Crafting Your Journey: A Conversation with Tito Beveridge
By Briana Loëb
Tito’s Handmade Vodka isn’t just a particularly smooth vodka. It’s a nationally-known household name, that made history when it was produced at the first legal distillery in the State of Texas, and it’s one of Austin’s proudest progenies.
More than that, it is the creation of someone who did something that very few have accomplished- Tito Beveridge found his true calling in life. Abraham Maslow once said that “It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” Tito did just that, he carved out his corner of the world and made it completely his own.
Of course, Tito Beveridge wasn’t born distilling vodka. He is one of us, a normal guy who figured things out one step at a time. Long before he built his first still, he studied geology and geophysics before landing in the oil industry. Not much later after that, he became a mortgage broker who made flavored vodkas for his buddies. That’s right- most people make pralines or banana bread for Christmas gifts, but Tito made infused vodka. From habanero vodka that went down like liquid fire, to raspberry and orange enhanced spirits, he made a variety of unique flavors for his friends.
When the mortgage industry took a turn for the worst, rates went up, affecting homebuyers and refinancing, which hit his business hard. Tito felt stuck, he had no idea what he was going to do. He remembered his grandfather’s advice that if you spend your life doing something you love, it won’t matter how much money you have, you’ll truly be a winner. Those words were echoing around in his head when Tito went to a keg party. There, people kept asking him if he was the “vodka guy” that they had heard about, and his friends kept telling him to sell the stuff. So when he got home that night, he sat down in front of the TV with his résumé in front of him. Some guy on television was talking about the Ben Franklin list, which is a problem-solving model to use as a tool for difficult decisions. The audience was instructed to draw a line down the middle of a page and put what you love to do on one side, and what you’re good at on the other side. So Tito flipped over his résumé and made the list. “I like to party,” he wrote, “and I like bars, nightclubs, resorts, hotels, beaches, and nice restaurants. And I’m good at science, engineering, project management, and sales.” The idea is to find a job that includes as many of those things as possible.
“I looked down at the list and immediately thought ‘I’ve got to get in the liquor business’. My name is Beveridge and I’ve caught shit my whole life for it,” Tito says. “Nomenclature is destiny.”
So he bottled up more of his flavored vodkas and took them down to a liquor store… where he was quickly chased out. “You can’t just bring liquor into a store,” he was told. “There are all these processes, it’s a multi-tiered system.” Tito was baffled. How did people get their products in the stores? After a lesson about the federal and state regulatory bodies, the distributors, the suppliers, the retailers, the bars, Tito left with his head spinning.
On top of that, retailer after retailer told him that they’d have enough of flavored vodkas that wouldn’t sell. “They told me ‘Come here and look at the dust on the bottles.’ They just weren’t selling, who would know that better than the retailers?” Tito recalls that the store owners would show him the wall of straight vodkas. They were all brands owned by multi-billion dollar corporations. “They told me I couldn’t do it without money. They said that I didn’t have a chance. Newfound passion, the list from TV, or the perfect last name notwithstanding.”
Spoiler alert: he did it.
But it wasn’t easy. With all of the feedback he’d received, he could have easily given up and quit. Instead he set out to make the smoothest vodka he could possibly make.
So he researched (pre-internet, mind you). One of the first things that Tito did was find out what previous Texan distillers had done. But that’s just it, no one had. Armed with nothing but pictures of moonshine stills and an old Shiner Bock keg, he went to Academy Sports and Outdoors and bought the supplies to make his own still to replicate the pictures.
Next, he bought every vodka he could get his hands on and put them in numbered Kerr jars so that he and his friends could taste them. Once he established the favorites, he set out to beat them. “I’m not doing anything until people hands-down pick mine over theirs every single time,” Tito declared. “I decided that if I could make a better, incredibly smooth product at a more reasonable price, then people would buy it. Consumers are a lot smarter than large corporations give them credit for. I thought that if someone took a hot sip and said ‘smooth,’ then I had a fighting chance.” So he then used the age-old technique of trial-by-error to create the product we all know today, which is made from yellow corn and is distilled six times.
When the City of Austin announced that they were going to build the new airport out by Manor, all of the prices collapsed in the area. Tito bought 12.75 acres and built a T-11 shed just under the thousand-foot commercial fire code requirement for the time. When he started the distillery, he had 19 credit cards totaling nearly $90,000 of debt. He did all of the extensive legal research, the accounting, and the production on his own. The legal process was tedious, to say the least. The State had never issued a permit for a distillery before, so the time and money involved in the process was significant. At the start, he did all of his bottling by hand, and his wrist still bothers him to this day from the countless caps and labels he applied himself.
It wasn’t until Tito had all his permits and was trying to raise money at his first big convention that he was approached by someone who asked what had given him the idea. He thought back to his Kentucky visit and said “Man, those wonderful little distilleries in Kentucky: Booker’s, Knob Creek, Baker’s.” And then the man started laughing. “Those are mine,” he said to Tito. “And they’re all Jim Beam.” When Tito told us this story, he chuckled and said “Turns out, I started the American craft spirits movement, because I'm a dumbass.”
The period after that was what he calls “weeds surviving through concrete.” He worked hard to just keep the dream alive somehow. He didn’t go to business school, and when he looks back, he views that as a benefit. “I never thought that I knew better than anybody. I just had the mentality that I didn’t know shit. I’d try anything if it worked, I was scrappy.”
As they say, the rest is history. Tito's Handmade Vodka won the Double Gold Medal in its class at the 2001 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, unanimously beating 71 other vodkas. Since then, the product has won countless awards and today, Tito’s is distributed from coast-to-coast across the United States and Canada.
Tito has an incredible story, that much is clear. Sitting across from him, sipping frosty Moscow mules, it’s obvious that he is a cool guy. With that easygoing personality of someone comfortable in their own skin, he radiates joy. It is easy to be absolutely blown away by this remarkable tale. It’s also just as easy to be inspired. We can learn a lot from the way Tito overcame countless challenges.
Tito tells us to “get out there and tangle it up in the world.” That’s what he did. “Be alive,” he says. “We’re all going to die someday. Be alive while we’re here. My advice to anybody is go out there and don’t worry about failing.”
Entrepreneurs know better than most what it’s like to feel fear and to worry about failure. “Entrepreneurship, to me, is like steer wrestling,” Tito says in that neighborly manner that only a country boy can. “Imagine you’re one of those guys at the rodeo looking down at that steer, and you’re either going to do it or you’re not. If you jump, either the steer runs over you or you wrestle it down in record time to win the whole competition. No matter what, you stand up dirty, disoriented, and you’ve lost your hat. Pick it up, wave to the crowd, dust yourself off, and head to the gate. Whether you win or you lose when you’ve started a business, you’re bound to be disoriented and tuckered out.”
Even the most successful people in history have failed at some point, that is important to remember. Tito is no different. He points out that your failures make you who you are. “Every time, every one of your failures, you just wrap your arms around it and accept all the responsibility for it. Then you just wad it up into a little carnation, mentally pin it to your lapel every morning, and wear it with pride that you went and you failed.” Tito says that his failures were the foundation of his successes.
“I used to always deflect the blame,” Tito says. “I’d blame failures on things that are bigger than me, or someone else. Finally, at some point in my life, I just decided, ‘You know what? What would it feel like if I just accepted all the responsibility? What would it feel like if I owned all of this?' As soon as I did that, I remember just sitting there going, ‘Oh my God, man.’ That is a cathartic experience. That's a lot of energy right there. You can't make or destroy energy, right? The human brain is this great vehicle that you can switch into a different, positive frequency.”
Even now, Tito isn’t done bettering what he’s built. The company culture is incredibly important to this iconic founder. The business has employed a “Joyologist” whose job is to encourage the spirit of philanthropy in the enterprise. The marketing budget is not nearly as big as the budget for charity. Tito is far too humble to boast about the incredible spirit for giving that he has fostered among the family of staff at his company. The mentality that building better rather than bigger permeates the environment. “I’d rather see my employees passionate and fired up instead of putting more and more money into advertising,” Tito says. “Any time you can take alcohol, tobacco, or firearms and turn it into love and goodness, it's a pretty good trick.”
Tito’s story can teach us that it is truly all about the journey. In fact, he’s still on the journey. He set out to learn and grow and be the best at whatever he decided to be. What’s remarkable isn’t just that he was the first, or the best, but it’s that he carved out his own niche where he could thrive and still continues to today. We’ll raise a glass to that.
You can responsibly enjoy Tito’s Handcraft Vodka at countless restaurants and bars across the country. Find a retailer near you at www.titosvodka.com/find-titos/. Check out more videos (captured by Cognitive Films) and behind-the-scenes shots (taken by Leslie Hodge) of the incredible interview we had with Tito Beveridge below: