Kevin Barrett was spending hours upon hours researching and experimenting with home brewing and distilling, and consuming any content on distilling that he could find. He did all this while only putting a fraction of his time researching geography for his degree from the University of Oregon.
Given how he was focusing his time it only made sense that if he was to carve out a career, one that he loved, it should be around something he was passionate about. Thus, the journey from home distiller to Swallowtail Spirits began.
Kevin started making home brewed beer around six years ago, and did so knowing that it would be the first step to making whiskey. The first spirit he made was a brandy, from 5 gallons of leftover wine from Silvan Ridge Winery in Eugene.
And so began his journey in the distilling craft, characterized by much experimentation.
“ I made a couple of stills and talked with local distillers about the production and permitting process. I made a few whiskeys, brandies and vodkas. Some were good, but most were bad so I researched more to find out how to make them better.”
But through trial and error, the whiskies started to taste better. The taste improvements led to people inquiring if Kevin could make special batches for weddings and one of a kind gifts. But the demand for the early batches led to a bit of dilemma.
“ The aging process is the toughest part though because no batch of whiskey that I have made has lasted for longer than 6 months on oak. Everyone drank it.”
The initial interest in the spirits he was making provided him with the validation needed to pursue starting a spirits brand. But in a crowded market, having a strong brand upon which to build is critical, and Kevin had help from a close supporter in creating it.
“ I wanted to link the distillery to the state in some way. I threw around a few names, but then my girlfriend suggested Swallowtail Spirits after Oregon’s state insect, The Swallowtail Butterfly.”
With the brand locked in and the distilling process fine tuned, it was time to move past small batch production and bring Swallowtail to a larger market. But ramping up liquor sales is not simply about having a solid marketing plan, it’s about having the fortitude to grind it out.
“ Liquor sales in Oregon are all about the hustle. You or an employee have to be out there with the consumer, engaging with them, explaining the process and getting feedback. Nobody will sell the product better than an owner. We know every detail of the process and are passionate about the business. It’s why I am still out there doing the tastings in the liquor stores. Customers like talking with the owners and when they see how engaged we are they get pretty engaged as well. If you can get them engaged and passionate about the product then you now have a customer for life.”
Kevin and his team hustled. They met customers at markets and stores, and talked about the brand to liquor shop owners. The consumers really liked the Swallowtail vodka, with many folks comparing it to top shelf brands. But Kevin was conservative as he entered the market, and even though he believed passionately that their vodka was as good as many highly regarded brands, he entered the market at a lower price point, a move they looked to remedy as they scaled up.
“ We actually listed it at too low of a price initially. Price point reflects a lot on consumer opinion. If you don’t have a premium price, you don’t have a premium product. We’ve increased the price twice over the last year and have seen no drop in demand.”
The premium level of spirits that Swallowtail produces can be traced back to their distilling process. A process that begins and ends with an intense attention to detail.
The water used in the distilling process comes from the lowland Willamette Valley Aquifer System, which has been filtered over many years through the volcanic sediment. Kevin and his team continue that filtration process to an incredible degree. The vodka is filtered through activated carbon sixty times, which produces a very polished vodka and helps to eliminate the by-products of the distilling process.
“ By-products like congeners and fusel oils are left behind in small amounts in vodka. They are what’s responsible for off flavors, odors and colors. They are also responsible for hangovers. Activated carbon pulls these by-products out of the vodka like magnets, with positive and negative charges. We filter our vodka an insane amount of times to get the cleanest product we can in a reasonable amount of time.”
Given the bounty within Oregon, Swallowtail has a vision to use as many locally sourced raw materials as possible in the making of their spirits. But with scaling up fast, finding those sources takes time, and they are actively searching for local suppliers to make that goal a reality.
Connecting to the community and putting down roots
The distilling process, especially with vodka and whiskey, takes a very particular equipment setup to produce. Swallowtail recently purchased a 300 gallon pot still to make their whiskies. The new equipment will allow them to produce about a half a barrel of whiskey a day. The goal is to effectively ramp up sales and production, and purchase equipment to the point where they can produce at least a barrel of whiskey per day. In addition, they also now have a tasting room where they can really connect to the community and consumer.
In addition, the new equipment allows them to ramp up production of their gin, and Swallowtail is taking steps to expand their offerings even further.
“ We will be producing our own single malt (Scotch style) whiskey and bourbon. November marks the launch of two gins as well; a Navy strength (114 proof) London Dry gin and a American gin (90 proof) as well. A goal of our tasting room is to start sampling 2 different products each month to get input from our consumers. Once we find out what they like, we will produce those liquors as well.”
In addition, Swallowtail has partnered up with fellow Eugene-based Ninkasi Brewing to produce a whiskey based on their OATIS Oatmeal Stout. They recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to purchase the oak whiskey barrels and necessary equipment needed to produce the collaboration.
The time Kevin has put into building the brand to this point has been immense. But he has also connected to, and worked with, a diverse mix of organizations.
“ From the start I have never stopped asking questions. Anyone who would give me their time was on my list. I started with NEDCO in Springfield then moved to SBDC at Lane Community College for help with the business plan, forecasting and strategy for funding.”
The SBDC’s feedback around Swallowtail’s business plan was a huge asset. Multiple people took the time to go over a series of revisions, and as Kevin notes, it still changes every month.
In addition to the help NEDCO and the SBDC provided, Kevin was also accepted into the RAIN Accelerator program. Just like he did with the SBDC, Kevin continued to ask questions, which led him down the accelerator path.
“ I talked with Joe Maruschak at RAIN in February of 2015 about what I was doing. In September I met with Joe and Shane Johnson and finally convinced them that I really had no idea what I was doing. They let me into the program in September and it was one of the most amazing experiences. It’s like taking an MBA crash course in 12 weeks, but you get to focus in on where you really need to.”
But even a crash course MBA program and support from a myriad of business resources can’t speed up the time it takes to launch a craft spirits company. The wait time for permitting can put a serious dent into any solid plan, as the distiller continues to pay rent and insurance without revenue coming in during that time period. Luckily Kevin planned in advance, which allowed him to save close to $60K.
“ I started contract bottling a year and a half before I applied for a permit at my own facility so I already had a foothold in the Oregon market and had revenue coming in.”
That forward thinking and the hustle to get the product onto shelves has led to a 10% monthly growth rate in the state of Oregon, and with the addition of new products, their local growth will continue to grow while also looking towards distribution in other states.
So we’ll certainly keep seeing Oregon’s state insect on shelves in Oregon and beyond over the next few years.
For more information, visit www.swallowtailspirits.com.