An Interview with Tito Beveridge

Tito Beveridge managed almost singlehandedly to change the way an entire category of alcohol is perceived. Still, for all of the success of Tito’s Vodka, it wasn’t always a guarantee that he’d make it. Publisher Cornelius Geary sat down with Beveridge in San Francisco to discuss the company’s origins, the challenges he faces as he commands more power in the beverage industry, and what exactly defines craft spirits in the first place.

Cornelius Geary: Tito’s has become a major player in the vodka world, but it wasn’t always a guarantee that you’d have this kind of success. What was it like in the beginning?

Tito Beveridge: You know, before the ‘80s Americans weren’t drinking good wine. We were drinking Riunite. Strawberry Hill. Thunderbird. Stuff like that. Then I saw boutique wineries come, and that changed everything. Then all of a sudden there’s this craft beer explosion. I think a lot of this shift had to do with the dollar getting strong in the early ’80s. My idea was that the next phase would be a micro-distillery.

Basically 99.8% of all liquor is made in column stills, but probably the best liquor in the world is made in pot stills. I used to be in the oil and gas business and some guys I worked with overseas had built pot stills. So I built a little pot still.

I got into the business and then learned from Jim Beam’s marketing guy that all the brands I thought were little boutique distilleries were really just Jim Beam but done in a single cask, or Jim Beam bottled 25 casks together, or Jim Beam put in sherry casks for six weeks or six months or whatever. He was just like, “You’re the only little distillery that I know of.”

CG: That must have been disheartening.

TB: I kind of felt like I was the dumbest guy in the world. Here I was putting everything into this company, and I wasn’t making any money. I was just struggling to get more credit cards to keep the thing going. I couldn’t get any investors. My first year I did a thousand cases. The second year I did two thousand. The third year I did three thousand.

Then you flash forward. In my fourth year I did four thousand, and then six thousand, 17, 32, and it started growing. I got in the black around my eighth year on the project. To this day, I still own one hundred percent of my company because no investors put any money in it. Nobody thought it would work.

CG: So what do you attribute your success to? Is it the product, the consistency? What is it?

TB: I still make it the same way, still do head and tail cuts, and to me, in my opinion, I think that “craft spirits” is when you cook something in a pot still and you have an artisan sitting there, tasting it, and deciding, “Okay, now we’ll keep it. Now we’ll chuck it.”

CG: It seems like lately there’s been a real focus on craft spirits, but even coming up with a definition for craft has proven difficult.

TB: Really, what opened my eyes was going to craft distilling tastings. The one that really did it was one in Oregon. Two of the speakers didn’t make spirits at all. They bought spirits and then aged them in sherry casks or Bordeaux casks.

You’re going, “I don’t know. Is that craft if you just buy it and stick in it some wood and …” I personally say, “Yeah, that’s craft.” The stuff that they made was a hell of a lot better than the stuff that they started with.

CG: You think that was because of its treatment? That whatever application they used made it materially better than what they started with?

TB: Absolutely. Definitely. Is it craftsmanship to do that? Yes.

CG: What do you think about all these once-boutique brands getting purchased by large corporations?

TB: I look at it like, who cares? As long as somebody has the balls to go out and build a new distillery and make something that’s nice and unique and different and is accepted in the marketplace, even if they do sell out, well, good for them if that’s what they want to do.

CG: Let’s talk about Tito’s, what you’re doing right now. You control your entire production. How do you maintain that quality you’ve had for the last 18 years?

TB: Well, more than anything, it comes down to the ingredients. Everybody always thinks that you bring this in one side and that cranks out the other. It’s just not like that.

It’s more like your great grandmother’s kitchen. Whatever comes in the back door it’s got to taste good by the time it hits the dining room table. I make my vodka out of corn, and you can’t always guarantee what your ingredients will be like from year to year. This year was a freak year because it didn’t rain until late in the year in the main corn belt of the United States, so stuff didn’t germinate or didn’t get planted.

CG: How does that affect your production?

TB: Well, it ended up that they got rain right when they needed it and … I think this year’s probably going to be the best year for corn, the biggest harvest that they’ve ever had.

CG: One last question. In your opinion, what’s the best way to enjoy Tito’s?

TB: The best way to have Tito’s kind of depends on what you like, but I like to drink it with sparkling mineral water with a lime and an orange. Just kind of hydrates as you go. It’s clean, doesn’t have a lot of sugar. I like it like that.

But then the other day I pounded a bunch of martinis and finished off with a couple of cosmos. I’ll do a white Russian every now and then, and, I mean, I had a bloody Mary and a Moscow mule yesterday. That’s the great thing about vodka: It’s hard to get sick of it because you can always change it up.