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April 20, 2014

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An all-American vodka success story

Texas-made Tito’s Handmade Vodka is on the rise

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For Tito Beveridge, the American dream started in a homemade vodka still.

Next time you’re at the liquor store picking up a bottle of vodka, take a second to browse the countries of origin of the biggest brands. There’s Holland (Ketel One, Van Gogh), France (Grey Goose), Sweden (Absolut), Poland (Belvedere) and, of course, Russia (Stolichnaya). And then there’s Texas.

Yes, the land of 10-gallon hats, hickory-smoked meats and the Bush dynasty is also the birthplace of an American success story served with a twist: Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

Sitting in a Caesars Palace hotel room during the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America convention earlier this month, Bert “Tito” Beveridge speaks with a light drawl, recounting his strange journey from oil-rig roughneck to vodka mogul. He talks about work as a sub-surface mapper “shooting seismic,” which he describes as taking an “ultrasound of the Earth.” He talks about companies started and ended. He talks about jobs taken and quit, about moving to Venezuela, where he became “jefe del groupo” of a heliportable seismic dynamite crew, then moving back to Texas, where he eventually left the world of geophysics, dynamite, ground water and sulphuric ponds for the mortgage industry … just as rates went up, leaving him in the dust.

“I’m like, ‘Now what? I’m such a loser. Everything I do just turns to crap,’” recalls Beveridge (yes, that’s his real last name!) of that particularly low moment. Following the advice of a TV segment about finding your passion, he made a list of things he loved to do and a list of things he was good at and tried to come up with a job that incorporated as many of the items on the sheet as possible. His conclusion: “I gotta get into the liquor business.”

A more distilled mission came courtesy of a local liquor store, where Beveridge went to show off the homemade infusions he’d been giving away as Christmas gifts to friends. The man he spoke to suggested vodka as a good category to explore, then laid down the gauntlet: “If you could make a vodka that a girl could drink straight, then you might have something.”

It was the mid-’90s, and after going back and forth over permits, Beveridge got to work, building his own still over a catfish boiler from an outdoors store. He experimented with different grains, eventually settling on 100 percent corn, which makes Tito’s Vodka gluten-free. He bought 86 different vodkas and subjected his friends to blind taste tests, tweaking his formula again and again until they were picking his liquor over the others every single time. “I was basically just trying to figure out, how do you do this? Just trial and error.”

The trials paid off. Wine Enthusiast lists Tito’s in the Superb category (90-95 points), and Beveridge’s vodka has won Double Gold at the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco. The signature tan and copper bottles (with a logo that Beveridge designed in CorelDraw) is a regular on liquor shelves, an all-American underdog in a category dominated by fancy names and elegant marketing.

“It was a slow build,” Beveridge says of the company that was a one-man show through its toddler years. “The first year we did 1,000 cases; the second year was 2,000; the third year was 3,000; fourth year was 4,000. ... The way it works in the liquor business is you either grow or you die. That’s all there is to it. If you’re not growing, you’re dying, and once you start dying, it’s hard to recover.”

And Tito’s is definitely not dying. “Five years ago I had one salesperson. This year, we’re going to add 12, and we’ll end up with 30 salespeople. This last year, 9-liter cases, we did 580—580,000.”

Beveridge leans back into the couch of his casino suite with sales posters resting against the walls, different size bottles of Tito’s Vodka set out on a small table. There’s a satisfied smile on his tanned face. Ask him why he got into the liquor business and he’ll tell you it’s “a great way to meet girls and write off your bar tab.” In other words, he’s living the American dream, twice over.

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