Learn to adapt to the world around you — after the COVID-19 crisis struck, we started making hand and surface sanitizer immediately as a means of giving back. For a more long-term approach to supporting the industry, we partnered with CIA to create the scholarship and charitable virtual event series.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eral Gokgol-Kline, Founder + Managing Principal of The Vale Fox Distillery in Hudson Valley, NY.
Eral Gokgol-Kline is the founder and managing principal of sustainable, small-batch estate The Vale Fox Distillery in the Hudson Valley region of New York State, which currently offers its award-winning debut release, Tod & Vixen’s Dry Gin 1651 with a line of limited-edition, barrel-aged gins and a single malt whiskey to come.
Two things define Eral’s passion for this innovative spirits venture — his global background and his love of craftsmanship and quality. He also has a deeper connection, revealed recently when he uncovered documentation that his Dutch ancestors founded a distillery in 1654, just an hour drive from The Vale Fox Distillery.
Eral was born abroad to parents who worked in international non-profit organizations. He spent most of his childhood in Turkey and traveled the globe with his parents from an early age. Along the way, he gained a deep appreciation for the value of craftsmanship and quality.
After relocating to the U.S. for high school, Eral went on to earn an Economics degree with honors from Colby College, then to Wall Street where he worked at both The Bank of New York and Merrill Lynch before moving to London to join a fund focused on investing in emerging markets.
First introduced to single malt whisky by his mother, Eral’s time in London led him to discover a true passion for cocktail culture that would grow to become his full-time professional pursuit. After initially considering investing in a high-end single malt whiskey and gin distillery in the US, Eral decided that developing his own facility would allow for greater innovation and fulfillment of his vision of excellence.
While investigating the best practices in global ultra-premium whisky and gin markets, Eral was fortunate enough to meet the late Dr. Jim Swan, an expert Scotch chemist who was involved with some of the top award-winning whiskies in the world. In addition, he met Harry Cockburn, a highly successful Scotch distillery engineer and manager. It did not take long for the three to identify a real opportunity to create a truly inventive and exceptional American distillery–one that produces outstanding whiskies and gins rivaling the world’s finest. When Jim, Harry and spirits industry expert Arthur Shapiro all agreed to join the project, The Vale Fox Distillery was born.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Honestly, it was not a planned move. After college, I went to work on Wall Street. A few years later, I was offered a chance to move to London to join a fund focused on investing in emerging markets. My time in London allowed my passion for whisky and gin cocktails to blossom. I joined a membership-based collective focused on live music, cigars and fine liquors and quickly immersed myself in the world of fine whiskies and gins. After returning to the U.S., some of the friends from the collective put me in touch with a few leading experts in Scotland. One thing led to another and here we are.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There are honestly too many to pick just one! I had read many times that starting and owning a business is putting out one fire after another. Now I can tell you that is spot on. Our challenges ranged from difficulty dealing with the town where the distillery is based to immigration issues for our Master Distiller and beyond,
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My family. Their support is very important to me — it kept me focused on our vision and determined to create a world class distillery from the ground up.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
With the success of Tod & Vixen’s Dry Gin 1651, we’ve decided to release a line of limited-edition, cask finished gins. We also have a single malt whiskey in that works that will be available in just under 2 years.
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?
As we constructed the distillery, we took care to preserve and respect the existing natural habitats on the property… I learned that turtles can fly!!! We have an endangered species, the Blandings Turtle, near the distillery so, during construction, we decided to build a barrier around the distillery to keep them out of harm’s way. At first, the state was confused by our 42-inch fence… I think they thought a wee little 3 or 4-inch turtle had a cape like Superman. After we explained their agility, they agreed.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When we started developing our debut gin, Tod & Vixen’s Dry Gin 1651, we built a library of over 75 botanicals (and still growing) that was not only a fun exercise but allowed us to see how growing regions and distillation affect the aromas of our botanicals. We then combined our knowledge with that of three of the world’s leading bartenders including the late, great gaz Regan. When gaz called me up one day and said “this gin rocks,” it was at that moment that I knew we had the perfect gin.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Take a step back and enjoy what you are doing. Also, make sure to carve out some time for yourself and/or family. It’s easy to get sucked into a 24/7 job but keeping your mind and self healthy leads to better results.
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 mother who first introduced me to single malt whisky. My brother who was an invaluable sounding board and partner. And of course, my wife, whose daily support is my cornerstone.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Environmental and community support is in our DNA.
We recently launched a scholarship program with the CIA (The Culinary Institute of America). The goal is to invest in the future of the bar industry while it’s hurting. To bring awareness and raise additional funds for the scholarship, we recently announced a new virtual cooking series: Around the Kitchen Table featuring top alumni. It will support the CIA Financial Relief Fund and is hosted by the interactive platform, Topeka (RSVP here) with upcoming events on 10/25, 11/1 and 11/8.
Additionally, the whole team is committed to sustainability and protecting our environment. We use geothermal heat for energy conservation, constructed a 42-inch fence to protect the endangered Blandings turtle, reserved woodlands to protect habitat containing Shad-bark Hickory trees (the preferred roosting tree of the endangered Indiana bat), and most recently, we rescued a number of goats from a nearby farm.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Never assume you’re the first in your family to do something — it turns out, my great, great, great (10 great in total) grandfather founded a distillery in New York in 1651.
- Ancestral wisdom doesn’t turn the stills (aka know what you are good and admit what you lack) — I partnered with some of the best in the business to bring insights and guidance to the operation including the late Dr. Jim Swan, a chemist formerly affiliated with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, Master Distiller Roselyn Thomson, formerly with The Macallan and John Dewars & Sons, as well as former EVP of Marketing at Seagram, Arthur Shapiro.
- Make mistakes — many people look at mistakes as failures. I look at them as learning opportunities. If you are not failing you are not trying hard enough.
- Take cues from the past, but always innovate — we use distillation techniques perfected over thousands of years and refine them with innovative techniques like the use of custom Forsyths stills, non-chill filtering, larger-than-usual barrels in heated rooms and more.
- Learn to adapt to the world around you — after the COVID-19 crisis struck, we started making hand and surface sanitizer immediately as a means of giving back. For a more long-term approach to supporting the industry, we partnered with CIA to create the scholarship and charitable virtual event series.
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. 🙂
To preserve and protect our planet. I think this is the greatest risk humanity has ever faced. We need a shift in the way we think about profitability and long term return on our investments. Being in the whisky industry helps with this perspective because we are planning for releases five, 10, 20 years in advance not focusing on the next quarter or next year. Our capital allocation decisions take the long-term environmental cost (which we will have to pay eventually) into consideration at all times.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
On Instagram at @thevalefox