Spotlight: Finger Lakes Distilling
To date, Current Ground has spent a good deal of time looking at the world of craft alcohol; however, I’ll admit that we’ve been neglectful towards craft spirits. Enter Brian McKenzie, Thomas Earl McKenzie, and Finger Lakes Distilling. Located on Seneca Lake in upstate New York, FDL’s story is a unique tale of how two unrelated McKenzie’s came together to create products and a name that are growing quickly in the alcohol world. Without further ado, our interview with Brian McKenzie, President of Finger Lakes Distilling, is below.
The Finger Lakes Distilling story begins in 2007, when Brian McKenzie of Elmira, N.Y., met Thomas Earl McKenzie of Monroeville, Ala., at a craft distiller’s conference. The two men aren’t related, but they did discover they shared a passion for high-quality, distilled spirits.
Brian, a former bank vice-president, had experience in finance and was interested in starting his own business. Thomas Earl’s background included wine-making, brewing, farming and consulting for distilleries. It was a fateful meeting – and a great match of talents to start a new distillery.
Quick Bio about yourself (Brian):
I was born and raised in Elmira. I attended Cornell and then worked in D.C. at an Economic Consulting firm for a few years. Next, I moved back to Upstate NY in 2001 and worked for a small community bank. When we had a transition with a merger, I decided to move on and explore the idea of a distillery in wine country. That was early 2007, and we finally got some product out there for sale in mid-2009. I live in Elmira with my wife and 4 year old daughter.
What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur?
I’m constantly doing something different, and you can see that every decision you make affects the bottom line performance of the company. I especially like running a small business because you can see the end consumer and get a lot of satisfaction by seeing repeat purchases, nice comments, etc.
What lessons from your past, either academic or professional, most benefit your role as President of Finger Lakes Distilling?
Academically, the biggest impact was through an Entrepreneurship class I took at the Johnson School (Cornell’s Graduate School of Management). It was amazing to see the passion of the business owners and managers that came in to speak to the class. There was no question in my mind that I wanted to have a similar mindset by starting and running my own operation.
Professionally, I think it was the difficulties we faced in starting out – construction delays, supplier problems, etc. At first, I would get very agitated and upset when something didn’t come through the way I wanted to, but then I realized that is part of being in business. I still try to get things done the way I want, but have more reasonable expectations when working with other companies.
What gave you the initial confidence to open your own distillery? Why did that decision make sense?
I just believed in the idea and knew I had a good support system with friends and family. My wife was very understanding – I quit a decent job and put everything we had into the business (she was pregnant with our little girl at that time, too). Having her, my folks, and other important people in my life believe in what we were doing was the key.
What do you think most differentiates your products from other alcohol brands available to consumers?
We source high quality ingredients from local farms and handle every step of the process in house. We don’t always deviate from what some of the larger distillers do (they’ve done it for generations and there is a lot of “craft” in the process), but we like to put some twists on the various products. A few examples: grape-based vodka vs. grain, liqueurs that you don’t normally see on the shelves, wine-barrel finishes on our whiskies.
If you had the attention of every alcohol consumer between the ages of 21 – 40, what would you want to say?
Don’t get caught up in the marketing that is out there. There are so many products coming out that portray themselves as “craft”, but they are being made in some industrial distillery in the midwest. Most vodka is bulk ethanol coming from 2-3 plants in the country. Just because it has a fancy label or suggests a certain message, doesn’t mean it is true to that image. Search for genuine products and you’ll have a better cocktail experience.
If you could give yourself a piece of advice at 22, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams. I enjoyed what I was doing at that stage in my life, but the passion wasn’t there. I see too many people go through the daily grind of something they can’t stand doing. Professional life doesn’t have to be like that.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Seeing people get excited about our products and come back as repeat visitors to the distillery. It’s very rewarding to see them appreciate what we’ve created and look forward to seeing what we have in the works.
Conversely, what is your biggest challenge?
There’s no shortage of red tape and regulation. I prepare up to 9 monthly reports with respect to our production, storing, and selling of our spirits. There are always production issues to deal with, supplier issues, etc. Like any small business, there are things that keep you up at night and make the day-to-day a little more difficult.
If we were to speak one year from today, what would you hope to be different?
I’m pretty sure we’ll be the best selling whiskey brand in the U.S. No– I just want to continue to have fun building our business – scaling it up in reasonable ways by looking at new markets and continuing to grow the foot traffic here at the distillery. We love seeing visitors because we can deliver the Finger Lakes Distilling message directly, and they can see firsthand how we put the craft into our process.
Like what you’re hearing? You can find their products here.