Interview: Todd Weiss of Striped Pig Distillery, Charleston, SC
Here's a timeline for you: I've been using twitter (@Arok) since March 2008. I've been tweeting about whisky and craft booze since March 2011. I've been blogging about them since April of 2011. Somewhere around June of 2012 @DstillD found me on twitter and we started talking. He seemed to bring booze knowledge from a producer's point of view. I brought...smart ass quips and maybe eventually some knowledge of my own.
It took me a while to realize it, but @DstillD was none other than one of the masterminds behind the Striped Pig Distillery in Charleston, South Carolina. Not that Striped Pig was open at that point. That didn't happen until sometime between April and now (depending on how you define "open"), but they were getting there. We all know I love craft distillers so to celebrate their Soft Opening (his words, not mine), I asked Todd if he would mind sitting down for an interview. He graciously said yes. Below is our conversation:
So Todd, tell me a little about Striped Pig.
The Striped Pig Distillery is made up of 4 primary partners, with a fifth on the side. I was working mainly by myself to start a small distillery in Charleston, SC. I had the full business plan, tons of research regarding the regulation of the industry and had started making contacts and presenting to investors. Early on in my solo venture, I met up with Johnny Pieper, our Lead Distiller. He was spending time at a distillery in Colorado learning the trade. Johnny had brought in an old acquaintance of his, Casey Lillie, to help him start a distillery. Casey’s background was in sales. The three of us were running along parallel tracks, but hitting the same hurdles. A mutual friend suggested that we combine forces, and things quickly grew from there. It was easy to see that we all had complementary skills. We ran into our fourth partner, Jim Craig, quite accidentally. We were trying to find a small antique still as a decorative piece in our retail area when Jim answered our ad. While he couldn’t provide us a still, he was curious about what we were doing and eager to learn more. Jim brings 28 years of sales and operations experience to our team. Finally there is Boris Van Dyke. He also owns Icebox, which is a liquor catering business.
Where did this crazy idea come from? What made you decide to open a distillery?
Like all good stories, mine started with a drink. I was with friends and someone had a bottle of a micro-distilled rum that was pretty darn good. After the first drink, we got to talking and I thought about distributing the spirit in South Carolina. After the fourth drink, I was no longer interested in distributing. I said, “Why should I distribute somebody else’s liquor? I’ll make it myself.”
My family had a background in home brewing. My dad owned a home brew shop for 15 years. My younger brother turned that into a brewing job for a brewpub in Kansas, then in Colorado. I was the black sheep that liked spirits, too. I thought I would try to take what I had learned and make a go in the liquor industry.
Is the distillery your full time job now? How's that affect your family?
The distillery has been my part- and full-time job for the past 5 years. It began with the research. I took my time to make sure I took most things into account. I traveled, looking at quite a few craft distilleries and a few of the big boys. I read… a LOT. But most importantly, I kept asking questions. Asking questions, and actually listening and implementing what you learn will make the difference between success and the other option.
I had gone from full-time at a university, to staying at home, to full-time at the distillery. I’d be lying if I said my wife didn’t want me back home with the kids. The kids would probably like that, too. But this is a calling that I’ve felt since the idea first surfaced, to me, in late 2007. We’ve made some sacrifices, and hopefully it will all pay off in the end.
I gotta ask, where did the name Striped Pig come from?
The story of the striped pig dates back to the Temperance Movement. The story is explained in better narrative than I can. In a nutshell, there was a 15-gallon minimum on alcohol which would have put small vendors out of business. As you might have guessed, this made many an unhappy man. So one smart fellow got a permit to display a striped pig. He brought in his pig from home and painted it with stripes, housed it in a tent at a fairgrounds (where much drinking was done in those days) and charged a small fee to view the curious creature. Upon paying the fee, folks were brought in the tent to view the "wonder." They were also presented with a free glass of rum. The advent of the cover charge, if you will.
What is your specialty?
Johnny is a whiskey guy, I’m a rum and bourbon fan.
Take me through a typical day?
There are two of us in production at the distillery and two in outside sales. At the distillery, we split the day into two shifts. Since I’ve got school-aged kids, I’m awake much (MUCH) earlier than my bachelor partner. I take the early shift (starting between 8-9am) and get out between 5-6pm. Johnny, my partner, comes in anywhere between 11am to 4pm and stays until 7pm or the production is finished for the day.
First, I like to do a quick clean-up of our retail area. We don’t want to be a mess when our guests arrive. On the production side, I usually begin whatever process we will be doing that day. Sometimes, it will involve cleaning up from the previous day, other times I start the mash, stripping run, spirit run or make a molasses wash for rum. I am more the rum guy, while Johnny heads up the whiskey, but we are coming up to speed with each other’s processes as well.
Tell me about the biggest challenge you've faced so far.
The entire business is one big challenge. It could be the start-up costs, disagreements with partners (they happen), the gallons of molasses that got dumped on the floor (always check your valves).
What's the best thing about running Striped Pig?
I would probably be thought a fool if I didn’t list free booze as a great benefit. I’ve met a lot of great people through this venture, including my partners, vendors, restaurant owners and let’s not forget to mention bartenders and sales people at liquor stores. They can really help your business, if they like you. It’s best to get in their good graces as early as you can.
Free booze is a great benefit, but it sounds like the people are the better one. Speaking of people, any advice for readers who might be interested in following in your footsteps?
Never give up your dreams. I has taken me over 6 years to get here. It will probably be a few more before I make any money. Just so everyone knows, this has to be a passion, it is definitely not a get rich quick thing. You don’t have to get the best or most expensive equipment, but do get quality equipment. You will use it a lot, hopefully. Also, go with someone that has designed equipment for this industry before. Get references. That way you will know who to ask for advice.
Anything new on the horizon?
The entire distillery is new!
I suppose it is. Ok, so when we visit, do we get a tour? And where can we buy your products?
Yes, we will offer tours and tastings for free to the public (must be over 21). Our initial roll-out is in South Carolina, beginning with Charleston and Hilton Head.
Anything else you'd like to plug? Website? Twitter?
Our website is up and running. www.stripedpigdistilllery.com. We are also active on Twitter (@dstilld), Facebook (www.facebook.com/striped.pig.distillery). You can soon find us on YouTube and Instagram. Please stop by and visit when you’re in town. Rumor has it that Charleston has a lot more to see than just us!
I've only been there once, but I'll second that. It's a lovely city and I can't wait to come back. And next time I visit, I now have a stop built in. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions.