Tim Koether knows a thing or two about distilling in New Jersey, which is just as well, since the founder and owner of Claremont Distilled Spirits is at the helm of a small business trading on both the state’s appeal and notoriety.
His small-batch artisanal moonshine, vodka and whiskeys are crafted to convey the spirit (both literally and figuratively) of liberty and prosperity.
The distiller made the move from banking to small business after 20 years of rising early to commute into the city from his home in New Jersey. Motivated by a desire to create something tangible with his time, Koether left the banking industry three years ago to pursue what he saw as a "great business opportunity in the making".
Spurred further by the revival of the local craft beverage industry, the aspiring business owner took advantage of a recent change in NJ law to promote distilling. With a long-founded passion for Scotch and American whiskey Koether decided the distillery industry, with only 1% market share, was at much the same turning point as the craft beer industry some 15 years ago. With current liquor business growth at 30% in 2016 according to the American Distilling Institute (ADI), it seems like Koether's business bet is about to pay off.
Working hard to obtain the necessary licenses, research locations and branding, Claremont Distilled Spirits made its home in Fairfield, within easy reach of both New Jersey and New York City's prime retail and hospitality hubs.
A passionate advocate for local community and craftsmanship, Koether also seized the opportunity to tap into the “buy local” trend. The proud state resident, who not only hails from New Jersey but has called it home for most of his life, wanted to capture the flavors of his home turf. In this case, he did that literally by creating a vodka made from one of the state’s biggest agricultural exports: the humble potato.
The Garden State is home to more than 9,071 farms covering 715,057 acres of farmland, which produce large quantities of potatoes and other fare such as blueberries and peaches (New Jersey is the US’ fourth largest producer of peaches). As a result, Koether and his team of master distillers were able to experiment with different ingredients to see which would pair best with their products. The potato was a hit, with its buttery smoothness lending itself to an alcohol with a clean finish.
Vodka has to come off the still at 190% proof to be legally labelled as such. But just like any craft business, some attempts were not as successful. However, Koether found the sweet-spot with a new range of seasonal infused vodkas using local produce such as blueberries and peaches. The fruits pair well with the potato base, and add a fragrant twist that works alone or in cocktails.
Claremont also produces an un-oaked whiskey, more familiarly known as Moonshine, which is an 80% proof spirit distilled from local corn. Just like vodka, whiskey comes off the still at 155% proof before being “polished down” to its double-distilled drinkable ABV. The distillery's “Jersey Devil Flaming Cinnamon” Moonshine is a reference to Pine Barrens legend of the Jersey Devil, a mythical creature imbued with its own notoriety.
Koether says further whiskeys are in the works, requiring barrels and time. He notes the odds are stacked against craft distillers when it comes to barrels due to the popularity of oak barrels for whiskey and bourbon production constricting supply. Enter new cooperages - in this case, Adirondack Barrel Cooperage, who are part of a new wave of craft cooperages looking to change shortfalls in traditional supplies. The boom in distilling and other craft beverages is now providing ample opportunity for both craft customers and suppliers.
One of the few hiccups in this success story was when Claremont ran into problems sourcing bottles and heavy containers of yeast. When a screen-printing company known for its custom glass bottles produced low-quality results less than two weeks away from production, trouble loomed.
Thankfully, Koether turned to Kinnek. Solving for the immediate shortfall in branded bottles, Claremont was able to initially source labels and corks from a vetted Kinnek supplier called Wm. R. Hill & Company.
The turnaround and quality of the product was so high that Koether now also sources bottles from the same supplier, which have proven to be popular with Claremont's hospitality customers and actually cheaper to obtain than the bottles from their previous supplier. This connection also led them to another Kinnek supplier, screenprinting company Stanpac.
Koether also discovered East Coast yeast suppliers through Kinnek, which was helpful for his business and something Koether hadn’t been able to find before. Without these supplier connections made through Kinnek, Claremont's production and overall business plan would have taken a hit.
Koether has also channeled his longstanding business expertise into areas such as capacity-planning, overhead and marketing.
Capacity-planning was an important part of Claremont’s business plan: “We didn't want to have to do everything twice," Koether notes. He chose a 7000-sq. ft. warehouse to provide room to grow production from the outset. But after only 6 months of operation, the team was already working double-shifts to supply demand.
To guarantee a quality product, Koether, who began more as a spirit aficionado than a distiller, invested in a team of local experts who were already skilled makers.
The versatility of Claremont Distilled Spirits, combined with strategic production location, capacity and marketing, ensured that after only 1 month of production the company's product was already stocked in over 40 locations across the state. Claremont also chooses to self-distribute and promote by building relationships with local vendors and consumers at festivals, as well as through in-person marketing pitches and word-of-mouth campaigns.
For Claremont Distilled Spirits, planning, connections with suppliers on Kinnek and working with local craftsman for their barrels and production has helped ensure a growing success story for this New Jersey distillery. With the US industry set to grow annually by 1% - some $12.4 billion p.a. - over the next five years according to IBIS World, it seems distilling in New Jersey was definitely a smart move for this ex financier to make - certainly from an investment standpoint, at least. We hope to continue profiling success at Claremont and all our distillers!
Claremont Distilled Spirits is located at:
25 Commerce Road, Fairfield, NJ 07004
Ready for more? Watch this video profile of distilling pioneer Tim Koether in action at Claremont Distilled Spirits: