The man: Tito Beveridge, founder of Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
The mission: Make the best vodka in the world, to the tune of one of the greatest underdog stories you’ve ever heard.
The commitment: “I racked up 19 credit cards to about $88,000. And I got carpal tunnel.”
Top 3 ways he’ll change your life:
- If Austin started a league of exuberant entrepreneurs, Beveridge would be its mascot. Support hard-earned innovation, one sip at a time.
- Tito’s Handmade Vodka may win prestigious awards, but it’s still made by “a real guy, in real boots, who goes to work every day.” And he keeps it at a price that other real guys and gals can afford.
- When the road gets bumpy, a few swigs of vodka will smooth it over. Take it from the man with his name on the bottle.
In sum: Tito’s Handmade Vodka has won over the palates of connoisseurs and the hearts of Austin – and eradicated the hangovers of anyone smart enough to stick to it all night. Let’s drink to the underdog.
Behind the scenes
It is 10:51 a.m. and I am swigging a shot of vodka from a plastic test tube. I have already made a pact with myself not to flinch – not in this crowd, no way. But I don’t have to suppress so much as an eye squint. As any vodka drinker will tell you, Tito’s goes down smooth.
The man who’s pouring has his name on the bottle. Tito Beveridge (born Bert Butler Beveridge II; Tito is short for Bertito) built the trailer-sized shed where we’re standing. That was 1995, and he assumed “the shack,” as it’s aptly called, would be temporary. In actuality, it would function as administrative headquarters, distillery, and bottling center for over a decade. That’s how long Beveridge “bootstrapped it up” before enjoying some hard-won success.
Today, the shack is a paper and guitar-strewn office. Its surrounding complex produces more than 245,000 cases a year of corn-based vodka. And Tito’s Handmade Vodka is a hallmark of Austin.
Keg party prophet
Many a rash decision can be traced to a keg party, and so it was with Tito’s Handmade Vodka. In 1993, Beveridge was pumping the keg at a friend’s party when a perfect stranger recognized him as “The Vodka Guy,” referring to the flavored vodkas that Beveridge had been infusing at home and giving as Christmas gifts. “You’re the vodka guy,” the man insisted, even after Beveridge, then unhappily employed in the mortgage business, tried to correct him.
Up until this point in his life, Beveridge’s resume went something like this: lawn mower, geology student, seismic data processor, heli-portable dynamite crew chief, oil driller, ground water geologist, couch surfer, and finally, mortgage broker. He had lived in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Venezuela, and Columbia. He had been laid off from several downsized companies and watched his one-man drilling company go under with the Gulf War. He was no stranger to adversity, nor was he faint of heart about things like chemicals, combustion, or building something without being entirely sure what he was doing. He did know this, he says: “I made a list of things that I wanted in a job. I liked air conditioning, meeting girls, and working with people that have all their teeth and fingers.”
As the story goes, the “vodka guy” comment got Beveridge thinking, and hard. He chatted up local liquor stores, and listened when they told him that if he could make a really smooth sipping vodka, he could probably sell it.
This vodka’s gone to pot
To set his apart in a sea of vodkas, Beveridge decided to distill using old-fashioned pot stills, the same method used to make fine cognacs and scotches. (The big guys use commercial column stills, which, predictably, require less skill and effort. They also create chemical byproducts that we laypeople refer to as “hangovers.”)
But there were no instructions. Anywhere. Texas, which had never been home to a single legal distillery, had just one resource: age-yellowed photos of lawmen arresting bootleggers. Digging through library archives, Beveridge caught glimpses of pot stills amid all the rifles and handlebar mustachess. He started sketching.
He then maxed out 19 credit cards, racked up $90,000 in debt; bought 13 acres of the cheapest dirt in Travis County ($3,000 to be exact, lest the reader assume I exaggerate); and poured a concrete slab for the scrappy shed still standing today. He spent nights on a mattress on the shack floor, and afternoons manning his makeshift pot still, which – with its boiling alcohol contents – kept the room at a balmy 113 degrees during a typical summer day. He started an arm-wrestling match with state and national liquor licensing organizations that would last years, and blazed a trail for every distillery that’s since cropped up in the Lone Star State. Arguably, he started the American handcrafted distilling movement.
He and his friends also started drinking a lot of vodka.
Six is the magic number
When Beveridge speaks, it is with the earnestness and unapologetic enthusiasm of a boy. He’s got to be a lot of fun to hang out with, libations or not. Which means that the process of developing his vodka must’ve been a good time.
“I bought 86 bottles of vodka, one of every kind I could find,” Beveridge says. “I poured them in Kerr jars and mixed them up. Friends would come over, we’d play music and taste vodka.”
Once they’d established the top competitors, Beveridge began tweaking his process to beat them. A longer neck for the still. A shorter neck. A different recipe. And so on. Eventually, he discovered that his own six-times distilled vodka beat every competitor, every time.
At least, that’s what his friends told him. What did the world think?
“The first review compared Tito’s Handmade Vodka to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” Beveridge says. He is visibly amused.
In 1998, Tony Abou-Ganim, then head of the cocktail program at Las Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel, sampled Tito’s Handmade Vodka. He talked Beveridge into entering it in the 2001 San Francisco World Spirit Competition, going up against the likes of Ketel One, Smirnoff, Stoli, Skyy, Belvedere, and Chopin.
It won an unprecedented Double Gold, signifying a unanimous decision from the judges: Tito’s Handmade Vodka was the best.
For awhile, Beveridge continued the blind taste tests against competitor vodkas. But at some point, he says, he decided to simply compete against himself.
This is an intervention
A few years after the accolades started pouring in, business was better but not even close to booming. Beveridge was still in debt, still loading his own trucks, still screwing on bottle caps by hand. (He subsequently got carpal tunnel.) On a guys’ fishing trip, his friends cornered him.
“You’ve given it everything you’ve got, and you can feel good about that,” they said. “But it’s time to throw in the towel.” One of them, a successful realtor, offered him a job. Beveridge laughed it all off.
“I’d been in enough horrible situations in previous careers that I just kept thinking, Hey man, at least I’m out here in Austin,” he says. “I had to see it through.”
It wasn’t until 2004 that the company started turning a sizable profit, spurned by devotees who demanded Tito’s from every bar and liquor store they walked into. (This grassroots campaigning is still the core of the brand’s marketing efforts, for which Beveridge praises the Austin community loudly and often.) These days, it’s on shelves across the 50 states and Canada, and other countries are clamoring for distribution.
And back home, Austin is continuing its Tito’s love affair.
Austin: Not for dream killers
The feeling is mutual. Beveridge, a proud sixth-generation San Antonian, gets a little mushy when he talks about Austin.
“This city is like a magnet: It attracts a certain kind of person, and repels another kind,” he says. “There’s this attitude like, You figured it out enough to get yourself here, you got here, you’re okay. People aren’t dream killers.”
Here, I must look confused. (To be fair, we’ve sampled several of the day’s batches, and I’m not as quick on my feet.)
“Where I grew up, if I said I was going to start the first legal distillery in Texas, about twenty-six people would tell me it wouldn’t work, and let’s go dove hunting and forget the whole thing,” Beveridge explains. “But here in Austin, people are like, ‘That’s a great idea! I’ll hook you up with my buddy, Jeremy. And hey, I’ll come help out, too.’”
Visit titosvodka.com to find Tito’s Handmade Vodka in your town and become an official Tito’s Taster. Stay connected on their Facebook page. Read exclusive notes on Tito and his intrepid distillery dog here.