Mark Shilling is chief of operations at Big Thirst Consulting in Austin. A past president of the American Craft Spirits Association, he has been a distiller and consultant for many years. As someone who’s been there, one of his first recommendations to anyone thinking of opening a distillery is to visit as many of them as you can.
He cautions against relying on paid experts to tell you everything you need to know. Visit other distilleries and ask questions, Schilling says—call ahead and introduce yourself. You’ll quickly find that American craft distillers are cooperative and happy to share their knowledge and help fellow distillers. While visiting distilleries, make extensive notes on where they’re located and the size of their production spaces. Once you know what type of distillery you’re planning, what you want to produce, and how much, you should have a solid idea of projections; then it’s time to raise capital. While developing a number, Schilling says, expect to double that.
Clay Smith is operations manager at Moonshine University, the distilling school based in Louisville, Kentucky. What surprises his students most, he says, is how much capital it takes to open a distillery—even a small one. Smith encourages his students to take the time to interview multiple consultants, architects, and other experts for hire to get a solid idea of what the consensus is on realistic budgets. He underlines the importance of consulting with all the experts you will need to complete the project, even before choosing a site for your build.
Broadly, the experts all recommend taking courses and reading as much as possible. Moonshine University, for example, has an extensive list of courses, include a program that’s highly relevant to this stage of the process. More than 40 distillery operators and experts teach the six-day distillery course, exposing attendees to the day-to-day of distillery operations, from the first brick to the finished product.
In addition, the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) released The ACSA Guide to Starting and Operating a Distillery e-book this year. The book is a “comprehensive compendium of expert insights detailing all of the tools and techniques that new distilleries need to get their businesses up and running.”