don’t have the financial backing, the warehouses, or the football sized scientific team that goes into crafting a consistent tasting product. I’m one guy with a mashtun, a still, and some empty bottles.

 

So let me give you (the “craft distiller”) a break down of your competition. Beam-Suntory, Brown-Forman, Heaven Hill, and Diageo have combined assets of nearly 53 billion dollars (That is with a B). They have lobbyists that probably make more than you do on any given year, and they have never had to stir a pot of boiling corn mash. Diageo alone had a marketing budget of nearly a billion dollars in 2016. They put up posters, slam your Facebook feed, and take so much shelf space on the aisle that you will be lucky to be sitting on the bottom shelf next to the bottled water. You think your crafty google ad-words campaign is really going to make an impact? Probably not.

 

            So I know what you are thinking now: “But I make bourbon better than anyone in Kentucky.” Maybe you do. Maybe you got your best friend to help you. Maybe you both have truly epic beards and you both visited Scotland and the bourbon trail both while you were in college. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have the time, which is something that Kentucky has lots of. They can afford to make a sub-par product if they want to and just wait for it to get better in the barrel. Do you? Nope. You better be making some damn good moonshine and hope that the American consumer will change their minds and think that it actually tastes good. Actually go hit some bars like I did and try to tell someone your selling moonshine. You will have a hard sell. Harder still? Sell them some of your bourbon. They will automatically think about Kentucky, and with good reason. The first mention of bourbon was in Kentucky, and that was in 1821. What I’m getting at here is that bourbon is synonymous with a state that I don’t live in. Even if I made the best bourbon in America, I’d always be the distillery that is doing something that Kentucky started and I’d always be years behind.

 

            This is why I don’t make bourbon and probably never will. I know that I will never out-bourbon Kentucky. Don’t get me wrong. If you make a great tasting bourbon, your making money at it, and the bottles are flying off the shelf, then by all means you should keep doing what you’re doing. On the other hand, if you’re wondering why there’s dust sitting on the bottles in the local liquor store, then perhaps you should consider placing a little extra effort in crafting a spirit that encompasses your local terroir, is within reach of the average consumer, and offers a taste that will set you apart from the titans of the whisky business. Just keep working on it. After all, all you have to lose is time, which Kentucky has shown can be quite profitable.

 

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You! Tell me is an age statement, or taste more important?

Another "post midnight" post. I just can't help but wonder sometimes why in the hell I'm doing this. Nobody in their right mind would put in the hours that I do, face the financial risk that I do, and deal with some of the straight up retards like I do and not make a goddamn penny for it. This may sound like a rant. Truth be told, I couldn't be happier. Yeah, I haven't made a profit but I've been open for 3 months. I have been pushing myself harder than I ever have with little present results. But that is the way it is in everything. In Jan 2007 I weighed 210 lbs. and in Dec 2009 I weighed 165. In The first 10 were easy to lose and the last five were easy to lose. In between there was a slump and I had to change my approach. Towards the end there was a slump and I had to change my approach. I've heard people say that the last 5 are the hardest to lose, but in reality it's only hard because they are doing the same things to lose the last 5 as when they lost the first 10. Things change and you have to change with them. 

Really, that is my struggle right now. Our first month was a huge success. We sold out of product 3 times! Now we are in a slump. I have a way to change my approach, but I'm not sure the whisky world is ready for it. Let me break this down for you. Most really, really great tasting whiskies are aged 6+ years. I've got a process that makes a full bodied, ultra smooth whisky in about a days time. It is remarkable. Do you call it rapid aging? Do you call it cheating? What DO you call it? So I have a new approach, but is it consistent with what my distillery is based on? At the outset, I said that I would only make great whisky and that I've never had a good whisky younger than 3 years. Well I've figured out a way that makes great whisky in about a day and I'm wondering what my end customers want to buy; an age statement, or great taste?

It should be an easy answer. I've been working on this process for over two years now. It started out as "wonder what happens if I heat up the alcohol in some wood chips?", but ended in a 14 step process involving chemistry and a lot of miscellaneous pieces of farm equipment. I haven't a lab, a science background, or financial backing like that guy at Lost Spirits, but I have well over 100 test batches; actually I just stopped counting at 100. I'm just glad I never tried to figure out how many hours I've spent on it. So all in all, I should be thinking "Yeah, you figured this out so you should cash in on it." but for some reason the purist in me didn't want me to do it. 

Long story short, I'll be at Whiskey Fest in Springfield this weekend and I'm going to hand out samples and see what the overall reaction is to it. If its good, the world gets a new whisky. If its not, I'm just out of a lot of time for figuring it out and a lot of time arguing with the TTB for the label approval.

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Late Night

I came in this weekend to work on the place. I got here at 2am and am getting ready to head back at 2am. This is wearing me out, but to tell you the truth I've never had so much energy. I really believe that I'm gearing up to be able to give something truly great. It's not just about alcohol. There is a lot of great alcohol in this world but not much from the Ozarks. I know that all of this hard work is going to enhance peoples lives. Not just at the club/bar, but this is going to create jobs, promote tourism, and give another way for local farmers to liquidate their crops. This is the "best of the Ozarks"!

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