Edward A. Ornelas for the Rivard Report
Steve Ison took a business idea to some friends a decade ago, and they gave him side-eye and advice to pick a different direction.
They offered up, instead, a pitch for making whiskey here in Texas where no one was making whiskey at the time. Ison knew nothing about distilling alcohol, but a yearning to move beyond the family commercial insurance business pushed him to take the idea and run.
A decade later, what he’d spent years working 90-hour weeks to produce was chosen as an official product of Super Bowl LI in Houston in 2017 and got a invitation to the Oscars this year as an official drink for the stars in the greenroom.
Ison is co-founder of Rebecca Creek Distillery LLC, at 26605 Bulverde Road just outside of San Antonio, where he and his team make award-winning whiskey and vodka; host live music, open mic nights and karaoke; and offer tastings and sell the distillery’s products in a charming setting in the countryside.
They have hosted weddings, corporate meetings, and business gatherings, too.
“I knew there was something bigger out there,” Ison said of the life change he made back in 2008 “… I think I would have really regretted it if I never acted on it and at least tried.”
Ison started with the idea and little money after years of working in the commercial insurance business his father built. He grew up in San Antonio attending Camelot Elementary, Churchill High School, and Texas State University, where he enrolled for a business degree but ultimately switched to political science because he didn’t enjoy accounting.
Once he decided to make the leap into whiskey, he took classes around the country to learn about the business and the processes involved. Rebecca Creek now produces Rebecca Creek Fine Texas Spirit Whiskey, Texas Ranger Whiskey and Enchanted Rock Vodka.
There were plenty of mistakes along the way, such as one of the first pitches he made to a potential investor with a business plan in which he had misspelled distillery three times. Ison said he still managed to get an investment despite the embarrassing misstep.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong with the project,” Ison said in November during the Forum on Entrepreneurship Breakfast Series hosted by the Meadows Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at St. Mary’s University. “Everything was off. I tell people it costs you triple what you think it’s going to cost and takes you three times as long. Once you remember that, you’re good.”
Another error could have killed the company if it had ended differently. Wanting to use the very best tools to make its products, Rebecca Creek spent $700,000 on a copper still from Germany. When the still arrived after months of waiting, Ison decided not to rent a crane to hoist the still into place, thinking he could get the job done and save money with a forklift.
The still fell and bounced three times and was dented on one side, which can still be seen in visits to the distillery.
“I called that our first whiskey dent,” Ison joked.
Ison met master distiller Eric Watson in California at a distilling school when he was still learning about the business. He asked Watson to be an adviser to help get Rebecca Creek off the ground and Watson agreed, coming to San Antonio for 10 months and helping Ison develop the right formulas for the vodka and whiskey.
Ison believes it was one of his best decisions, right up there with naming the distillery after the nearby creek. He said Rebecca Creek is the only whiskey in the world with a female name and there was some debate about the moniker because whiskey has traditionally been consumed more often by men.
“Redneck marketing” is a term Ison uses to describe the hard-driving, grassroots approach he and his team used to get the word out about the company. One strategy they employed early was making deals with musicians who played at the distillery on weekends to mention their products when they were on the road playing other venues and to request that those venues carry Rebecca Creek.
The distillery eventually developed partnerships with so many artists generally in the country music realm that it started Rebecca Creek Radio, which grew enough to be livestreamed on iHeartRadio.
“That’s a huge milestone for us,” Ison said. “And we make money. They sell ads. So it’s freaking great. They pay us. How great is that?”
Ison and co-founder Mike Cameron, who has since left the company, started with a bookkeeper and distiller in 2009. Rebecca Creek has grown to 37 employees and averages between 1,500 and 2,000 visitors each week when it is open to the public Thursday-Sunday.
In its first year of business, Ison said, Rebecca Creek sold 10,000 cases of vodka as the company waited for its first whiskey to age. Ison said the company will sell 70,000 cases of vodka and whiskey combined this year and should eclipse 100,000 combined cases in 2019.
The numbers mirror explosive growth Ison said he has seen since he began. At one of the first conferences he attended in the industry years ago, he said there were probably 20 vendors and 100 attendees. Last year he attended a conference in Denver where there were 250 vendors and 2,500 attendees.
“It’s like a gold rush now,” Ison said.
Andy Escalona joined Rebecca Creek as operations manager in 2017 after years spent working for a distributorship. He had gotten to know members of Rebecca Creek team over the years and heard stories about the company’s culture that he found appealing.
Rebecca Creek is now available in 15 states, Escalona said, and Ison’s goal is to make the company’s whiskey the first Texas whiskey to become a national brand.
Escalona said at one time that might have seemed like a tall order, but he has seen Ison accomplish other goals he wouldn’t have believed, such as cold-calling Walmart and eventually earning a spot on shelves in the retailing giant’s stores in five states.
Ison also made a splash in the alcohol industry when he hired Howard Jeffery as CEO. Jeffery was an executive at Pernod Ricard and a 30-year industry veteran who worked for several of the world’s largest suppliers.
“It raised a lot of eyebrows in the alcohol industry across the U.S. really,” Escalona said. “… It set a level of credibility across the different markets.”
The immediate focus at Rebecca Creek now is finding a new home. The company has outgrown its facility and current production capabilities. It is trying to find a place to grow that isn’t more than 5-7 miles away from its current location because Ison said he still wants to be close to the creek after which the company is named.
Escalona said it’s also important to make sure the company continues to be tapped into the Edwards Aquifer to not effect the products. Escalona said it’s only a matter of time until Ison finds a solution.
“He has the ability to kind of roll through any kind of obstacle,” Escalona said of Ison. “It’s great working with him because nothing frustrates him. He just takes a deep breath and takes it in really well. He doesn’t dwell on problems. He just tries to figure out solutions. He puts a calmness into any obstacle that comes in front of us. It’s probably his strength.”