Exclusive Interview with Mr. Seth Dettling
Craft distilleries have been on the rise throughout the USA and it is always nice to come across a distillery producing, or planning to produce, rum. Luis and I had the pleasure of
meeting Mr. Seth Dettling one year ago this month. He has some interesting plans in the rum world and I can’t wait to sample what he has in store for all of us in the very near future.
I wish Mr. Dettling and his team all the best and I look forward to taking a trip to Alabama to meet his entire team.
Margaret Ayala, Publisher
Q: What is your full name, title, company name and company location?
Seth Dettling, Owner/Lead Distiller of Big Escambia Spirits, LLC located in Atmore, Alabama.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about Big Escambia Spirits, LLC and what inspired you to start your own distillery?
After spending 20 years in the real estate business I started researching additional entrepreneurial opportunities. I have a BS in Finance from Auburn University, so studying business trends and financials was comfortable for me. I ruled out other opportunities after deep consideration because I insisted on a new business that would combine my work ethic with true passion, creativity, scalability, opportunity, and timing. Timing is an essential element to opportunity. For example, you can have all the passion in the world for cars, but unless you started your car company in the 1920’s or earlier you probably aren’t going to be star ting an automotive manufacturing company in your garage. When I started looking at the distilled spirit sector I quickly found that every single category of my analysis was coming up positive. The craft spirit boom is in its earliest stages so the barriers to entry were relatively low and it was economically feasible to begin operations on a small scale. Yes, the risks are high early in trends, but the barriers and scales are the lowest. I already owned the property, so it was just a matter of getting a plan together and executing it with passion.
Q: What has been your greatest challenge since you decided you wanted to have your own distillery?
Without a doubt it’s human resources. Last year I had the opportunity to ask Dave Dafoe, of Flavorman, how he managed to find the incredible people that make up his team. I was expecting some kind of a complex answer, or he would have some snazzy way of figuring out who had a good palate or a special talent for mixing beverages. His answer turned out to be simple, and was really a paradigm shift in the way I approached staffing. Dave said that he hires the person, and then patiently trains them to do things the right way. That focus on the person, and the willingness to invest time and energy into people, is paying dividends for our operation in spades. You can’t go out and find craft distillers everywhere, so my plan was to develop them in house after seeing how Dave works. Everyone that works here takes turns running the stills in addition to per forming every other operation needed. My goal is for everyone to be comfortable doing every job here, and also keep the working environment creative. We constantly bounce ideas off each other about ways of doing things, or alternative approaches. It keeps things fun and keeps our team motivated to be a part of something bigger than the sum of our individual efforts.
Q: What is a typical day like at your distillery?
My guys love to get an early start, so by the time I get in the first pot of coffee is well brewed, and the plant is humming along. The first hour is really hectic, so it’s by design that I often let that period remain uninterrupted. We typically meet quickly to go over the numbers from the fermentations, look over the calendar, and get on the same page with what we’re doing. Right now we are in full bourbon production, so every day we grind grains, mash, distill, fill barrels, clean, and (of course) keep up required paperwork. The plant has a quiet hum to it when all is well. We are also busy doing the final buildout for the bottling line, so this is an exciting time.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone who is considering opening up their own distillery?
When I was doing my market research I asked the same question to every distillery owner that I met, which was: “What was your biggest mistake?” Surprisingly, they all basically said the same thing. To a person they either said that they failed to age spirits, or age enough spirits, or they were so focused on selling new spirits that they never got around to aging. As a result, I made the decision to focus on aging spirits. Everything else would have to wait. I think the essence of craft is to make all of the spirits yourself, do it the right way, put them away, and be patient.
Having said that, sourced spirits are the foundation of a quick start for many operations, but you should at least be honest about it! Luis Ayala really warned about this during the Rum University 5 -Day Workshop I attended last year. He was right, and just look at all the litigation that is currently taking place around this very issue. There is no shame in buying spirits, but there should be shame in lying about it. Being a spirits producer requires an incredible investment, so it’s not for everyone. There will always be a good reason for some operations to source, and for the commit ted producers to produce. I also think that buying spirits can be a double edged sword that can paint you into a corner creatively. If you plan to transition from sourcing to production then you will have to be very careful about what you do, and that is a special challenge in and of itself. If you plan to source continually, then be sure your source is sustainable. My advice is if you want to own a distillery then distill. If you want to own a brand, then source and sell. The market is quickly figuring this all out, so keep in mind that the target is always moving. I distill for other clients, so obviously we recognize that contract distillation has an important place in the market.
The first entries into the craft market were getting away with secretly sourcing spirits and less than perfect branding. But the market is rapidly maturing and we are seeing that the bar is going up every day. I think it’s critical to view market trends, and to stay ahead of them because the market is going to be very crowded in the coming few years. Branding is critical, and by far the most ignored aspect of the craft industry. Poorly executed branding will not hold up in the coming years, so spend the money to have professionals get it right.
The opportunities are there for success as I expect craft spirits to experience a similar trajectory to craft beer. I learned a lot studying the early failures of micro-brewers, and the eventual successes thanks to visionary people like Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company. He realized that you couldn’t make the same mega produced beer that everyone was drinking, so he endeavored to be different. He made the beer that wasn’t available, and that has made all the difference. After decades of hard work and lots of creative people participating the craft beer movement, American beer has gone from the object of international ridicule to being on tap all over the world. I think with a similar mold breaking direction craft distilling can start really taking market share. Half or more of the beer isle is craft, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect similar results at your spirit retailers in the coming 10-20 years.
Q: Are you currently producing any rum(s)? If so, where is it available for purchase?
The release of our rum brand CRU RUM is imminent! It will be available in the Southeastern US first, but we are working on greatly expanded distribution. The brand has three different expressions, each of which is aged differently to create the expressions. We make it primarily from a first strike raw cane sugar from Louisiana, and then age the raw rum in Malbec, Bordeaux, and Tequila casks to create unique golden rum expressions. I can’t think of a similar rum on the market, so we’re definitely unique. We hope that CRU RUM will change some minds about what rum can be.
Q: Is there something unique or different that you are doing with your rum(s) that sets them apart from brands already out on the market?
CRU RUM is a brand born of a willingness to diverge from trends and break new ground. The week-long Rum Workshop I attended at The Rum University inspired my vision for CRU RUM. During this week with you guys, I had the opportunity to meet incredible industry people like Frank C. Stipes, President of Rones Superiores De Puerto Rico & Co. His passion for rum and knowledge of history was inspiring! I gained a true appreciation from him, for rum’s essence and rich history. Frank is a true ambassador for rum. During that week, Luis Ayala pointedly exposed current issues with rum production, sourcing, branding, age statements, and the like. His finger on the pulse perspective was alone worth the trip. And, finally, Daniel Bascunan, owner of The Rum Club and EKTE RUM, articulated his vision for rum’s future. I happen to agree with Daniel’s vision, and his influence on CRU RUM is unavoidable. I took inspiration from all three perspectives to create CRU RUM which is a brand that is progressive in its transparency yet faithful to rum’s rich history.
CRU RUM seeks to forge new ground by disposing of traditional rum branding imagery, packaging size, ABV%, false claims, and additives of any kind. You won’t find any added colors, flavors, sweeteners, or a drop of glycerin in CRU RUM . Absolutely nothing is added. The CRU RUM journey starts with our fermentations, our distillation, and unique barrel aging. Each cask provides something special to the spirit, and you can trust that what you are tasting is a natural artifact of this lengthy and expensive process.
Something else we are doing is fully disclosing our ingredients on the label for everyone to see! As an enthusiast, I always want to know who really made the spirit, how did they make it, and what is in it. As a producer, I took this opportunity to provide that ultimate level of disclosure for my customers. CRU RUM is set ting a new bar in purity, integrity, and transparency for the craft spirits industry.
Q: Are there other spirits, other than rum, that you are producing?
In addition to CRU RUM we are making a very unique bourbon. I’ve taken a similarly fresh approach to bourbon as a category, and then applied some craft beer lessons to it. We exclusively use a local heirloom corn that is light and bready, to which we add surprisingly sweet rye, rolled oats, and dark roasted malts. Oats are naturally oily which creates a nice mouth feel in both beer and spirits, and the oats oils carry flavors to produce the all - important lingering finish. The dark roasted malts provide cocoa and coffee notes that last for minutes on the palate thanks to the oats. This special bourbon is the first made in Alabama, and in an effort to up the ante we are also buying select local American White Oak logs for our custom cooperage profile. I personally select these logs from about a 150 mile radius for grade, grain, and coopering suitability. We carefully mill and age the wood in house, but leave the actual coopering, wood fire toasting, and charring to the experts. Starting in 2017, our hard work and efforts will show in the release of our special “Alabama Bourbon”.
Q: Do you have any plans to produce other rums in the near future?
We are always looking at new ideas in rum and other spirits. For us, summer is the season of rum. Once the fall 2015 corn crop is gone, we will shift our production efforts back to making rum. I think our used bourbon barrels will make a nice rum one day, so we’ll try that in a couple years. Depending on how the Alabama Oak project of ours progresses, we may also make these unique barrels available for the rum. Nothing is off the table except shortcuts.
Q: Do you offer tours of your distiller y and do you have a visitor’s center?
We are not ideally setup for the public now, but when people do find us we are happy to have them. I encourage people to message me on Facebook to arrange a visit. I find people best enjoy their visits when timed to correspond with active operations at the distillery. It’s hard to beat seeing multiple ongoing fermentations, the mash tun cooking away, the stripping at the same time! We then head to the rick house and experience all that is going on there. You can literally smell and taste everything from the raw ingredients all the way through to spirits of various ages all in one place. It’s a true craft spirits enthusiast’s destination.
Q: If people want to contact you, how may they reach you?
Facebook is a great tool for reaching people, and I also offer my email email@example.com. I love hearing from fellow enthusiasts, and industry people alike. I also save interesting tidbits for our Instagram page https://instagram.com/big_escambia_spirits/
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I have two things that I would like to share, the first is, if you don’t mind Margaret, I’d like to break some news here in Got Rum! Big Escambia Spirits is now offering a very unique program we are calling our Bespoke Bourbon Program. We will design a fully custom “bespoke” bourbon with the client’s full participation, and then produce that bourbon here in-house. The client would then have the exclusive option to purchase the spirits at a future date or other similar arrangements depending on the laws at the time. This program is extremely affordable and very low risk.
No fine dining establishment or bourbon bar should be without a bespoke house brand. The program is perfect for corporate team building and the results are perfect for corporate giving. We can bring your concepts and ideas about what a bourbon could be to reality!
A personal appearance by me is also possible to help launch your bespoke bourbon. Contact us right away to get started! to reestablish the level of appreciation enjoyed by spirits such as bourbon or scotch. The key I believe is integrity. In this day and age of instant global communication you won’t get away with anything less. There are industry issues like age statements you can’t trust, artificial ingredients galore, “we made it ” (except that you didn’t), and my personal favorite: “Solera Aged” (most of them are not aged in real Soleras). Today’s enthusiasts are not falling for it, and it’s pushing them to other isles in the liquor store where they are finding fewer of these problems to work through.
Margaret: Again Seth, thank you so much for this interview and I wish you and your team much success.
Margaret Ayala, Publisher