Although every brand has its own story to tell, the history, entrepreneurial spirit and pioneering craft approach of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, a brand of Austin, Texas-based Fifth Generation Inc., has made it the third fastest growing brand in the country. From a one-room shack to the fight to get a distillery permit, the man behind the brand, Bert “Tito” Beveridge created his own vodka company and now sells the brand in 50 states in a competitive $6.3-billion-a-year U.S. marketplace.
What started off as a hobby and gifts to friends has turned into a more than $80 million business that still uses a pot-distillation process, which hinges on human touch.
The 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) vodka is made from corn, which gives the spirit its slight sweetness, rounded shoulders and soft finish, according to Beveridge.
“Tito’s Handmade Vodka is made by the same process today as it was in the 1990s, but we’re just making more of it,” Beveridge says. “We use corn because we like the way it tastes and it has the added benefit of being gluten free. It’s an ongoing process that we tweak depending on the ever-changing agricultural product.”
The distillery was born in 1995 as a result of the hard work and passion of Beveridge, who worked night and day, cooking vodka, and catching sleep sporadically to perfect the process — all in a small shack he built with friends.
Yet, Beveridge encountered many obstacles along the road to success. The master distiller didn’t have any investors, formal training or budget to turn his dreams into a reality. Still he refused to give up, relying on credit cards — in the end, running up around $80,000 on 19 — and the unwavering dedication of a small, hand-picked staff and friends who all pitched in to build Tito’s first distillery shack 20 years ago.
The native Texan spent the early days hand-bottling vodka, screwing caps on bottles and adhering paper labels using glue that can be found at most office supply stores. He also had to market the brand he was passionate about. In the early days, he canvassed the Austin area, met with local liquor stores and distributors, introduced his brand at parties and slowly built a cadre of loyal followers.
“I listened closely to the advice of those who told me to start small, saying, ‘Try to own your hometown, then, if you do that, try to own your home state, then if you do that, try to own your home country,’” he says.
In the early 1990s, Beveridge enjoyed infusing vodka in his spare time, creating much-loved and much-requested batches for friends. He watched as microbreweries and boutique wineries began cropping up around the country and astutely predicted that the next step would be to incorporate the same handcrafted principles into the spirits industry.
His early distilling approach employed a lot of tinkering and trial and error to develop a product that was smooth and palatable. “The main differentiator was doing head and tail cuts in an old-fashioned pot still and coming up with a formula that was comprised of American corn,” Beveridge says.
Beveridge says he perfected his 100 percent corn-based recipe by using the same pot still methods applied to fine single-malt scotches and the highest-end French cognacs. “I found using a pot still was harder, but it was well worth it,” he says. “My goal was to create a vodka with a clean expression and one of very few suitable to be enjoyed neat. I wanted to create a smooth and pure vodka that even women would love to sip.”
Developed by Beveridge, the brand’s label and bottle design are homespun and unpretentious, a reflection of Beveridge who enjoys hanging out with his wife and their three children, fishing in Wisconsin, and listening to, writing and playing music.
Now 52, Beveridge didn’t begin his career distilling vodka. After earning a degree in geology and geophysics in 1984 from The University of Texas in Austin, Beveridge entered the oil and gas industry where he ran heli-portable dynamite seismic crews in Venezuela, processing seismic data and analyzing ground water.
Evolving from a geophysicist into a master distiller was an easy transition for Beveridge. “Both fields use a lot of science and engineering,” he says. “And they both have an attitude of just get it done.”
This “just get it done” mantra has served Beveridge and Tito’s Handmade Vodka well during the past 20 years.
But it wasn’t always easy. First, there was no known method in Texas or anywhere else for how to create a micro-distillery, he explains. Second, there was no permit process in the state of Texas so Beveridge had to become an expert on federal regulations and convince officials to grant him the licensing to open the first distillery in Texas,
“The ATF’s (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) federal regulations on importing distilled spirits, wines and beer was my Bible,” Beveridge says. “I fought for and won my permit in 1995 and sold my first case in April 1997 with the mission of having a job I enjoyed and writing off my bar tab.”
Although many beverage-makers are tinkering with new flavors and products, Beveridge believes “if it’s not broke, don’t mess with it.” He prides himself on bringing a true artisanal approach to his process, while offering the 80 proof unflavored Tito’s Handmade Vodka at a fair price for con-sumers; it typically retails at $19.99 for a 750-ml bottle.
“We try to make a filet mignon and sell it at a pot roast price,” Beveridge says.
That kind of hands-on commitment has paid off in an increasingly competitive spirits business. Tito’s Handmade Vodka received early recognition when Beveridge submitted his vodka to the World Spirits Competition in 2001 and it won the Unanimous Double Gold Medal, besting more than 70 other vodka brands, the company says. The brand also was recognized with the “UCC Chairman’s Trophy” for the World’s Best Vodka Tonic at the 2010 Ultimate Cocktail Challenge.
This recognition also brought financial success to the brand. After eight years in the red, Tito’s Handmade Vodka notched a profit and has been growing exponentially ever since. It produced 850,000 cases in 2012 — a 46 percent increase from 2011, pulling in an estimated $85 million in revenue, he says.
However, Beveridge knows he can’t sit back and rest on past successes, especially as more craft vodkas enter the market.
Yet, competition doesn’t seem to faze Beveridge and Vice President of Brand Marketing Nicole Portwood. They say they are “just happy to be growing and to be a part of a very competitive and flourishing American distilling movement.”
Unlike other spirit makers, Tito’s Handmade Vodka remains focused on a single product and “looking for holes to fill” in expanded production, Portwood says.
“We believe it’s better for us to focus on one thing,” Beveridge says. “Our core consumer is a discriminating vodka drinker who likes to wake up feeling good in the morning. We believe that fresh ingredients make fresh flavors when it comes to vodka, so we teach people how to infuse on our website at titosvodka.com.”
Help for animals
Before Tito’s Handmade Vodka was a success, Beveridge wanted to make a difference in animals’ lives. An animal lover and dog owner, Beveridge was shocked at the number of abandoned or stray animals he came across while building his micro-distillery. For more than 15 years, he has been helping Austin,Texas-based Emancipet, a spay/neuter clinic, provide affordable preventive veterinary care for pet owners.
In an effort to support causes like Emancipet, Beveridge also launched the “Vodka for Dog People” website to further his mission of rescuing and caring for animals. Consumers can purchase merchandise, including T-shirts, hats, toys and leashes, through vodkafordogpeople.com and titosvodka.com, with the full purchase going directly to Emancipet to help them impact the lives of pets.
The brand also is celebrating business owners. To further build recognition of the Tito’s brand and celebrate American entrepreneurialism and ingenuity, the company launched its Meet the Maker program this year. “We highlight craftsmen and women who are making incredible products in their hometowns. We’ve commissioned limited-edition pieces and are selling them on our website, with every penny going back to the maker,” Portwood says.
With limited resources to publicize Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Portwood says they do some traditional advertising such as print and radio, and also are “dipping our toes into the digital space.” However, “word-of-mouth continues to be the biggest driver,” she says.
Paving the way
Beveridge is proud of paving the way in the thriving world of micro-distilling for the latest legions of craft vodka enthusiasts. He notes that it would not have been possible without the tens of thousands of consumers who embraced the brand in its early days and all who have recently discovered it and shared it.
“Since we’re from Austin, we’ve been selling Tito’s Handmade Vodka in Texas for longer than other places and it remains our best market,” Beveridge says. “I’m grateful for their support. It’s been quite a ride, and I feel fortunate to do something I’m passionate about. In my heart, I believe I have created a vodka that will stand the test of time.”