- October 14, 2011
Exciting news everyone! The Founder’s Club is open!
This is your chance to be a part of the Brothers Vilgalys from the very beginning, and to help a small start-up making a unique and wonderful product. We’ll be selling 200 memberships, priced at $100 a piece.
You’ll also get some nice swag. We have stainless steel flasks with the Brothers Vilgalys logo, available only to Founder’s Club members. You’ll also get your choice of a Brothers Vilgalys pocket t-shirt, or numbered woodblock print, hand carved by our Creative Director Meghan O’Brien. The prints are limited, so get them while you can!
- October 11, 2011
If you’ve ever purchased liquor at an ABC store in North Carolina, you have some idea of just how regulated spirits are in this state. North Carolina is one of 18 ‘control’ states that run a state monopoly over distribution and retail of spiritous liquor. Each and every state has a somewhat different way of doing things. In part one of my post on the liquor laws, I’m going to go over the legal and regulatory issues facing Brothers Vilgalys Spirits as a start-up spirits company. In part two, I’ll talk about the history of liquor regulations in the US, explaining why we have such a complex system in the first place.
Any distillery, whether they’re producing beverage or fuel ethanol, must first register with the Tax and Trade Bureau, formerly a wing of the ATF. The application is extensive, and must include documentation of all of the equipment, sources of funding, a background check, and a bond against the taxes we’ll be paying once we actually begin production. The whole application usually takes 90 days, but can easily take longer if everything is not in place. Formula and label approval is an entirely separate application, which itself takes some time. There is no direct cost for the permits, but we’ll still have to pay for rent while we’re busy cutting through all the red tape.
Once we’re up and running, we must document all ingredients purchased, the proof and weight of all products made, the number of bottles we produce, and how much product is wasted and why. This is all submitted to the TTB every two weeks.
There’s a simple reason for why spirits are so stridently controlled. And that is money. The Federal government takes an excise tax of $12 per proof gallon (a proof gallon is 50% ABV). It’s our responsibility to pay the correct amount of taxes, and to make sure that our Krupnikas is exactly the proof it says on the bottle. Any extra, and we’re not paying enough taxes. Any less, and we’re not giving the consumer their fair share of booze.
Once our federal permits are in order, we can turn our attention to the state. Since NC maintains total control over alcohol sales, we must first appear before the statewide ABC commission at their once-a-year meeting to get our product approved for sale. Following this, we can approach county and city ABC boards across the state, asking them to stock our product. Usually a broker is hired to take care of this. These brokers fill the middleman niche that distributors would in the classic ‘three tier’ system (more on that later).
Once we’re up and running, all our product must first be shipped to the ABC warehouse in Raleigh. From there, it can be ordered by the local ABC boards, who in turn sell to consumers, bars, and restaurants. There is no way for spirits producers to self-distribute in the way that wineries or breweries currently can.
That is slowly starting to change. Recently the rules were changed to allow distillers to offer samples of their products to visitors for the first time. Being that a sip of our Krupnikas is about the best marketing we can offer, this is a very fortunate change for us.
There is one more change that would greatly benefit us should it come to pass — bottle sales at the distillery. Currently all liquor must move through the ABC stores. There’s a bill waiting in the NC House, Senate Bill 713, that would allow North Carolina distillers to sell their own products for the first time since prohibition began. In essence, the distillery is running an ABC store of their own, paying the same sales taxes and markup. Almost every other state in the country allows this or a similar means of self-distribution to small distillers, including other control states. By modernizing our laws and allowing us to sell our bottles in a storefront, we could shift our focus away from the ABC and back where it really belongs — the great community of Durham, NC.
My vision for the Brothers Vilgalys Spirits company is a space that not only functions as a distillery, but also as a venue and area for events. I’d love to host concerts, lectures, storytelling nights, parties, art shows, movie nights, and any other type of event that brings people together. And at those events, I would love to share some of our Krupnikas and tell you about why it’s such an excellent drink. It starts out sweet and smooth, and ends with a building warm burn and a lingering spicy taste. It’s not only for special occasions, but it will make any occasion a special one.
- October 4, 2011
The first time I made Krupnikas, all I wanted to do was impress my friends. I had only just turned 21 and I was in my junior year majoring in creative writing degree at UC-Santa Barbara. I was also on the UCSB men’s ultimate team, The Black Tide. And while I took both school and athletics very seriously, UCSB has a bit of a reputation as a party school. And you don’t get a reputation as a party school unless you have a lot of parties. The ultimate team was no exception to this trend.
My dad used to make this drink for Lithuanian gatherings, as well as departmental parties, New Year’s, or really any such occasion. Where he got his recipe, I’m not precisely sure. There are hundreds if not thousands of varying Krupnikas recipes, some secret, others less so, that float between Lithuanian and Polish families all over the world. In any case, what my dad was making was very strong, in both flavor and alcoholic kick. It was roughly 100 proof, but the high alcohol content served only to enhance the spiced flavors, while the honey somewhat mellowed out the burning. I decided I’d make a batch myself.
I started with a recipe from the internet. I couldn’t find all the spices at my local co-op, and I had to call five liquor stores before I found one that sold Everclear. I bought the cheapest honey I could find at Costo. Six bears worth of honey to two liters of Everclear, if I remember that correctly. Needless to say, I measured nothing and wrote nothing down. Starting a business, in those days, was about the furthest thing from my mind.
I still remember the reactions I got at the first party I brought it to. All I had was a flask with me, and I let it go for one pass around the room of twenty or so people. In just a couple minutes the flask was gone, and almost everyone was asking where they could get more. Next thing I knew, I was leaving the party on my bike to go pick up the bottle I had at home.
Since then, I’ve improved my recipe a great deal. I’ve found that some of the best honey anywhere comes from back home in North Carolina, that Everclear is far from the only neutral spirit I can use, and that every single spice adds something special to the drink. I’ve also found what I consider to be the ‘sweet spot’ between the strength, sweetness, and spiciness of the drink, resulting in a smooth sipping liqueur with a pleasant warm burn and a lasting, delicious flavor.
- September 22, 2011
Very soon we’ll our Founder’s Club will be officially open. Members will get a bit of early gear — flasks and a choice of a snazzy pocket t-shirt or wood-block print, along with the feel-good knowledge that they’re helping a small business get started making one of the best spirits on the market.
In the coming days, I’ll be updating this blog with a bit more info about what we’ve been up to at Brothers Vilgalys Spirits, and where we’re headed from here. I’ll talk about the product we’re making, the equipment we’re going to buy, the legal and regulatory hurdles ahead, and the search for the perfect location. I’ve been busy learning all I can about everything from honey bees to wood gasification to the safest way to store bulk alcohol. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re getting there. I hope you’ll join us for this next phase of the journey!
- July 25, 2011
The wheels are turning, here at Brothers Vilgalys Spirits! It’s a summer full of learning — learning how to weld, learning about bees, learning about financing. Also, there was some fishing.
Here’s some things that have happened recently around here:
-I visited the Orange County Beekeepers Association, who were very enthusiastic about trying some Krupnikas. Beekeepers are very nice people!
-We bought our second big piece of equipment, a Groen 100 gallon steam jacketed kettle! It’s headed our way on a great big truck!
-I’d like to welcome my friend Ryan Randall, who has volunteered to help out with whatever he can!
-Meghan O’Brien is now officially our Creative Director!
-Shared some Krupnikas with all my ultimate frisbee buddies this weekend at the Summer League Tournament. Krupnikas can be good in the summer too!
There’s plenty more in the works! Stay tuned!
- April 17, 2011
I’ve got some exciting news! Next Saturday I’ll be pouring some samples of Krupnikas at the North Carolina Spirits Festival at the Casbah in Durham. You can find us in the homebrew section, which is free to enter with ID.
You should also definitely check out the festival itself. For a $20 ticket, you get unlimited samples of 20 different craft beers and wines. A portion of the proceeds will go to local charities like the Ronald McDonald House of Durham, the Caring House of Durham, and the Coalition to Unchain Dogs. The festival will go from 7-10 pm.
So come out and raise your glasses and spirits. Spring is here in Durham!
- April 7, 2011
Dear Representative Price,
My name is Rimas Vilgalys. I’m a young entrepreneur and Durham native who is starting a business here to make a spiced honey liqueur called Krupnikas. Krupnikas is a traditional Lithuanian drink that my family has been making for years. There’s nothing else like it in the American spirits market.
At this point, things are only getting started. I’m putting the finishing touches on my business plan, and will soon be looking for a facility and funding to make my dream a reality.
I am writing to you today, regarding the proposed legislation, HR 1161, the Community Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act, or the “CARE” Act. This bill proposes to outlaw direct shipment of alcoholic beverages. It’s being promoted by beverage wholesalers as a bill that will protect state’s right over liquor regulation. However, this is little more than a power grab by the wholesalers and distributors, and will make for a more challenging business climate for small producers such as myself.
As a small start-up, direct shipment of my product may play a prominent role in my business strategy. While North Carolina does not currently allow direct shipment, some of the biggest markets in the country, such as California and New York do. I hope to use the internet to promote my product where I cannot do so directly.
However the proposed bill would not only restrict my ability to promote and distribute my product, but would put me in a weakened position forcing me to negotiate with large distributors who have little interest in taking on a small producer. There are also numerous other concerns raised by industry members, namely that the proposed bill may violate the commerce clause of the constitution.
Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter. You can find out more about my company on our website:
Again, thank you for your service to this state and if I can be of any help to you relating to this matter, I would be happy to oblige.
Founder & CEO, Brothers Vilgalys Spirits
- March 30, 2011
by Rimas Vilgalys, Founder & CEO
This story starts on a farm near Kretinga, Lithuania. That’s where my grandfather Jonas Vilgalys was born and raised. We call him “Senelis,” a Lithuanian word that means “dear old man.” Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by his uncle. When he tells me about his childhood now, it sounds very idyllic and pastoral. The brewmaster from Klaipeda would come every spring to hunt pheasant, and it was Jonas’ job to scare the birds from the bushes. His grandfather kept numerous beehives, made from straw and a hollowed log. The straw was woven into a spiral that came to a point, like a wizard’s hat. My great-great grandfather used beeswax to seal the hive from the rain. The hives were so numerous they took up nearly the whole yard.
Jonas was born in 1919, during a period of upheaval that pervaded all of Europe. He was lucky enough to be educated in Berlin, where he studied civil engineering. After the first world war, Lithuania was a free country for the first time in many years. As the second world war came to an end and the country was re-occupied by the USSR. Senelis and many other educated Lithuanians sought refuge in the US, Canada, and other free nations around the world.
Jonas’ exodus first took him to Montreal, Canada. It was in Canada, that he met my grandmother, Irena Kibirskis. He found a job in New York City working as a civil engineer, and moved to Long Island. It was there that my father Rytas was born. Jonas has since had a successful career, helping to engineer many large projects, including the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Dorton Arena in Raleigh, and even did some work on the St. Louis Arch.
This year he is 92 years old. He now lives with my family in Durham, North Carolina. He has a much simpler job, taking car of our dogs and cats, and getting the mail. With his advancing age, his vision and health are slowly starting to deteriorate. But he is still the most positive and hopeful person I’ve ever known. I’ve never once seen him upset or angry. He approaches each day with the simple ambition to eat well and enjoy his life.
We have a big house, so we’ve always hosted lots of parties. It’s at these gatherings that Senelis really comes alive. He loves to meet new people, even if he can’t remember their names. Once you can understand his accented English, you’ll find out how witty and charming he actually is. He loves to have a couple drinks, some conversation, or just to sit and listen to music. It’s occasions like those which have inspired me to create the Brothers Vilgalys Spirits company.
The idea for Brothers Vilgalys Spirits has come about organically. When I was an undergrad in college, my father came across a recipe for a drink called Krupnikas. We’d never made it before, but there was a Lithuanian gathering coming up soon, and so we figured we would give it a try.
I’ll never forget the first sip I tried. Krupnikas is not a drink of subtle flavors. It announces itself boldly, a delicious mix of sweetness and spice to start. After a sip, you begin to feel the strength behind it, as a gentle warm burn that spreads through your whole body.
It wasn’t long before I wanted to try making it for myself. I had only recently turned 21 and was beginning to appreciate the world of well-crafted beers, spirits, and wines. I started with a recipe from the internet, and although I couldn’t find all the ingredients it called for, I went ahead and tried it anyway.
The result was a huge hit. I brought a flask to a party at one of my friends house. I passed it around the circle, and watched as each person’s eyes lit up with the delicious taste of the spices and honey. Soon enough, I was making batches for my friends, only to have their friends show up asking for some.
The demand for Krupnikas became very obvious. Still, I didn’t think too much of it at the time. It’s illegal to sell alcohol without a license, and the numerous regulations involved kept my interest in spirits to a hobby. I would make enough so that I always had some on hand, but seldom more than that. As the years went on, I practiced, experimented, and perfected my recipe. I tried different kinds of honey, fruit infusions, different brands of neutral spirit. It became a staple holiday drink, when I would make a huge batch and give bottles to all my friends.
Now, after many years of wishing I could start this business, I’m at the point where I’m actually doing it. And so I’m introducing a new spirits brand, Brothers Vilgalys Spirits. My two younger brothers, Gabrielius and Matas, will be helping me, although this is currently my own venture. I’ve also been lucky enough to have the help of a wonderful graphic designer, Meghan O’Brien, and together we’re now starting the creative work behind the brand.
But the brand of Brothers Vilgalys does not start and stop with my family. Nor does it start and stop with Krupnikas. This brand represents what Brotherhood really is. This is a brand to create and market premium libations that bring people together, allow them to connect with one another, and enjoy their lives. These are drinks to be shared, to warm the spirits of the unfortunate and fortunate alike.
With every Brothers Vilgalys product, we begin and end with what’s inside the bottle. Our Krupnikas is delicious, that we already know. But it is more than just a tasty drink. Krupnikas is a bottle of stories, memories, and adventures. When you share it with your friends, family, and the people you love, it will bring happiness and joy to the surface. It is a drink for special moments. In times of trouble or times of celebration, Krupnikas will warm your heart, your lips, and your soul.
- January 25, 2011
Carl the Bear lived in the forest alone. He did so because he was a bear, but not an uncultured bear. He had once contributed a regular column to the newspaper, he had traveled almost the whole world and was considered one of the top experts on honey bees. When he would arrive in town, it always caused a great furor, everyone peering out their windows to see Carl the Bear. He would stop by the tavern, and the innkeeper would be so glad to see him he would always get a free dinner.
On this day, the Captain was coming to visit him. The two of them were old friends. The Captain always brought some vodka with him, and they would talk about their lives. The Captain liked to talk about his life at sea, and the naval war, which they had lost. Carl would talk about life in the forest, and the bees. He loved to talk about the bees, but hardly anyone ever wanted to listen. But the Captain would, maybe because nobody liked to listen to his stories about the war.
The Captain did not come for some time, but when he did it was late afternoon.
“What took you so long?” asked Carl. He set down the book he was reading and adjusted his monocle.
“Oh, my friend, I had a run-in with the new town government. I have some troubling news! There is no vodka left! They’ve taken it all, and they say there will be none in town anymore at all! I am sad, Carl, for I enjoyed the good cheer our nights drinking together.”
“That is profoundly unfortunate,” said Carl.
“I went to the doctor,” said the Captain, “And he told me that he could still buy alcohol. But only pure alcohol — it’s 192 proof. I brought some, but it’s so harsh I don’t believe I can stomach even a single sip.”
“Never fear, my friend,” said Carl. “We can mix your alcohol into a libation better than all others in the world. Why it is so good, you’ll never wish for vodka again in your life.”
“How could that be?” said the Captain. “For when I desire a responsible adult beverage, it is always vodka that I wish for.”
“In my travels as a younger bear,” said Carl, “I once met three brothers. They were called the Brothers Vilaglys. I was looking for honey, as I usually am when I travel.”
“Of course you were, my friend. You do so love your honey!”
“Yes, and when I told them this, they showed me how to make the concoction you and I are about to embark on. They called it Krupnikas. First, you go to the grocer in town and buy this list of spices.”
“But there are so many!”
“Yes, it might be difficult. But you cannot make the best Krupnikas without the whole list.”
“Very well, I will find all of these spices you ask for.”
“Meanwhile I shall go to my bees and get some of their finest honey. And tomorrow we shall make the Brothers Vilgalys Krupnikas!”
The next day the Captain came over just after lunch.
“Ahh, good,” said Carl, giving a good long sniff. “Cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, allspice, ginger, and all the others — yes they are all here. A commendable job Captain.”
“Now show me this Krupnikas,” said the Captain, “For I’ve become very keen to commence our revelry.”
Carl showed the Captain the special recipe that the three brothers had taught him. They boiled the spices for a time, and let the rich, pleasant smell of the spices waft through the whole forest. Then they warmed the honey and blended the two together. Lastly, they poured in the vodka that the Captain had brought.
“My friendly Bear, I can smell the vapors coming off,” said the Captain, “And I believe they are starting to have an effect on me.”
“Nothing to worry about,” said Carl. “While the brew is still hot the vapors are much to strong for it to be enjoyed to its full potential.”
“What, then are we to do?” inquired the Captain.
“We should wait for the brew to mature. It may take some time.”
“Alas! While I regret that I must wait further, the scents please my nose so much that I know you must be right. We shall wait for the beverage to reach its full potential.”
“Come back in a month. Then it will finally be ready,” said the bear.
“A month! How disappointing to postpone our celebration by a month! Very well, my dear bear. We shall meet again then, for I can discern only from what we’ve put into the brew so far that the taste will be truly divine.”
“I believe it should please you and myself very greatly,” said Carl.
The leaves on the trees changed and the season grew cold. Living in the town, the captain shivered away his days, warmed only by the thought of when he and his friend could once again enjoy libations away from the new town government. Meanwhile Carl the Bear mostly slept, occasionally waking to compose a poem or to go fish in the clear stream behind his house.
At last the day came, and the captain merrily made his way to the forest and went to Carl the Bear’s house.
“Greetings my companion!” said the captain. “Tell me now, is our concoction ready to imbibe?”
“Why yes it is, my dear sir,” said Carl. “Come inside, and we shall share the first glass of many!”
The Captain and the Bear went inside, and the bear poured two small snifters of the thick, gold drink.
“We should have a toast,” said the Bear. “A drink that takes this long to prepare can only be enjoyed properly with a toast.”
“I agree,” said the Captain. “I toast to the high seas, which I miss so dearly!”
“And to the bees, that labored so much to give us this honey!”
“And to the Brothers Vilgalys!”
They toasted to the seas, the bees, and the Brothers Vilgalys.
Then they drank.
“By the great north wind!” said the Captain. “It’s so sweet! But also spicy! And also so strong! But so smooth! Truly my friend you have made the nectar of the gods!”
“Indeed,” said the Bear. “The secret lies in the balance between all four. The Brothers Vilgalys have studied their recipe for years, and it was passed on to them by those who made this drink before them.
“Pour me another, my good friend. I should never have doubted your words. So long as this magical Krupnikas can be found, may my throat never know the harsh burn of vodka again!”
The Bear and the Captain stayed up until late in the night, enjoying their drink and the company of one another. The Captain told stories of the sea, and the Bear told stories of the bees. And before they went to sleep, in the warm cabin in the woods, they gave one final toast to the Brothers Vilgalys for creating the greatest drink of them all, Brothers Vilgalys Krupnikas!
- January 21, 2011
Dear Governor Purdue,
My name is Rimas Vilgalys. I am a North Carolina native, and today I live in Durham after going to school at UC-Santa Barbara. I am a young entrepreneur who has just started a business, Brothers Vilgalys Spirits LLC, to manufacture, brand and market a traditional family recipe for a spiced honey liqueur. I am writing to you regarding your position on NC ABC privatization.
I am only in the early phases of writing my business plan, and I truly wish I had written to you sooner. I am incredibly disappointed with your decision yesterday to publicly support the current ABC system the way it is. While I understand your concerns are largely budgetary, and concerned with local revenues, the ABC structure is incredibly cumbersome for a small start-up such as mine for reasons I will outline below. I will also be addressing the possibility of an exception for small craft distillers.
First I would like to describe my product. For years my family and I have been making a Lithuanian spiced honey liqueur called Krupnikas. It’s a blend of honey, spices, and neutral grain spirits (I use Everclear brand alcohol from the ABC store to make it at home for private consumption). The result is a drink that is close to 90 proof, but very smooth, sweet, and finishes with a gentle spicy burn. It is enormously popular with my friends and family. There is nothing similar to this on the US market right now, and I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to launch such an outstanding product.
However, because of the ABC system, I do not believe I can start this company in my home state of North Carolina. This is very frustrating for me, because I am much better networked here. I know many bar owners around the area, and I would like to use local North Carolina ingredients, especially local honey, in my recipe. I love North Carolina and I want to keep my company here.
But as a small start-up with limited capital, there are just too many obstacles. Under the current system, I will need to hire a broker to present my product to the ABC commission, which meets only once a year to review new products. I will then need to pay the broker to present my product to each local ABC board, and only when the local ABC board is willing to carry my product can I attempt to market it to consumers, and local bars and restaurants. I could apply for a brokerage myself, but that only takes time away from actually making and marketing the product. And because of all these additional steps, it will be a long time before I start to see anything in terms of revenue.
By contrast, in a state with private liquor sales, I would only need to contract with a distributor, and then I, or a brand representative could go to the stores myself. I would also be able to market directly to bars, clubs and restaurants. I would be able to start small and revenues would begin to flow much sooner. Additionally, there would be a lower shelf price on my product without the added excise and overhead of state-run monopoly.
Another part of my vision involves tying the production to a flagship bar or restaurant. Again, the ABC system makes this a wildly impractical idea. I would have to manufacture my product, ship it to the central ABC warehouse, have the local ABC board ship it back, and then I could go to the local ABC package store and pay full retail price for every bottle of my own product. All so I could then sell it in my own bar.
Several states have provisions for small, craft distillers that allow them greater flexibility as a small business. Provided they meet the requirements of a ‘small distillery’, they are allowed to sell their products from their own premise, and to ship and market it directly to retailers, bars, and other licensed venues. Michigan has a law like this, and they are also a liquor control state.
I am not unequivocally opposed to the ABC system on any grounds. I understand that it generates revenues for local governments, and that is important to me as a voter. I also can understand the social and political concerns, given the political climate in our state, in making such a decision.
But I am asking you to consider enacting an exception for small distillers and producers in this state, similar to the craft distilling provisions in other states, that would allow me to start my business where I already live instead of moving it elsewhere. You would open the doors to other small start-ups such as mine, as well increase opportunities for the two producers already operating North Carolina, Piedmont Distillers and Cardinal Gin.
I would also ask you to consider how recent changes to our beer laws have benefitted small business in our state. The Pop the Cap initiative, spearheaded by Sean Wilson of Fullsteam brewery, have initiated a great deal of economic activity in local craft brewing. With the opening of Bull City Burgers and Brewery, soon to be opening its doors in Durham, we will have 10 craft breweries and brewpubs in the triangle area alone. I view my own business as something very closely related to NC craft brewing — the complexity of the process, the use of locally-sourced, whole, natural ingredients, and the enthusiasm of beer drinkers are very inspiring to me as I begin working on this company.
I still have a lot of work to do before I can launch my product. However, a great deal of that work now entails finding out where the best place to begin will be. Regretfully, unless the laws change, I don’t believe I can begin this here in Durham. I hope to bring this product back to North Carolina shelves someday, through the ABC system or whatever else might take its place in the future.
If there is any way I can be of use to you on this matter, I am at your disposal. Thank you very much for your service to this state. I will be sending a copy of this letter to my state representatives and a copy will soon be publicly available.