Yankee Distillers Brings Southern Charm to the North
"It's a name that captures some attention when you put it on a bottle of whiskey."
That's what Matthew Jager of Yankee Distillers was going for when he decided to name his whiskey brand just one year ago this week. Reflecting on the distillery's first anniversary, Jager was proud of what he and his business partner, Scott Luning, have created and continue to create in dozens of wooden barrels at their Clifton Park warehouse.
The distillery's current product line includes a bourbon, rye, and rum, as well as Yankee's
signature Eleven Lakes vodka. All of the liquors are made from state-farmed ingredients and the vodka, in particular, was designed to be enjoyed without mixers. The origin of the ingredients is a key factor in not only the business' originality, but in its ability to start up, according to Jager, who is also a business/marketing professor at The College of Saint Rose in Albany.
Strict prohibitionary laws restrict sizable distilleries from opening in New York State because of the high percentage of state-farmed ingredients required to be in the alcohol, Jager said. Under the state's Farm Distillery, Winery and Brewery law, at least 75 percent of the grains used in Yankee and other similarly sized wineries, breweries and distilleries must be farmed in New York State.
But Yankee prides itself on using 100 percent state-farmed grains, with some of the grains coming from the Finger Lakes region and a good amount coming from Saratoga County. Jager is proud that through Yankee's products, patrons get to enjoy the offerings of New York.
"Through me, my customers are supporting New York State products," he said.
When the distillery first opened, Jager said he started with just 28 barrels. Each barrel can yield about 400-450 bottles of whiskey. The distillery currently has the capacity to fill about 60 barrels per month after the ingredients are mixed together, heated and later cooled. The barrels are then stored on high shelves in a warehouse for aging.
Before Jager and his partner, Scott Luning, could open up the business, they had to apply for a New York State Farm Distillery, Winery and Brewery license for a small fee, about $128 per year, Jager said. Next, the partners sought funding from family and friends.
"Any risky business is going to be expected to put up cash," he said. "It's not like 'Shark Tank.'"
The partners were able to come up with some of the money from their connections before approaching several banks—both small and large—for a loan to make up the difference. They pitched their business plan to a dozen banks before having serious meetings with about half of them and ultimately receiving a loan from Chase Bank. Jager said the partners wanted to use a small, local bank, but ended up with a "great big bank."
In each of the meetings, the distillery partners had to explain the business, revenue projections and a plan for paying back the loan. Contributing some cash helped, and Jager would recommend others looking to start a small business do the same so that there is less money to pay back to the bank and the businesses can instead focus on profits.
"Go into it in a low-risk way and grow it yourself," he said.
Luning, who left his job working with semiconductors at GlobalFoundries to create the business with Jager at the distillery, said that someone looking to start a small business needs to be fully confident in their plan before they get started.
"This is not for the timid," he said. "It's an all-in commitment to make something like this work."
Jager agreed that someone looking to start their own business should think through their plan as well.
"Be very sure that it's what you're meant to do and that it's not just a dream, because the money that you burn trying to get a dream to be a reality may be money you never get back."
Yankee Distillers are open for tours and tastings Wednesday-Friday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday from noon to 9 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. For more information, check out their website, and to see the proper way to taste whiskey, check out the video below.
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