“Sustainability initiative” With Penny Bauder & Rifino Valentine

I would tell them they should consider making a positive impact on issues they care about because you can’t rely on others (politicians, community, society) to solve issues they don’t deem important. If it is important to you, be the change. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, […]

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I would tell them they should consider making a positive impact on issues they care about because you can’t rely on others (politicians, community, society) to solve issues they don’t deem important. If it is important to you, be the change.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rifino Valentine, Founder and President of Valentine Distilling Co.

Rifino Valentine has a passion for quality and this passion makes quality the key ingredient in everything that Valentine works on. He spent his childhood growing up in Leelanau County in Michigan. He then ventured off during his college years to attend Cornell University where he majored in economics as well as was a member of the wrestling team. In 1993, Valentine graduated from Cornell with his degree. From there, he went on to Wall Street where he was an equities trader for 11 years.

His adventure into the spirits industry all started while he was out one night and had ordered a dirty martini. Valentine realized that the only way he could receive a dirty martini was to consume a mass-produced, imported vodka. And people were claiming those to be “top shelf.” Yet, he didn’t understand why he wasn’t able to find a quality American produced vodka. This set him out on his mission that is known today as Valentine Distilling Co.

In 2005, he came back to Michigan and started working side-by-side with Dr. Berglund who led Michigan State University’s Artisan Distilling program. Dr. Berglund mentored Rifino to show him the ropes of fine distilling craftsmanship.

His experience on Wall Street led Valentine to realize we were losing quality manufacturing in America. It is moving overseas, and mass production has diminished the quality of products. Rifino set out on a goal to create a manufacturing business revolving around distilling quality products in the former birthplace of manufacturing — Detroit. And in 2007, he founded Valentine Distilling Co. with the intent to show America that quality manufacturing still exists in Detroit. Valentine Distilling Co. is globally and nationally recognized.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up on a farm in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. I was actually born on the farm, my dad serving as a midwife. It wasn’t a typical farm though. It was more of an effort of my parents, who both grew up in cities, to get away from the unhealthy aspects of life. So, we raised chickens and goats. We ate mostly what we grew or raised organically… I still can’t stand the taste of goat’s milk! What we didn’t grow or raise ourselves, we bought from local farm markets.

We planted evergreens to replace the barren pastureland at first just for the benefit of the environment. My dad also ran tree planting crews every spring and fall, and figures they’ve planted more than 2 million trees in the tri-county area. The trees that we planted on the farm eventually turned into a Christmas tree and landscaping tree business.

I wrestled since I was nine years old and that led to being recruited by Cornell University. After earning a degree in Economics, I landed a job on Wall Street and worked there for more than a decade. It was there that I saw firsthand the degradation of manufacturing and is ultimately what led me to start Valentine Distilling Co. in 2007.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

We are in the second year of a 10-year climate sustainability initiative with a commitment of $500,000 being invested in this initiative. The first phases are reduce, recycle, reuse. The next phase will be carbon offsetting by producing our own power by solar and wind.

1) We have installed a water cooling system that will save us nearly 2,000 gallons of process water per day.

2) Our largest electrical draw derives from our glycol chilling system. To help offset that, we installed a ‘Free Chiller’. Anytime the ambient temperature is below 50 degrees F, and in Michigan, that can come any time of year, we can completely bypass our glycol refrigeration system.

3) We have installed energy efficient LED lights throughout the 20,000 sq. ft. distillery production facility.

3) Launched We launched the farm-bottle-farm program — we ship our spent grains to local farmers for cattle feed.

Read more about our initiative here.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I’ve felt passionate about this cause since I was a child. The passion stems from parents eating organically and growing and raising their own food. They have cared about the environment since before it was mainstream and their passion carried on to me.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I am not a scientist or an environmental leader. I am a business owner that realizes we can’t keep doing what we’re doing as a society. My business philosophy parallels this thought. I can expand on this, for more time than I have to write, but it’s essentially that we have lost quality and choice as consumers, because we have transitioned to an economy where the only goal of businesses is profit. There has to be a balance. We need to get back to the point of businesses succeeding because of the quality products they make, not how much money they make.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Our sustainability initiative launched, because we were aware of our impact. The steps we took to commit to operating sustainably began with awareness, planning the initiative, and scaling down the pieces yearly.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I think that it’s the people that I’ve been able to meet and do business with. It’s been everything from politicians, business leaders, immigrant community members, and just generally interesting people.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

It wasn’t one! It was a multitude of mistakes. If I had known what I didn’t know about this industry, I may not have even started this company! In general, though, it was this preconception that if you make a better product, people will buy it. When I was writing the business plan, I got the best piece of advice from someone in the industry. And that was, “you are not in the liquor producing business, you are in the liquor selling business.” But even with that advice, I didn’t realize the strength of the corporate machines that create our shopping experiences. What I mean is, every shelf, every placement in a retail store is controlled by a handful of massive conglomerates. To breakthrough that as an independent manufacturer was a massive undertaking. Quickly learning how to break through that and speak directly to consumers was crucial to our early success.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

It is definitely my parents. In a lot of ways, I think they were way ahead of their time. Forty years before Whole Foods, they were eating organically. They were growing and raising their own food, because they didn’t want pesticides and hormones in their food.

They were talking about the environment decades before it became mainstream. Back then, I remember one of the things was the Ozone layer. We didn’t use aerosol cans ever. Many years later, we were able to tackle that problem as a society. I hope our current problems can be tackled too.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1. Politicians need to implement policies that encourage socially impactful outcomes.

2. The community c Can buy from regional manufacturers supplying them with quality products.

3. Society can use their buying power and purchase goods from businesses who do the right thing and care about more than just profit.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

At this point, I don’t think a business can be more profitable by being sustainable and environmentally conscious. From my perspective, this is simply an investment to do the right thing. The equipment we are installing has such a long pay-off time, that it isn’t necessarily good business sense. I’m hoping that we can inspire other businesses to invest a portion of their profits into these systems. I’m also hoping that in the near future, the government can take a bigger role and maybe these initiatives will make more sense economically for businesses. It won’t make sense economically until consumers put enough importance on it to influence their purchasing decisions. We’re slowly getting to that point, but we’re not there yet.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Take a broad view of your company. It is more than a profit-generating machine. My philosophy behind Valentine Distilling Co. is quality, not profit.

Think of the interconnectivity of your company and your community. Due to this principle, throughout the COVID-19 crisis, we were able to pivot to producing hand sanitizer for Michiganders, fulfilling a supply chain gap of a highly sought-after product.

Think of the long-term consequences of your decisions. For us, a commitment to sustainability is a way to leave a positive impact on the world.

Always be learning. We have to recognize that we don’t know everything, even if we are an expert in the area of expertise.

Share your knowledge and experience and be willing to accept others’.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell them they should consider making a positive impact on issues they care about because you can’t rely on others (politicians, community, society) to solve issues they don’t deem important. If it is important to you, be the change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I wrestled from the time I was 9 years old through college. It taught me many of the life lessons that I still carry to this day. That’s why I like this quote from Dan Gable.

“Gold medals aren’t really made of gold. They’re made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts.” — Dan Gable

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Mark Ruffalo. He seems like a good guy and I’ve been told I’m his doppelganger!

How can our readers follow you online?

You can further follow our work via our social media channels.


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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