Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Life in corporate America was a drag for Noel Burns and Daniel Taylor.
The two San Antonio men met through their church years ago and often got their families together when Burns wasn’t toiling as a water salesman and when Taylor wasn’t working in management at Lowes.
On New Year’s Eve 2014, they found themselves in a friend’s backyard in Schertz sitting by a campfire, watching their children play and talking about how much they disliked those jobs.
They started brainstorming ideas for a business they could start together and eventually settled on a distillery after about 20 minutes. Neither had a background in distilling or brewing, but they were fans of the industry and enjoyed trying new drinks. They didn’t see any reason why they couldn’t succeed in the alcohol industry.
Burns had worked as a professional chemist for 13 years and later in higher education working with science students prior to his stint as a water salesman. He at least understood the basics of distilling. Taylor had a grasp on the fundamentals of business and startups; his biggest challenge was the idea of walking away from a comfortable corporate salary and benefits with a family to support.
“I still haven’t wrapped my mind around it,” Taylor said. “I’m still working on it. It was basically a leap of faith kind of thing. I’ve always wanted to run my own business. I’ve always felt like I had the skills to make it successful. So when it was presented it was almost a no-brainer.”
Now in its fifth year of operation, Alamo Distilling Co. has overcome branding issues, a distributor going bankrupt, and the ups and downs of introducing products to reach a point where it is preparing to expand for the third time and approaching the 10,000-case threshold for sales in a year.
“When you do product development, it’s 100 small decisions, and some of them kind of come together where it’s pointing in the same direction, and then the other times you’re fighting every step of the way,” Burns said.
One month after that New Year’s Eve campfire, they had a business plan. Two months in, they were out in the community talking with liquor store and restaurant owners to better understand what people liked and what brands and flavors weren’t as popular.
Burns took the first big step quitting his job. Taylor needed more time to establish a safety net and pay off some bills. Even though it would be more than a year before cutting ties with Lowes, he knew they were making the right decision.
“A Fortune 500 company, as structured as it is and well-oiled, it doesn’t give you a lot of freedom when it comes to setting up operations,” Taylor said. “I had so many ideas I would take to corporate and it was like, ‘Nope, can’t do that. It’s against policy.’ So it was like, ‘OK, well, you’re kind of wasting my talents here.’ So this kind of made sense.”
Before the end of the first year, they had leased 1,100 square feet of office and warehouse space near the San Antonio International Airport. They had a license and their first two products, Texas Moonshine and Texas Rum, and a commitment to use locally sourced grains and support local farmers.
They soon realized they had a branding problem. People were using the company name when looking for its products. Instead of asking for Texas Rum, they asked for Alamo Rum. Burns and Taylor decided to embrace it and began using Alamo in product names as well.
In 2017, Alamo Distilling Co. moved from its original location to a 7,000-square-foot building on Chestnut Street near downtown. By the end of 2019, they’re hoping to move into a 38,000-square-foot warehouse not far from their current location.
Burns said on the day they move in, the warehouse will be at least half full.
Kelly Railean, executive board secretary of the Texas Distilled Spirits Association and owner of Railean Distillers in the Galveston area, said building a successful distilling business is difficult but has become increasingly popular in recent years, creating more competition for everyone in the industry.
Burns said Alamo Distilling was one of the first 50 licensed distilleries in Texas in 2015. Railean said as of mid-February there were 149 permits for distilleries in the state of Texas. Of those, 106 have actually bottled a product.
A 2013 change to state law allowed distilleries to open tasting rooms, where customers could sample products, to bring the state more in line with laws in other states. The changes also allowed distilleries to sell directly to customers, though no more than two bottles per customer per month.
“It is crazy,” Railean said of how difficult it is to operate a successful distillery business. “If it wasn’t for the laws changing back in 2013, a lot of us probably wouldn’t still be here today. … It’s not like there is any one entity out there that is evil. It’s just really tough, like with anything like a mom-and-pop restaurant or a small retailer. It’s really tough. There’s a lot of issues.”
Alamo Distilling Co. has grown to 13 full-time employees and produces three primary products: Black Label Bourbon, Catimore Coffee Liqueur, and Alamo Vodka. They found the moonshine market too small, and the rum market is dominated by long-established brands.
Burns said the company has been able to tap into other sources of revenue by creating and bottling spirits for other companies as well.
He said they have been frugal and are committed to treating people right, whether it be customers, partners, or competitors. That philosophy was always part of the idea of the company and came from their experiences watching the much larger companies they once worked for not always stick to such principles, Burns said.
It has served them well. Visitors from around the world come to their tasting room almost every day thanks to San Antonio’s robust tourism industry. People looking for an authentic experience often find them because of the Alamo name.
Burns and Taylor said they aren’t trying to be the biggest maker of craft spirits out there. They’re trying to make good products, provide jobs for others in the community, and take care of their families while doing something they love.
“We try to stay true to the highest quality we can,” Burns said. “We try to stick to the sweeter, richer flavor profile. We try to use the best ingredients possible. We’re just crafting good quality products for people here to enjoy.”