If you were to sit at an upscale bar in any major American city enjoying a delicious cocktail, chances are at some point you’d glance up and notice ranks of bottles in many colors and shapes decorating the back bar. Taking in this display, you might ponder that spirits are experiencing a boom in the United States and you would be entirely correct. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) estimated the total retail sales of distilled spirits to be almost $72 billion in 2015, with the industry supporting 1.4 million jobs. Not only that, but you might suspect that the number of those bottles on display is growing, which is also true. Compared to beer, the spirits sector has achieved consistent increases in market share for the past six years as of 2015, resulting in a shift of billions of dollars.
What you might not notice as you sip your beverage is little pieces of text on the labels explaining that a good number of those bottles before you are domestically produced, having traveled to that bar from distillers in states such as Kentucky, Illinois, or California. Small, premium brands are doing extremely well in the United States, outpacing large supplier premium brands by over 5x, and the overall market by 19x. Domestic spirits producers are now in the fascinating position of being creative innovators sailing on a rising tide. They have unique company cultures with challenges that aren’t often in the spotlight, so we talked to two successful domestic distilleries to see what we could learn from their experiences.
Prioritize What Sets You Apart
“Creativity is at the heart of what we do professionally,” says Paul Hletko, Founder and Master Distiller of Few Spirits in Chicago, Illinois. At Few Spirits, they know their innovative edge sets them apart from competitors, as demand for their products has grown rapidly—three years ago they produced 100 gallons a month, and now they produce the same amount in a day. To maintain upward growth, Hletko recognizes the need to foster a creative, open work environment, “We have a flat structure, and we make a point to seek out different people’s viewpoints. Everyone’s voice needs to be heard. It’s how we approach the work day together.”
By prioritizing creativity, Few Spirits delivers a range of unique spirits that regularly receive awards and acknowledgement. The team works in one big room together, and keeps both the dress code and interaction casual—even though the spirits are considered world class. “At our core, we know we’re a manufacturing company that makes booze,” says Hletko. “I wear sneakers to work. It doesn’t have the feel of a formal corporate entity.”
Everyone Should Experience the Product
Distilleries are unique in that drinking on the job is an absolute requirement. There is “lots and lots of tasting,” says Andie Ferman, describing the work environment at St. George Spirits in Alameda, California. A self-described “artisan” distillery, St. George Spirits is a powerhouse in the craft spirits industry. They’ve been named The “Best Craft Distiller in America” by Thrillist and “A leading light in the American artisanal spirits movement,” by Whisky Advocate, while receiving many other awards and words of praise from the industry. They take company culture seriously and hold monthly meetings for educational tastings where the team gets to learn, connect with each other, and feel involved.
With any product, it’s important to have people involved with its production and launch (e.g., packaging marketing, PR, sales) try it. In the software industry, employees use new apps before launch. When making a fine whiskey, people need to taste it.
It’s easy to forget the larger goal when we’re in the trenches building something so trying the finished product is essential for staying focused and keeping quality up. Candid group experiences can also be illuminating as sales reps, engineers, and executives all have valuable, unique insights to share.
Both Few Spirits and St. George Spirits have less than two dozen full-time employees and describe themselves as tight-knit teams. “We’re a small company, but we effectively embrace our staff, guests, bartender partners, chefs, you name ‘em, as family,” says Ferman. This attitude of comradery is a hallmark of the craft distilling industry in general, but when putting together an innovative team, it’s even more important to intentionally bring people together that fit well. “Fit goes beyond technical skills as well”, explains Hletko. “We’re very protective of our work environment, and we look for passion and personality when we hire. We ask if we want to spend time with this person and if they’re going to contribute over all.” In his eyes, the effectiveness of a company or team, “rests primarily in the hiring decision.”
The hiring stage is crucial to forming a successful workplace and misfires in hiring can be costly. “They warn you when starting a company that HR is the hardest thing,” says Hletko. “It’s true that we’ve made hiring mistakes before, but generally it does become clear very quickly.” The intake process is also the best chance to weed out people that may be interested in your business for their own indulgences or dependencies. At Few Spirits, they are careful to avoid people that have issues around alcohol, but other companies would equally do well to screen for those just interested in the benefits, connections, etc.
Have Fun, With Intention
Unsurprisingly, fun goes with the territory of fine spirits creation, but the teams bring their recreation beyond just enjoying alcohol together. At St. George Spirits, Ferman explains that they intentionally take time to get out of the distillery and have fun as a group. “Our tasting room team works a different schedule from our office and production team, so it can often be tough to get everyone together. That said […] we regularly plan activities that foster company culture and team building: team lunches for birthdays, an annual holiday party, and all sorts of excursions for our crew from indoor sky-diving to movie screenings.”
Hletko concurs, “We take having fun seriously,” he says, which may sound like an oxymoron, but making the effort to create time for recreational group activities can help co-workers blow off steam and get to know each other better. We give bonus points to companies if those times don’t revolve entirely around the product!
“The sheer amount of alcohol around is astounding,” Hletko mentions. “I’ve had numerous people on a company tour take photos of my desk because it’s just covered in dozens of bottles of booze.” Ferman explains how this preponderance of products not known for fostering responsible behavior doesn’t turn into a nightmare at work: “We have a huge responsibility to create a safe environment for our guests and staffers. Professional conduct is vital […] we hold frequent staff trainings to discuss these issues and to provide support and guidance so that we all know how to conduct ourselves appropriately.” Both distilleries keep a transparent discussion active with employees regarding expectations for their conduct. When workers know where they stand and are empowered to take personal responsibility, walking the line of spirited playfulness at work is easier.