This interview with Will Drucker of Split Spirits is part of my 2021 Autumn Adventure Tour‘s Entrepreneur Interview Series. This trip promotes small businesses along the East Coast, shares interviews with my past and current clients, and highlights my upcoming business mastermind.

Transcript:

SPEAKERS

Will Drucker of Split Spirits, Megan Taylor Morrison

Megan Taylor Morrison  

Hello everyone. I am so excited for our interview today! I am in Manchester, Vermont, about to chat with a wonderful person who is not only an entrepreneur that I deeply respect, but also participated in the first ever mastermind. We are actually in his co-working space right now. I’m going to get out of the frame and get him into this chair so that we can have a fun conversation. 

Will, how excited are you for this interview, on a scale of one to 10?

Will Drucker  

Very excited. At least a 9.9.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

Amazing, okay, great! Go ahead and introduce yourself. Who the heck are you?

will drucker @ split spirits

Will Drucker  

I’m Will Drucker. I founded Split Spirits. We make sustainable spirits with a sense of place. So what that means is we essentially take ingredients from a particular spot that involves grain and wood, we distill that grain into whiskey, and then infuse it with the different types of wood to capture flavors from that particular spot. It’s fun. It’s really fun.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

So good. And Split Spirits is definitely not just the way you make money. It’s an expression of who you are and what you value. So tell our viewers how you’ve managed to quote unquote “bottle”– I was really proud of that pun– who you are and what you love into this brand.

Will Drucker  

Yeah, it’s funny. If someone had asked me when I graduated college 15 years ago whether I would ever start a craft whiskey brand, the answer would be like, “Well, that would be cool, but probably not.” Sustainability has been the throughline for pretty much everything I’ve done. But in hindsight, Split Spirits does a pretty remarkable job of combining a lot of the things I love. Meeting interesting people, doing something with my hands, doing something for the environment, travel, the cuisine and flavors associated with different places that I travel. It all sort of weaves together really nicely, and the result is Split Spirits.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

One of the reasons I love entrepreneurship is that owning a business allows you to take a stand for something. Split Spirits definitely seems to do that. What purpose do you hope it serves as the company grows?

Will Drucker  

Yeah. I think that’ll change over time as we grow and continue to do the work that I think is necessary for all businesses to do. Most recently, we helped our partner distillery, Appalachian Gap in Middlebury, Vermont, become the country’s first climate neutral certified distillery. That makes Split Spirits the first climate neutral certified brand, which is really exciting, especially given the pressing need. Addressing climate change needs to happen on all fronts. Internationally, nationally. Within business communities, within communities of faith, within individual homes. It just made sense to take that step. The partners I work with just had this environmental ethos that drew me to them in the first place. So just doing the right thing was always kind of the M.O. One of the ways that manifests for Split Spirits that I am particularly excited about is the intersection of farming grains and whiskey, because there’s such a huge opportunity for us to address the climate change issue through farming with regenerative methods. Using organic methods that build soil fertility and sequester carbon. It’s also good for farmers because they can command a higher price for the grain. It’s really fun to be able to purchase that and turn it into a product that I love and our fans love. It’s really fun to be able to actually physically do the work on that end.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

Let’s talk more about becoming climate neutral certified. What exactly does that mean, and why is it important?

Will Drucker  

Yeah so, everyone hopefully is familiar with the idea of global warming and climate change. Climate neutral certification basically is a way for us to work with a third party to evaluate our entire carbon footprint. That includes our upstream supply chain (where we get the grains, how those grains come from the farms to our distillery, the bottles that we purchase) and takes into account the full carbon impact of everything we do from buying the raw materials to making the spirits to sending them on to shops in New York, San Francisco, or here in Vermont. They have a really user friendly business admission estimator so that a small company like ours doesn’t need to hire experts to do this stuff. We can get a really robust idea of the carbon impact of various aspects of our business and come up with a final number that we can then work to winnow down and then purchase offsets for what we can’t directly control. An example of this is the truck that brings the grain to the facility. We can’t ask the company to use an electric truck next time because we currently don’t have direct control over that. Hopefully, we’ll get to that point one day. One of the things I think is most exciting about the climate neutral brand is that it’s more public facing. As more people see it, it’ll hopefully raise awareness. “Oh, gosh, you know, this thing I never really thought about in terms of its impact on the climate has x footprint and the supply chain impact is huge.” As more and more businesses do that, and people become more aware, hopefully using an electric truck fleet can become a reality in the future. So that’s how I think the business community in particular can really help move the needle on this issue, and do so in a way that deepens relationships with customers because they know you’re trying to do the right thing. It’s a great story to tell, and at the end of the day it’s just the right thing to do.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

I love that. If someone were to say, “Hey, how can your whiskey business help stop global warming?,” now there’s an answer. You’ve done an amazing job creating a beautiful, cohesive Instagram presence. I went on it last night to try to make some graphics for this interview, and then realized that I could not make graphics cool enough to be on your Instagram page. What advice would you give to someone that’s building their own social media identity?

Will Drucker  

Yeah. I mean, we’re still learning, I will say. But I think the thing that has just felt the most right, and is reinforced by people responding, engaging, or appreciating what we’re putting out is just our story and the way we see it. Some of our posts are a little bit more long-winded, but it’s because we care and we don’t post a whole lot. And that’s maybe not a great strategy, but it’s just what works for us. We see that as another way for us to tell not only the story of how we make Split Spirits and what makes it unique, but also to take a step back and explore where it fits within the broader world. Like why does this matter from an environmental standpoint, from a sense of place standpoint? How do we help people really appreciate something that might be right under their nose, the wonder that surrounds us wherever we are, whether it’s looking for birds in Prospect Park or hiking through the Adirondacks or the Green Mountains here in Vermont. I think just being genuine, asking our followers, the people that engage with us most, what they care about, that’s something that we want to work on more. We’re just making sure that what we’re sharing with our fans is something they really care about. We were looking at the click rates on various links in our newsletter and we were really pleasantly surprised that one of the things that people click on most are three songs that we included at the end of every newsletter. It doesn’t really have anything to do with whisky. They’re just songs that we’ve listened to in the past month or two that we really like and think, “Oh, we should share this with people.” It’s fun to see that people scroll, read all the way through, and then click on the three kind of random songs at the end. Initially we were like, “Oh is this too off brand and ‘today’s affirmation.’” But now we’re like, “No. You can just do you and people love it.” It’s better than trying to force something that’s not natural. That’s sort of been our guiding principle.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

You knew who your ideal clients would be even from the very beginning. People who love sustainability, the environment, the outdoors, and apparently, love music. I guess that’s one of the benefits of having customers that you would want to hang out with in general.

Will Drucker  

Yeah, that’s true. I would definitely like to think that I would hang out with any of my customers because usually there’s some aspect of what they find interesting that I find interesting. There’s a connection point. It doesn’t have to be regenerative grains. It doesn’t have to be travel. It doesn’t even have to be whiskey necessarily. The thing that I like about my business is that there are so many aspects and layers to it that someone can pick up on. Maybe it’s the design of the bottle, and people want to talk about what fonts we use and what our design process was like. To be able to get into the details like that with someone on an aspect of the brand that might be minute is still stimulating. I’m often surprised that a fan is not necessarily someone who looks like me or has my life experience. It’s sometimes someone who comes at it from a different angle in appreciating what we’re doing. It’s sort of a way into communities I haven’t necessarily spent much time with or wouldn’t really expect to be fans of Split Spirits. So it’s very fun.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

Yeah. You start with your ideal client, but then if other folks want to become huge fans of the brand, you embrace them too. Strategic partnerships have been key to building your business. Tell us about a few of the strategic partnerships that you have and how they’ve helped you grow.

Will Drucker  

I would say the most tangible partnership is the one I have with Appalachian Gap Distillery. This is where I produce all the split spirits. What that basically means is that they have an established distillery with all the equipment including the grinder, the stills, etc. This is the place where all the grain is fermented. I found when I did a road trip through Vermont. I was originally gonna be based in New York, and I was looking for a distiller that made the Vermont whiskey with Vermont-grown greens that I really enjoyed. An unaged whiskey that I could use as the base for my split Vermont. I toured a bunch of distilleries and tasted a bunch of their new make or aged whiskey. Upon trying Appalachian Gap’s Snowfall I was like, “Wow, this is really good, clean, crisp. It has flavor and texture.” So I reached out to them and told them what I was doing. It’s sort of an unusual approach to spirits and whiskey and whatnot, but they were into it. It just kind of jived with their ethos. They’re very experimental, open to breaking norms, and going outside the lane to find interesting flavors. When I drove into the distillery, there were six huge solar panels. I was like, “Alright, cool, press the like button.” It just kind of developed organically from there. I was based in New York at that point, taking prototypes of Split Spirits around to bars or restaurants to see whether it was even something that people would be interested in. So they were like, “Hey, do you want to help sell our Vermont craft spirits in New York?” I was like, “Sure, I’m going to these places anyway. I like what you do. Let’s do it.” It helped provide me with a platform to accelerate outreach and develop a community in New York. To this day, members of that community are some of our best customers. It was a springboard that really helped launch the brand in a lot of ways. I have lots of friends and advisors who are more informal partners, so to speak, that I reach out to because they have different expertise from my own. My wife Kristen has also been a completely amazing and supportive partner in this journey, trusting me, seeing my vision, helping on late nights with newsletter editing, concept creation, and aspects of design. So she definitely gets a lot of the credit as well.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

I want to talk more about strategic partnerships. But first, you brought up a really great point. You were so amazing about taking your product to various bars and having people try it. Talking to their potential customers can feel really scary for an entrepreneur that’s starting a business. Where did you find the courage to do that?

Will Drucker  

I think it was really just by dint of how the whole concept of Split Spirits started. It was something that my friends urged me to do. I was experimenting. I had sort of latched onto this idea that, “Gosh, every whiskey I’ve ever had is basically a variation on flavors from one tree (white oak) grown in one part of the world (Missouri). That’s where all the barrels come from. And there’s some great whiskey from that source, but once I learned that I was so fascinated to see what other flavors were out there that were still untapped. White oaks grow in different parts of the country, so I wanted to see if there was a terroir effect or for that matter, other species of wood altogether. And so I basically just started prototyping. My apartment had rows of little glass spice jars that I had filled with different types of wood and unaged whiskey, just to see what they would taste like. People would come over and ask what I was doing. I was like turning this into a business. I got a lot of feedback from people. They would pick one and try it. Enough people were into the idea and liked the flavors that it gave me the courage to then take it to a wine shop or a spirit shop and get someone’s professional opinion about it. And not everyone loved it, but that’s okay. You don’t have to please everyone. But enough people were intrigued with the concept and the story that it was doing something that really had never been done before. When enough people give you positive feedback like that, it helps give you the courage to go to the next shop. It’s not guaranteed that the next shop owner will give you the time of day, but you have that bank of positive feedback to fall back on. Plus I was passionate about it. I made it and it was a passion project. I think that goes a long way too.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

Yeah. The persistence, being willing to knock on doors, being willing to discover passion, starting with your own community, and seeing how they respond to it. There’s so many great tidbits in what you just shared.

Will Drucker  

Yeah. And the last thing I’ll mention is the fact that it was a dialogue. I wasn’t bringing them a final product. I was bringing them something in a mason jar with a hand-drawn label and being like, “Hey, what’s good about this? What’s bad about this? What would you like to see? What would your customers like to see?” So it was very much a learning endeavor. I didn’t feel like I was coming there to sell them something. It was more like, “Hey, help me figure this out.” They were part of the story and part of the process. Enough people were excited to give me their feedback that it felt very, very, very holistic in that regard.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

And they became some of your first customers too. The takeaway there is to get people involved early. I didn’t realize that you took mason jars to these wine shops. I’m surprised people drank it, honestly.

Will Drucker  

You’ll be surprised what wine shop owners will try. They usually spit it out. Otherwise it’d be tough, tough to get through their day.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

So let’s return back to this question of strategic partnerships. What advice would you give to someone who’s also interested in growing their business that way?

Will Drucker  

Yeah. I would say there’s this prevailing notion in the world of entrepreneurship, that you have to protect your idea. And I think that while you need to make sure that your idea is unique enough that it’s defensible, at the end of the day, good ideas get stolen all the time. That’s an indication that it’s a good idea. It’s important to recognize that fact, and recognize that growth can happen quicker with more people involved, especially people from different perspectives or different expertise. Find those people. Don’t try to be in your own little nucleus. How are you going to grow a business if you’re just insular like that? Find people. People to help share your story and be a brand rep. In the case of the people at the distillery, lean on their expertise, because they know how to make an amazing distilled spirit and do it sustainably. There are strategic partnership opportunities everywhere. One of the ones I’d like to lean into more is working with the farmers. I acknowledge them, but I would love to get to the point where, you know, instead of me requesting XYZ grains from them, they tell me, “My fields really thrive when I’m planting this combination of grains. Could you make a whiskey out of that?” If you’re not open to that type of opportunity, and you’re too focused on having something be unchanging, then you’re not gonna be able to take advantage of those opportunities. So I think that the more you can share your idea, the better. Don’t give away everything, but don’t be afraid to let people in that you might view as a potential competitor. There’s so much opportunity to build something better together. No amazing company has ever been run by one person. You need a team, and whether those team members are within your organization or external, it’s really important.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

What’s your vision for Split Spirits? Where would you like the company to be in five years?

Will Drucker  

Yeah. So it’s funny, I was just looking back at my mastermind vision for Split Spirits. I want Split Spirits to grow to a scale where I’m providing good jobs for people. That’s something that’s an issue here in Vermont. It’s an aging state, and there aren’t enough attractive jobs for young people to move here or to stay here. So the idea of being able to create meaningful employment for people and help them fulfill their life goals from a job standpoint would be incredibly fulfilling to me. And you really see it. I live in a small town and you can see how the business community supports people’s livelihoods and how they’re integrated. It’s neat once you boil it down to just the scale of a small town to really see how everything fits together. From a sustainability standpoint, I would love to get to the point I just alluded to a moment ago, in terms of working more closely with farmers, but I really want to get to the point where other distilleries and other brands are copying what I’m doing and they’re paying more for organic regenerative grains. Because right now, unfortunately, we rely on GMO conventional corn for most whiskey, and that is not helping the climate crisis. In fact, it’s inflaming the issue. But there’s an opportunity to help make progress on climate change by shifting what sorts of farms you support. There are farms that are building soil fertility, soil health, and sequestering carbon. I’d love to get to the point where other brands call me up and say, “Can you put me in touch with your farmer?” I don’t want to be protective about that. I want my farmers to get more business so that they’re able to lease more land and convert more acres to regenerative organic farming because this other distillery wants to get in. I see it as a platform for helping the industry shift by raising more awareness about the climate issue. I’d like to think that if we get to that scale, there’s a financial goal we can meet. Where it’s providing a comfortable livelihood for myself and my family, as well as the employees that are working with me.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

I like how big you smile when you talk about that.

Will Drucker  

Five years. We’ll see. Check back in.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

Love it. So let’s change gears. Some of the people watching this interview are interested in my upcoming business mastermind. What was the experience of this year-long program like for you?

Will Drucker  

Yeah. I think you just alluded to it a moment ago, in terms of division. First of all, it helps you come up with what it is you want to do. That can be so powerful, no matter what you’re doing, whether that’s starting a business, committing to something in your life, learning a new skill, just getting better at what you’re already doing. The mastermind helps you get clear on your vision and then break that vision down into steps. It creates the structure, accountability, and support networks to get you to that vision.  The mastermind supports you in that journey of slowly but surely, methodically, getting toward that vision. Because sometimes it can be really daunting, and to have a group of people who know your vision, know your plan, and support you and hold you accountable to that plan is really powerful. And another thing that I found to be really helpful was having a group of people that aren’t in my industry or don’t think about the same things I do every day. That diversity of perspective and opinion can help you look at a problem you’re facing from a totally fresh perspective, and have you seeing it in a new light. When you’re a solopreneur or small business owner, this is especially valuable because otherwise, you’re just thinking about all these things in your own head. You may be a good problem solver but you can’t do anything great on just your own. As I was alluding to before, teams are helpful, whether that’s a mastermind group or your colleagues or whatnot.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

How specifically, did it support your business growth?

Will Drucker  

Yeah, so in terms of the plan, really just breaking it down. Creating that clear vision of where we want to be in five years, that big, inspirational thing that gets you up in the morning, or helps you stay up late, when you’re trying to plow through some work. Not only that, but for me, the thing that I really struggled with was taking that vision and breaking it down into incremental steps and creating a plan and having an accountability structure in place. Those little incremental, baby steps might seem insignificant, or might be easy to let slide for a day or two, but to be reminded within that accountability structure that they all lead up to that big vision over the long term was really powerful.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

What were a few of the accomplishments you felt most proud of during the program?

Will Drucker  

I mean, one of the biggest ones was seeing my product on a shelf, having it go from just a concept to the real thing. The thing that I conceived of and sketched and prototyped. I got the permits and did the boring regulatory stuff. I worked on those partnerships. From all that, I created an actual thing that a stranger passing down the street is going to walk into the shop and buy. To get to that point was pretty cool. There’s so many different moving parts to getting to that one occasion that we workshopped and there was accountability around and there were plans around and so it seems like such a discrete simple thing to have it be available on a shelf. There’s a lot that led up to it though, and to be able to do that with the support of the mastermind group was crucial. It was something that we could all celebrate together, too. A big part of the mastermind was celebrating the wins. And to be able to celebrate that moment with the group was pretty amazing.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

Last question. What advice would you give to someone who’s going into the mastermind?

Will Drucker  

Be open, be vulnerable, be ready to push your own boundaries. Because I think that’s where the biggest growth can happen. I think it’s pretty normal for people to not be super willing to share an issue that they need help with or are working on. To really break down what they need support around. But if that’s the attitude you bring into the group, then you’re not going to get that support. So that was something that I actively worked on. And I think something I took away from it is to really trust myself, be honest about what I need, and practice putting that into words and asking for help around it. If it’s a group of people you’ve never met, with whom you don’t necessarily have a shared background, it can be difficult. People are going to come from all sorts of walks of life and bring perspectives that can sometimes make you feel like you’re out of place, but it’s important to get comfortable with that and recognize that it’s a good thing. The different perspectives and the questions are going to push you to do better, work through your issues, achieve more quickly, and have more fun doing it. I would say that’s my advice.

Megan Taylor Morrison  

Well, it has been such a joy to interview you. I love what Split Spirits is doing. I’m so honored to have been a small part of it. Thanks for sharing with us. 

Will Drucker 

Cheers indeed.

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