Renee Bemis – Co-Founder, Driftless Glen Distillery

Renee and her husband, Brian Bemis, share a spirited passion. Driftless Glen Distillery is an American craft distillery that is making even the glen cairns that the whiskey flows into thirstier for more, and is captivating the nation with its award-winning spirits. With close to 5,000 barrels of aging bourbons and rye whiskeys, the operation and facility have set the stage in the craft arena and have quickly made a name for the quality of spirits and the sense of place Renee and Brian have created for all to enjoy. The love and life put into their spirits is touched by the imprint of their fingerprints that hold every single bottle that leaves their rick-house. Renee and Brian invite you to “Taste the American Spirit”.

How did the concept for Driftless Glen Distillery come about?
My husband, Brian Bemis, is a known and respected car dealer, and has been in the industry for over 35 years. He has built many relationships and through that has been presented opportunities along the way to partner in, and to create new start-up ventures. The concept of the distillery intrigued us both and it is safe to say, it was a passion of ours from the very start. Driftless Glen Distillery was born and originally started as a partnership.

How was the first year in business?
We broke ground in 2012, started distilling in 2014, and opened our distillery restaurant in 2015. In our minds, 2015 was really the first year since we opened our doors to the public. In 2015, we learned a lot and that is also the same year my husband and I bought out the original partner. We knew a shift needed to be made in order to grow the brand the way it deserved. We share ownership of Driftless Glen together, a his and her team fueled with passion and perseverance, and as we like to sometimes laugh and say BAM (bring another million), our own funding and learning. It is a labor of love and there are many considerations and shifts that we have had to make. Through the highs and lows, we remain on the high side with our love and optimism for just what we have worked so hard with our team to create. The first year was all about getting the distillery setup for the creation of the bourbon and rye whiskeys. We distilled our first barrel in November of 2014. We started distilling and putting spirits in barrels to age. Bourbon and rye whiskeys are our flagship products. There is a speed to market consideration for all distilleries. You want your spirits to be nurtured and aged, but there is much capital that goes into just sitting and waiting for the optimal maturity. We have always been of the mind that we will age ours to perfection, having patience and respect for the art form of what we do. So, we started producing excellent clears to offer right away in our distillery. Our vodkas are becoming well-known and are loved as are our gins. We also have a 5 Year Reserve award-winning brandy. It is the only sourced spirit, but we wanted to have a brandy from the Bordeaux region of France that we then aged an additional year in one of our spent bourbon barrels.

Our distillery cuisine-inspired restaurant was also a unique concept and somewhat of a risk as we decided that there would be no deep fryer. Now there is no shame in enjoying an amazing WI deep-fried cheese curd – we just wanted to create something different for our distillery and the area. The same chef who started with us remains to this day. He is incredible and comes up with the most delectable dishes, all distillery-inspired and infused with our spirits where it makes sense. As a WI distillery, we also have a special liquor license that only allows for us to share our spirits and beer. For this reason, we had to get creative in our mixology, so we have our own line of olive oils and vinegar that we use in the creation of our cocktails and cuisine – Renee Olive Oils. The first year of the restaurant was great and it just continues to get better and better.

What was your marketing strategy?
At that time, it was all about just starting, launching, and getting the word out. We did some billboard advertising, TV hotel advertising and ESPN advertising in the area of WI dells. This area is heavy in tourism and just about a 15-20 minute drive from our distillery. We didn’t do as much promotion in the beginning as we wanted our flagship spirits to be aged, and we wanted to be known for creating bourbon and rye whiskey. The first amber spirit we released was our brandy and then our double cask gin. We also made the decision to release a young rye as our following was really waiting and asking for it. We took a risk, and it paid off. Our young rye and our brandy are award winners and we are now at a pinnacle time coming close to the five year mark of aged bourbon and rye whiskeys. Our strategy is also one of remaining true to the spirit. We are grain to glass, using locally-sourced Midwest grains and all of the creation and nurturing is done on-site, even down to the bottling, labeling, and handwritten information on our label.

Now our strategy has shifted. Recently, I spoke at the Inc. 5000 conference about passions and pivots. We are in a passion/pivot mode as we speak. Brand awareness and recognition is key to our growth plan and success. We are making some big moves within the industry and people are keeping a close eye on us. We are doing things, our way. We aren’t following the “This is how it is done, or this is how its been done” mentality. We are coming up with new ideas and implementing fun and exciting marketing strategies that include radio, co-branded collaborations, and outside-of-the-box initiatives. Perhaps the biggest move that we will release very soon is offering our spirits online in 39 different states. This, up until now, hasn’t been something that people have been able to do, or have adopted. Through retail partnerships, we are really following suit with companies such as Amazon Prime and other services that enable greater reach and convenience to the client. We are an early adopter and know that through this there will be lessons learned, but our passion will allow us to keep up with the pivots.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
I can tell you exactly this number as we were just honored at the Inc. 5000 conference as one of the fastest-growing companies in the US. We ranked in at #316 out of 5,000 companies. We experienced a three-year growth of 1,561% in the last three years.

How do you define success?
Success is really getting everyone to love Driftless Glen Distillery Spirits, never giving up, and always giving it your all even during those days where you might feel deflated. Failure is not an option and our team even cites this as one of our driving forces.

What is the key to success?
Being true to our mission, our values, and ourselves. We respect the natural resources that go into creating our spirits. Because of this respect, we invest heavily in equipment and partnerships that allow us to remain central to our mission. We are a 100% zero waste distillery. That means everything we put into our spirits is recycled. We do not put the water that is high in BODs down the drain, as we separate the water and the spent grains. The water goes to an anaerobic digester and is recycled for energy and the spent grains go to a local farmer who feeds his cattle.

People knowing our name and the quality we provide and exactly the passion and the heart that goes into what we offer – that is the ultimate success. We are a five star-rated distillery and restaurant. We work as a team and family and no one wants to let the other person down. That in itself is success – having the people in place that have your back and understand our passion.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
We have learned too many. Perhaps the GREATEST would be that when working with city officials, distributors, and others who don’t have your mission and vision in mind, the attitude of “no” is hard to take and understand. Our attitude of yes and failure is not an option just allows us to keep on the side of we will make this happen one way or another. There is always a solution, so we would love to encounter those liked minds who really get down to it with us.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Life is about the journey not the destination.”
“I am an optimist. It doesn’t seem too much use to be anything else.” – Winston Churchill
Also, a poem I live by named “The Dash” by Linda Ellis:

“I read of a man who stood to speak at a funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we lived and loved and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.

To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?”

What are some of your favorite books?
How Remarkable Women Lead by Joanna Barsh & Susie Cranston and Living with Joy by Sanana Roman.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There have been many, as we encounter tough days weekly. In this industry, you not only have to put up the capital and sit on the investment till it ages, but you also have to trust others so very much with them getting your brand out there. The distribution world and the three tier system can be very limiting, but it can also be very good. Getting your spirit on the shelf and being considered against big brands, with large cash flow and the ability to create incentives – we face this daily. We also have faced government regulations as does each and every distillery who is creating their brand and following. Limiting regulations requires that you get creative. It seems that with the world of eCommerce, we should be able to ship from our warehouse to all over the world, but this is not the case in the spirit industry. However, we are thankful that we have some amazing distributors and partners who are making this happen for us since they believe in our product, and more importantly, us.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I believe, we believe, and our team believes in our product and DG.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
We own the distillery 100% – we didn’t need to borrow capital. So, as an entrepreneur, we recommend that others really think through the investment, and save to be able to put in at least the majority of the capital so that their vision and voice remains true through all of the ups and downs. Never give up, be optimistic, and keep failure as not an option at the forefront.

Jason Navallo

Jason Navallo is the author of five books: American Dream, Thrive, Never Give Up, Success, and Driven to Succeed. He has an M.B.A. in Human Resource Management from Louisiana State University and lives in NYC.