Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Coughlin, the founder and driving force behind Taconic Distillery. An avid outdoorsman and bourbon aficionado, Paul is one of Taconic’s primary brand ambassadors. After a 25-year career in the finance industry, Paul was looking to try something new. He and his family turned their property in upstate New York into a farm distillery, known as Taconic Distillery. Taconic Distillery handcrafts their award-winning bourbon and rye whiskies in small batches using the finest ingredients, including grains grown in New York and natural spring water from their farm. Inspired by hunting and fishing, Taconic embraces a passion for the outdoors and that passion is imprinted on all of their spirits.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Mywife, Carol Ann, and I entered the spirits business after prior careers in finance and marketing. I worked on Wall Street for 25+ years and was looking to try something new. We owned a 115-acre property in Dutchess County, NY and wanted to make use of the land to start a new venture. After considering several options we decided in 2013 that a farm distillery would make the best use of our resources and talents. The business was initially operated out of our 600 square-foot barn whose space was quickly outgrown. The distillery’s current 4,200 square-foot facility was opened in 2016 and includes production, aging and a tasting room all under one roof. We really started it as hobby, selling door-to-door locally. It’s now grown into a thriving business operating in 16 states.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The beginning was easy — knocking on doors in our own backyard and building awareness and loyalty in our local area. The difficulty is now, as we grow our brand and enter new markets, competing with much larger brands that have vastly greater resources. Distribution is the key to success in this business and also the greatest challenge.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My fiercely competitive nature drives me to keep up the good fight. It’s a bit of a David vs. Goliath situation, and I am determined to win. I have competed in numerous grueling athletic events, including swims around Manhattan Island and three Ironman triathlons. All of these events require many hours of physical training and perhaps just as important, mental tenacity to stick with it all the way through the finish line.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going well. We have evolved from a single, locally distributed product, to a multi-sku brand that is sold in 16 states.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A lesson that we learned during our first winter was about the effect of temperature changes on sealed glass bottles filled with liquid. Since we started the business out of our un-insulated barn in upstate New York, we were accustomed to working in all kinds of weather and temperatures. We braved the February cold and bottled cases of bourbon for distribution to retailers. When the corked and sealed bottles arrived in stores, we fielded phone calls from store owners asking why the bottles were open inside the box. Apparently, during shipment as the liquid warmed inside the bottles, the corks popped off and were found at the bottom of the boxes.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Superior product and great packaging. We are a family owned & operated independent business, and in order to get our name out in the market we participate in many events, such as whiskey & wine festivals and farmers markets. My wife and I often work the events together, and sometimes one of our three daughters will work with us. On a rare occasion, my wife may be mistaken for a daughter, or a daughter for my wife. You can imagine who would be flattered and who would be insulted in that situation!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
To start, you need a million dollars of capital and two million of perseverance. Essentially, you should be sure to have sufficient capital to support your business getting off the ground, and enough “cushion” to allow for unforeseen expenditures. A costly example for us was in the early growth phase when we were building our new facility. We began construction of the new building, which included retail, aging, and production space. We planned the site to accommodate a large building with water supply, parking, movement of machines & grains, and electricity. Little did we know at the time, that there are different kinds of electrical power. Our rural, agricultural property was equipped with single-phase power. However, in order to run the boiler for the still we required three-phase power. The local power authority was unwilling to provide this, so we had to dig into our own savings to provide a large capital expenditure to the power company to install one and a half miles of new poles and power lines.
Good advice for business owners in general, is to take periodic short breaks. It is difficult for any of us to “get away” mentally. Successful entrepreneurs are constantly thinking about new ideas, new markets, product improvements, etc. and that is not something you want to turn off. What has worked for me personally, is one day a week I leave my phone behind for a few hours and spend time outdoors away from the distillery to really rest and recharge without interruptions.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My wife of 27 years, Carol Ann, has helped move the business to the next level. For example, when I couldn’t make a scheduled sales trip to Tennessee, she went in my place and ended up selling more single barrels of bourbon in one week than we had sold in the previous five years combined.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We have always supported our community through donations of our time and resources, focused mainly on education, military and law enforcement. We produce special “USA” bottles seasonally for holidays such as Memorial Day, July 4th and Veterans Day, and we then donate proceeds from these sales to veterans’ charities.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I founded my company”?
1. There is a difference between single phase and three-phase electrical power.
2. Starting a new business in mid-life is not the same as “retiring.”
3. Be authentic and your story will resonate with your customers.
4. It seems obvious, but hire talented people and trust them to do their jobs.
5. Always be willing to learn something new and have the flexibility to make changes when needed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement that I would love to see happen is some common-sense reform of government regulation over small businesses. As a small business owner in New York state, I have learned first-hand of the road-blocks and frustrations that business owners encounter every day. Small businesses account for the majority of jobs in the U.S. and create almost two-thirds of all new private-sector jobs*. We should be encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs, not impeding them with unnecessary bureaucracy.
* According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics
How can our readers follow you on social media?