How To Quit Your Job And Become A Spirits Distiller

Food & Drink

Before moving to Long Eddy in the Western Catskills to run a distillery, tasting room and line of honey-based food products, the women behind Catskill Provisions, Claire M Marin, Founder and Head Distiller, and Cathy Leidersdorff, Co-Founder and Alchemist, led wildly different lives. Claire grew up in Spain, lived briefly in Brazil, then landed in New York where she developed a career in publishing. Cathy, born in Queens, New York to Argentinian immigrants, studied agriculture at Cornell before starting her own business in 1994. She founded the second largest commercial flooring company in New York, Architectural Flooring Resource. At that time, she purchased property in Sullivan County – the same property where the couple live and work today.

Claire discovered beekeeping in 2003 as a weekend hobby that became a rewarding foil to long hours worked in the city. As Vice President Publisher of Woman’s Day Brand Group, the 7th largest magazine in the US, Claire managed all revenue including web, books, and special events, as well as the magazine itself.

The honey Claire gifted to friends and colleagues began earning her local acclaim, prompting an interest in pursuing a new career path. Seven years later, she resigned from the publishing world and in 2010, she started Catskill Provisions to focus on a line of spirits based on her wildflower honey. She’s since won awards for her New York Honey Rye Whiskey, Pollinator Vodka, Pollinator Gin, Maple Bourbon, and Beespoke Gin which she sells and pours at her tasting room and restaurant in Callicoon, New York. She has also developed a line of food products including honeys, ketchup, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup.

She took time to speak with Forbes about how she, with the help of Cathy, made such an abrupt career transition, detailing the challenges and highlights along the way. She offers advice for those interested in following a similar path.

Coming from publishing, why did you decide to produce New York-based spirits and build a distillery?

The distillery in the Catskills was in direct response to the failed farming system up here. I wanted to be closer to a solution for farming, and at that time, the threat of fracking in our area was very real. I thought if we bring the strength of the food and distilling movement out into the spotlight, that would give us an alternative to fracking and help support the suffering farms in the area. The area, at the time I started coming up here around 2003, was super depressed. We used to bring up all our groceries as there was nowhere to shop for fresh veggies and good meats.

I began working with other distillers at their facilities in 2010 to develop the rye whiskey infused with honey and bottled the first batch in 2013. It was a departure from the usual first-bottled spirit at any starting distillery being vodka as it requires no aging…but I have never been a conventional gal so making rye on the first introduction suited me well! And it gave me a good amount of attention as it was so different from what people were used to…it was the beginning of the farm distillery movement, and I was a part of it. To have a NY State Farm Distilling license you must use at least 75% resources grown in the state. We typical use 90% or more. From the start I have donated all my spent grains to farmers to feed their animals and still do.

Along the way, I hit many obstacles, as the resistance from the industry to a woman newcomer is still aggressive and unsupportive. I worked with three different distilleries in 4 years! It was one headache after another filled with disappointing outcomes after a ton of hard work. I was constantly getting myself out of a bad alliance and into another. In 2017 I had a heart to heart with Cathy and I said “look I can walk away from this brand right now and I would be filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment” or “we go all in and build our own distillery. But I can no longer work with other people who are not supportive of what I’m doing.” We started renovations in early 2018 to an existing barn her dad had built in 2000! I love that he built it from scratch and that I distill there every day…its very special to me.

What drew you to the drinks and hospitality business?

I had, like most people I know, worked in hospitality as a young person and put myself through school with hospitality jobs. I always enjoyed it and I believe I’m a natural at it. I feel that when people walk into our tasting room or facility, they are walking into our home. That warmth has to be shared with everyone that comes in and it makes the experience very special. The fact that now people are tasting my spirits and we have a restaurant and cocktail bar is incredible to me.

How did you handle the financial aspects of the business, especially when designing, building, and waiting for licenses, permits, opening, etc?

I was fortunate to have had the proceeds from the sale of a home in Long Island in the bank. And Cathy was extremely supportive of what I was doing. She basically supported us for 5 years.

We are completely self-funded and the benefit of that is, no partners or anyone to answer to. I would recommend that if you must partner up, be very cautious and do your due diligence to choose the right people. In any business, it will take time, money, and attorneys to disband a partnership properly. Better to begin in a smaller version of your dream and take calculated steps. I was so excited to make it past the fifth-year mark. Data shows that by the second year, 30% of businesses fail and by the fifth, 50% fail. I also believe in hiring experts to help you navigate regulations and permits and best practices. Gather a good strong group of resourceful experts in the field you are going into including a lawyer, always!

What are your primary day-to-day concerns, especially with a restaurant/bar/tasting room in the Catskills?

The day-to-day is complicated by staffing. You are not as well organized as a bigger corporation, and you may lack benefits to offer. So, the talent pool you have access to is going to be challenging. The people you have to find need to be passionate, hardworking and loyal; if you get those three qualities, you can teach the rest. In the 11 years that I have been in business, I have had not seen a more challenging employment crisis. There are simply too many jobs for not enough employees to fill them. Every single business owner I know is being stretched to the max right now due to a lack of experienced staff.

You will always have a leg up if you are resourceful—and it has never been more important than now to be flexible and stay nimble. The marketplace is constantly evolving, and you have to respond quickly to what your customers want and need.

What are your big picture concerns?

Being outside of a large metropolis has its challenges. I do believe more people are considering and making the move to where we are rather than deal with the challenges and competition of large cities. But we just don’t have the systems in place here such as high-speed internet or reliable cell phone service. There are improvements every day, but these are real issues we deal with all the time. They can hold you back and stunt your growth. Look into that before settling on a location. Be sure to have close by, efficient utilities.

Scaling is a topic we often think about. My practices produce incredible spirits, but scaling will make it tough to hold on to the integrity of my products. I’m increasing capacity as we speak in a way that will allow me to continue to produce the organic grain and grape-to-glass that I make but double my capacity.

Did your family and friends think you were crazy or were they supportive? Or envious?

Some friends and family were envious, though I was not supported by many, that’s for sure. Everyone I worked with thought I was crazy walking away from a very lucrative career. But I truly didn’t look back because I was just not myself for a few years.

Have you questioned if you made the right decision?

Through all the hardships, NO.. It was the right decision and I have learned so much about myself and my abilities that I wouldn’t change it for anything.

What has been the biggest, unforeseen challenge?

The biggest challenge is that I can’t travel as much as I used to. Cathy and I would take two generous vacations per year. And now it’s an anomaly for us to take an afternoon off together. It does come down to finding the right people and training them so you can have much-needed time off. I love what I do, everyday but you do need to recharge and that is the biggest challenge.

What benefits have you enjoyed since moving?

Waking up in the morning with all my animals in a country setting is the first benefit I enjoy daily. Knowing all my neighbors and being part of an amazing community are also very important and fulfilling. When Cathy is here with me, it’s even better, but she has started to go back to the city to run her business regularly now.

What tips can you offer someone considering following your lead?

Have at least three years’ worth of money in the bank – and you will need more, probably. Don’t expect to make a profit for at least the first two years. Read a lot before you choose what and where! Make sure if it fails you have a plan B. Meet with consultants or experts in the field—you’ll be surprised how many groups and guilds exist where you can start gathering first-hand accounts of what it’s like in an industry. Make sure you are passionate about what you are about to do…passion will keep you going when the difficulties come at you…and there will be many. But I wouldn’t change it for anything!

Anything else you want to add?

I’m grateful for the strength I have had throughout this endeavor, and I appreciate the opportunity to inspire others to find their strength and bring their vision to life!

Catskills Provisions Tasting Room, 16 Upper Main Street, Callicoon, NY 12723

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