Steve VanderPol, co-founder and distiller at Eastern Kille Distillery, found his love of craft distilling in the same place FIVE x 5 Solutions found its start – Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, in Denver. “I drove past Stranahan’s every day on my way to work and eventually stopped in to take a tour,” Steve recalled of his time in Denver five years ago. “That’s where I fell in love with the concept of craft distilling and thought maybe if I move back to Michigan that I could bring that concept with me.”
When he moved back to Michigan a few years later, he and business partner Brandon Voorhees found the local distilling industry still in its infancy and seized the opportunity. With their shared background in project management, they laid out some plans, found a location that was big enough to house both production space and a cocktail bar and, like every other distillery, it was smooth sailing from there.
That’s not how it happened, of course. As every distillery learns, the process to production and opening is never predictable. “It was about a two-and-a-half-year process from the point that we decided, yes, we are going to start a distillery before we turned our still on for the first time in December of 2015,” Steve said. That included navigating financing, permit applications, and securing and completely renovating their building, which had been vacant for some 15 years after its life as a wheel manufacturing plant for the Big Three automakers.
As part of their grain-to-glass process for making whiskey, Eastern Kille initially planned to do everything on-site, including milling grain. Trial and error lead to them learning that milling thousands of pounds of grain each week was not only time consuming but also very messy; sourcing milled grain, rather than milling themselves, was one of several shifts they made in getting started.
Another transition was moving away from manually tracking production and attempting to put together reports themselves. “I built everything into spreadsheets to track, but at the end of the month I would find things that didn’t add up and was constantly having to go back,” Steve recalled.
“[DISTILL x 5] saves me ten hours a month between compiling the data and filing the reports. It’s freed up so much time in entering data at the end of the day… and then when it comes time for the first of the month [for TTB reporting] it’s just a copy and paste [to Pay.gov]. It has been really, really nice.”
When asked what he’s done with those ten hours a month that he gained back, Steve’s answer was quick. “A million things! It’s freed us up to expand new product lines, to focus on marketing, to focus on all the things it takes to run a business that you never think about,” he said. “Instead of sitting around filling out spreadsheets, you get to run your business. … [I]t’s a big chunk of time each month that has helped out with. And there is that peace of mind in case we get audited.”
With more time available to focus on the business, one of the first things the distillery focused on is what is now a robust cocktail program. On a normal (pre-COVID) Thursday night, the cocktail bar is a bustling place, though it came from humble beginnings. Originally, the tasting room featured seating from an old Papa John’s; once the neighborhood caught on, though, they had to upgrade to “legitimate furniture to sit on and rolling out a legitimate cocktail program,” Steve joked.
“All of the bitters, all of the liqueurs, all of the vermouths we make on-site here to have a proper program with about 30 cocktails on our menu. About half are classics that everyone would know, and the other half are unique to the area.”
Removing the pressures of operations tracking and reporting also gave Eastern Kille time to focus on their product. Our visit to Eastern Kille was also just over four years after their first whiskey distillations, a big event for the team. When planning the distillery, Steve and Brandon wanted to focus on what they love most – American whiskey, specifically bourbon and rye – and the whiskey ready to bottle would be their first bottled-in-bond product release. DISTILL x 5 gave Steve and the team the ability to spend their time on what matters.
“Focus on what your goal is and what your competency is going to be, like in our case hopefully making really good bourbon,” Steve explained, “and then [remove] everything that is distracting from that… focus on what you’re good at.”
It’s a truism of starting a small business that you’ll inevitably be pulled in all directions at once, and the urge to manage everything yourself – especially in an effort to minimize recurring costs – is strong. It’s a hard lesson to learn that the investment in the right tools is often the best choice for the team, and for the business.
“There was a lot of stuff we did where we thought ‘we’re going to save a lot of money by doing it ourselves,’ like not getting [DISTILL x 5] right away just trying to save a few bucks a month,” Steve recalled. “But you find that the cost in your time is so drastic.”
The ultimate test of that theory for Eastern Kille was when they decided to purchase – rather than rent – their ice machine, to eliminate the recurring monthly expense of the rental. The purchase did eliminate the monthly cost, but Steve soon found himself cleaning, maintaining, and fixing the ice machine – all tasks taking away from the time he had to spend on vital business operations.
“Let someone else handle your ice machine or your software for tracking your TTB reporting,” Steve concluded. If the expense is an investment in your business, it’s one worth making.