In 2015, Jan and Marsh Mohktari risked it all to start the Golden State Distillery, with their first spirit being Gray Whale Gin. Going into this new venture neither Jan nor Marsh had a background in distilling or the spirits industry, but they dove in headfirst, sold their home, procured an investment from a family friend and got to work. They spent the next three years perfecting their gin recipe and learning all that they could about the industry.
Gray Whale Gin officially launched in 2018 and now, one year later, sales have taken off in California and with Gray Whale Gin rapidly expanding on the east coast, Jan and Marsh answer the burning questions about how they made it: should you invest in your own distillery; do you partner with a distributor right off the bat; how much should you listen to others’ advice; are trademarks really that important; what do you outsource and what do you do yourself?
8 Tips On Starting A Spirits Brand
From Jan and Marsh Mohktari (Golden State Distillery and Gray Whale Gin)
- Ask your fellow distillers questions: 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.
- Consider co-packing to begin with. The lure and sparkle of wanting to start your own craft distillery comes with real risks. After all, a decent craft distillery will run you a minimum $1.5 million. Then you have to think hard about your local city bylaws. The Alcoholic Beverage Control and The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (federal) rules are somewhat easier to navigate, as they are established. But local cities usually don’t have any historical rules for a distillery.
- 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.
- Find your unique place in the market before you invest in development. Look around the spirits category, your region, your community. Where is the opportunity for a new brand to thrive? Is it a unique taste profile, a new rare ingredient, an innovative distilling process or a legendary backstory? Whatever your unique selling point may be, do your research and make sure there isn’t a “Moon Rock Moonshine” already being distributed before you invest in crate of moon rocks.
- Self-distribute at first. There are a number of outlets that will legally allow you to do this; Park Street and MHW are two of the most well known. We chose to self-distribute at first 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 SKUs. So we found that the best way to get their attention was to show demand from a grassroots perspective.
- Lock down trademarks. 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 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.
- 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.
- Outsource what you are not good at. We outsource our accounting and compliance. These are extremely important 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. We are strong believers in practicing your own superpowers and doing them often.