How to quit your job and become a spirits distiller

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Before moving to Long Eddy in the Western Catskills to run a distillery, tasting room and range of honey-based food products, the women behind Catskill Provisions, Claire M Marin, Founder and Chief Distiller, and Cathy Leidersdorff, Co-Founder and alchemist, led very different lives. Claire grew up in Spain, lived briefly in Brazil, then landed in New York where she developed a career in publishing. Cathy, born in Queens, New York to Argentine immigrants, studied agriculture at Cornell before starting her own business in 1994. She founded the second largest commercial flooring company in New York City, Architectural Flooring Resource . Around this time, she bought a property in Sullivan County – the same property where the couple live and work today.

Claire discovered beekeeping in 2003 as a weekend hobby that has become a rewarding flagship of long hours worked in the city. As the Executive Vice President of the Woman’s Day Brand Group, the 7th largest magazine in the United States, Claire managed all revenue, including the web, books, and special events, as well as the magazine itself. .

The honey that Claire gifted her friends and colleagues began to gain local acclaim, sparking interest in pursuing a new career path. Seven years later she resigned from the publishing world and in 2010 she launched Catskill Provisions to focus on a line of spirits made from her wildflower honey. She has since won awards for her New York Honey Rye Whiskey, Pollinator Vodka, Pollinator Gin, Maple Bourbon, and Beespoke Gin which she sells and pours into her tasting room and restaurant in Callicoon, New York. It has also developed a line of food products including honey, ketchup, apple cider vinegar and maple syrup.

She took the time to speak with TUSEN about how she, with Cathy’s help, made such an abrupt career transition, detailing the challenges and highlights along the way. She offers advice to those who wish to follow a similar path.

Coming from publishing, why did you decide to produce New York spirits and build a distillery?

The Catskills Distillery was a direct response to the failure of the farming system here. I wanted to get closer to a solution for agriculture, and at that time, the threat of fracking in our region was very real. I thought that if we shed light on the strength of the feed and distillation movement, it would give us an alternative to fracking and help support the ailing farms in the region. The area, by the time I started coming here around 2003, was very depressed. We used to do our shopping as there was nowhere to buy fresh vegetables and good meat.

I started working with other distillers at their facilities in 2010 to develop the honey infused rye whiskey and bottled the first batch in 2013. It was a change from the usual first bottle alcohol. in any starting distillery being vodka because it doesn’t require any aging… but I’ve never been a conventional girl so making rye on the first introduction suited me fine! And that gave me a lot of attention because it was so different from what people were used to… it was the start of the agricultural distilleries movement, and I was one of them. To have a NY State Farm Distilling license, you must use at least 75% of the resources grown in the state. We typically use 90% or more. From the start, I donated all my grain to farmers to feed their animals and I still do.

Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles, as the industry’s resistance to a newcomer is always aggressive and unfavorable. I have worked with three different distilleries in 4 years! It was headache after headache filled with disappointing results after a ton of hard work. I was constantly getting out of one bad alliance into another. In 2017 I had a heart to heart with Cathy and I said ‘look I can walk away from this brand now and I would be filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment’ or ‘we will do it all. and build our own distillery. But I can no longer work with other people who do not support what I do. We started renovations in early 2018 in an existing barn his father built in 2000! I love that he built it from scratch and that I distill it there every day… it’s very special to me.

What attracted you to the beverage and hospitality industry?

I I had, like most people I know, worked in the hospitality industry when I was young and went to school with jobs in the hospitality industry. I’ve always liked it and I think I’m natural for it. I feel like when people walk into our tasting room or our facility, they come into our house. This warmth must be shared with all who enter and it makes the experience very special. The fact that now people are tasting my spirits and that we have a restaurant and a cocktail bar is amazing to me.

How did you manage the financial aspects of the business, especially when designing, building and while waiting for licenses, permits, opening, etc. ?

I was fortunate enough to have the proceeds from the sale of a house on Long Island in the bank. And Cathy was extremely supportive of what I was doing. She basically supported us for 5 years.

We are fully self-funded and the advantage of this is that there is no partner or person to respond to. I would recommend that if you have to partner up, be extra careful and do your due diligence in picking the right people. In any business, it will take time, money, and lawyers to properly dissolve a partnership. Better to start with a smaller version of your dream and take calculated steps. I was so excited to cross the fifth grade mark. The data shows that in the second year 30% of businesses fail and the fifth year 50% fail. I also believe in hiring experts to help you navigate regulations, permits, and best practices. Assemble a good, solid group of resourceful experts in the field you are in, including a lawyer, always!

What are your main concerns on a daily basis, especially with a restaurant / bar / tasting room in the Catskills?

Daily life is complicated by staffing. You are not as well organized as a large company and you may be running out of benefits to offer. So the talent pool that you have access to is going to be difficult. The people you need to find should be passionate, hardworking and loyal; if you get these three qualities, you can teach the rest. In my 11 years in business, I haven’t seen a more difficult jobs crisis. There are simply too many jobs for not enough employees to fill them. Every business owner I know is currently under maximum strain due to a lack of experienced staff.

You will always be one step ahead if you are resourceful and it has never been more important than now to be flexible and stay nimble. The market is constantly changing and you need to respond quickly to what your customers want and need.

What are your general concerns?

Being outside of a big metropolis has its challenges. I think more and more people are considering moving to where we are rather than facing the challenges and competition of big cities. But we just don’t have the systems in place here, like high speed internet or reliable cell phone service. There are improvements every day, but these are real issues that we deal with all the time. They can hold you back and slow your growth. Consider this before you move to a location. Make sure you have efficient utilities nearby.

Scaling is a topic we often think about. My practices produce incredible spirits, but scaling up will make it difficult to maintain the integrity of my products. I am increasing the capacity as we speak in a way that will allow me to continue producing the organic grain and the grape by the glass that I am making, but double my capacity.

Did your family and friends think you were crazy or support you? Or envious?

Some friends and family were envious, even though I wasn’t supported by many, that’s for sure. Everyone I worked with thought I was crazy to quit a very lucrative career. But I really didn’t look back because I wasn’t myself for a few years.

Have you wondered if you made the right decision?

Through all the trials, NO. It was the right decision and I learned so much about myself and my abilities that I wouldn’t change for the world.

What was the biggest unforeseen challenge?

The biggest challenge is that I can’t travel as much as I used to. Cathy and I would take two generous vacations a year. And now it’s an anomaly for us to take an afternoon off together. It’s about finding the right people and training them so that you can have the well-deserved rest. I love what I do, everyday, but you need to recharge and that’s the biggest challenge.

What advantages have you benefited from since your move?

Waking up in the morning with all my animals in a country setting is the first benefit that I enjoy on a daily basis. Knowing all my neighbors and being part of an amazing community is also very important and rewarding. When Cathy is here with me it’s even better, but she has started moving back to town to run her business regularly now.

What advice can you offer someone who is considering following your lead?

Have at least three years of cash in the bank and you will probably need more. Don’t expect to make a profit for at least the first two years. Read a lot before choosing what and where! Make sure that if that fails, you have a plan B. Meet with consultants or experts in the field. Make sure you are passionate about what you are about to do… the passion will keep you going when the going gets tough… and there will be plenty. But I wouldn’t change it for the world!

Anything you want to add?

I am grateful for the strength I have had throughout this endeavor, and I appreciate the opportunity to inspire others to find their strength and bring their vision to life!

Catskills Provisions Tasting Room, 16 Upper Main Street, Callicoon, NY 12723

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