PHOTOGRAPHY BY GUS CANTAVERO
Laura and Ed Tiedge at their Port Chester distillery
The world of business is full of braggarts, comic-book figures who pump themselves and their enterprises into bigged-up fictions: #winning. Sitting in Ed and Laura Tiedge’s StilltheOne Distillery in Port Chester, it’s refreshing to find some realistic self-assessment. “Right now,” Ed Tiedge admits, “this business could go either way.”
Related: 5 Years Later — You Need to Try StilltheOne’s Game-Changing Westchester Whiskey Line
It’s a surprising bit of cynicism from the owner of a thriving business. StilltheOne debuted in August 2010 to almost instant critical acclaim. The spirits have the charm of novelty: Comb Vodka, Comb 9 Gin, Comb White Spirit, and Comb Blossom brandy are distilled from fermented “honey wine” (mead) rather than the grains and fruits historically used in those products. Comb spirits ring up cherries in modern culinary trends. Not only does Comb utilize American honeybees (which, under threat from epidemic colony collapse, have become a cri de cœur of ecologically minded foodies), but these top-shelf liquors tap into locavorianism. Unlike European call brands Absolut, Bombay Sapphire, and Courvoisier, Comb spirits are produced in New York State.
Within 18 months of StilltheOne’s debut, Comb spirits could be found behind the bar at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, X2O, Tarry Lodge, Colicchio & Sons, and several of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Manhattan restaurants. Shoppers also could find Comb spirits at elite retailers like Astor Wines, Union Square Wines, Park Avenue Liquor, and Zachys, and along much of the Eastern Seaboard (as well as California and, soon, Texas).
But Ed Tiedge is a cautious man. After a long and financially rewarding career as a bond trader, he became a casualty of industry purges during the economic crash of the late 2000s. Going into StilltheOne, Tiedge recognized that “the top-line number, the revenue number—for anyone, for any business, I don’t care which—is always a guess. You can’t possibly know what’s going to happen in the market. But the numbers that you do know, or that you should know, are your costs.”
Of these, Tiedge is a fastidious manager. “Once a week, I pull up the numbers and say, ‘This is what our cash flow is—these are our cash-flow projections. The still is running for this many hours, and it cost me this much in utility bills.’ Don’t get all seduced by the need for this advertisement, or needing that promotion.” His advice to other start-ups is equally cynical. “Look at it from this point of view: You’re starting a business and you have this capital. Everyone wants to take that away from you—that’s their business plan. Your job is to keep those guys from taking your money and to get your product out the door.”
Was it difficult to raise that capital for a start-up New York State distillery, an industry whose modern track record reaches back only to 2002 when Tuthilltown Spirit’s Ralph Erenzo (and others) challenged the law that made distilling in New York illegal? “No, not when you have to deal with the Bank of Ed,” Tiedge says. “He was easy to convince.”
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Tiedge’s wife, Laura, is Comb’s CTO (“Chief Tasting Officer”), when not acting as senior director of healthy living at the Rye YMCA (an irony that she recognizes). Laura was a tougher sell. Asked to wager their family’s equity on an iffy start-up, she was understandably leery. “I was always asking the question, ‘Shouldn’t we have investors?’ And I worry. But also, this is my husband of almost twenty-eight years, and I want him to succeed. He’s putting a lot into it.” As we talk, one of Ed’s hands bears two blackened fingernails, an injury caused when two steel drums sandwiched his fingers in a collision. On the days when the still is running, it runs for 16 straight hours and Ed is usually there.
Like most sensible business people, the Tiedges are doing what they can to limit their exposure. “The way that we approached this was in a risk-management style,” Ed says. “Little chunks. We wanted to make sure that our mistakes were small ones, not expensive ones.” They saved money in their build-out by economizing where they could. In 2009, when they were outfitting the distillery, they were able to take advantage of the lessee’s market for industrial space in Westchester. Also, “at that period of time, guys were eager to sell you equipment. All of these manufacturers paid their own shipping because they had, at that point, no orders.”
The real expense was time. Having secured a large industrial space and equipment, the Tiedges had to wait for U.S.-Government approval. “You’re actually burning money up,” says Ed. “To start the process, you need to have the facility, you have to outfit it, and then pay the rent all the while you’re waiting to go through the process: background checks and financial checks.”
While timing may have worked in the Tiedges’ favor when it came to securing an affordable site and shipping some equipment, it worked against them in other ways. “There wasn’t an insurance company in 2009 that was going to write a bond for anybody—especially a twenty-five or thirty-thousand-dollar bond,” says Ed. “So the only way to do that was that I had to put up the cash. So you write a check to the U.S. Treasury for twenty thousand dollars and it earns no interest: it just sits in their account until you finally do get an insurance company.”
To start, the Tiedges took out an experimental license, “which lets you make anything you want in whatever amount you want,” continues Ed. “So, instead of doing something possibly illegal in your garage, you can actually do it in a licensed facility. When we changed over from that and re-applied for a full license less than six months later, they said I already had a license. So that was a screaming match for another three months.” Plus more time and money.
Then there was the challenge of introducing a totally novel product to the retail market, which Tiedge didn’t even attempt before he had a bottle in hand. “Until you actually have something and are pushing for the sale, you really don’t know who’s going to take it.
“If I had a marketing model,” he continues, “it was Tuthilltown. And that’s when Ralph [Erenzo, founder of Tuthilltown Spirits] basically put stuff in his truck and drove it around to different retailers. Selling my product myself was important. I could say, ‘I’m the guy who actually made it, I made it here in Westchester County, and would you like to taste it?’
“I knew there were a few stores in Brooklyn that were interested in local spirits. We looked at websites and pulled together a little bit of a hit list. These were guys that would at least listen to us. We didn’t want to go to large stores because we’d have a mixed reception. We wanted to go to small- and medium-sized stores where the owner is on the premise and active in the business. There, we could actually connect with an owner.”
Happily, Comb products were taken up by elite restaurants, but this was not a calculated marketing strategy to leverage the brand power of say, Jean-Georges Vongerichten (an early Comb proponent). “Our ‘on-premise strategy’ was trying to find customers who were interested in making cocktails with our products. That does several things. It gets us on the cocktail menu so people can see our name. And, if you’re on a cocktail menu, you’re gonna get ordered on some level. It does us very little good if we sit on the shelf as a call brand when no one knows who we are.”
Tiedge also thought “that elite restaurants would be a good market to go after because these guys care about flavor, taste, and ingredients. And we do, too. We look at the restaurants as sort of partners in our business. I care about what they think, and I take their criticisms seriously.”
Most recently, StilltheOne launched its Comb White Spirit, which takes the basic honey wine and distills it to the proof of whiskey. Vodka is distilled at 190 proof, a process in which higher alcohol content replaces the flavor of the original product in the finished spirit. Distilling at 140 proof preserves more of the essence of the original product, in the way that bourbon (also distilled at 140 proof) still magically tastes of corn. Comb’s White Spirit has some of the honey’s lingering fragrance and sugar, tasting slightly like tequila blanco. He says of his goals, reaching the edgy mixologists currently experimenting with new and old products, “Those guys are doing some fascinating things. I’m hoping to get Comb White Spirit in front of them because I think that adds a depth of flavor that they’re not finding in other spirits.” We’ll drink to that.