MODESTO — How does this sound as a business proposition? Make a product that will take as much as five years before it’s ready for market; the equipment you’ll need is very expensive and some of it is in short supply; there will be myriad regulatory hoops to jump through; and when your product finally is ready, you won’t be allowed to sell it directly to your customers.
It sounded good enough to Jim Harrelson and Dano Brocchini to get them to quit their jobs as police officers in Stanislaus County and join Ryan Woods to start Do Good Distillery a year and a half ago.
“I quit and threw my razor away,” said Harrelson.
He and Brocchini now have Duck Dynasty-worthy beards and are partners making gin, whiskey and other spirits. Do Good Distillery’s first bottles of gin are expected to hit store shelves this month.
Harrelson is head distiller, Brocchini is the brewmaster and Woods handles business matters.
The Do Good Distillery story began more than 10 years ago as craft brewing was taking off. Harrelson became interested in brewing his own beer and joined a home brew club where he met Brocchini, among others.
“It’s kind of neat because the brewer at Dust Bowl, Don Oliver, he was also part our club, and he’s the head brewer over there. And then we have another friend who started a brewery in Cambria,” said Harrelson. “You have four people out of 12 or 15 that went into the industry and are actually making something of it.”
Harrelson had another friend, a fellow officer named Paul Katuszonek, who introduced him to whiskey and taught him to appreciate its nuances. Harrelson studied how whiskey was made and discovered he already had mastered much of the process.
“To make the whiskey, 80 percent of it was just making good beer,” Harrelson said. “You’re making a really good beer, and you’re taking away the water, essentially, is the generic way of doing it.”
Katuszonek died a couple of years ago in a traffic accident, but he continues to serve as inspiration for the company. His portrait hangs over the bar in Do Good Distillery’s tasting room.
Harrelson and Brocchini became serious about distilling as a business a couple years ago. They secured financing from relatives and put in their own sweat equity. Woods brought his experience founding Pura Vida, a local shaved ice and espresso bar. That has helped them avoid some of the pitfalls of starting a business — mainly not thinking big enough.
“Most distilleries when they start, they start out at that little baby level — the 60-gallon still,” Harrelson said. “It’s really hard to scale up from there to be a good sized, viable company that you have reach.”
Initially, Do Good Distillery focused on producing brown spirits — whiskey and bourbon — and the company’s warehouse contains dozens of barrels with aging spirits, but they won’t be ready for sale for years.
In the meantime, the company has been distilling white spirits — gin and rum — which can go to market more quickly. Do Good is also designing a gin for Copper King, which is part of the Wagner Winery family in Napa. It will have Wagner’s chardonnay as its base with flavors reminiscent of plants found in Sonoma County.
“It’s a great contract for us, and if it works out, we’ll make a lot of product over the next four years,” Harrelson said.
Do Good Distillery also earns money by consulting, selling distillery equipment and holding events in the distillery’s tasting room in Beard Industrial Park.
DataPath is hosting an event, something its owner David Darmstandler was eager to do, and not just because he and Harrelson are childhood friends. He believes a craft distillery is a cool thing for Modesto.
“I think it does a couple things,” Darmstandler said. “It inspires people to go for it on their own, and then it drives culture. That’s the great thing about distilleries and breweries, anything like that. It’s exciting.”
Right now Do Good Distillery doesn’t face a lot of competition. There are only 40 craft distilleries in California, largely because distilling is an industry that is fraught with arcane rules over how to make alcohol and then how to sell it. Do Good is the only distillery in Stanislaus County.
Do Good Distillery faces regulatory barriers
One big hurdle Do Good Distillery and all California distilleries face is the fact that they are not allowed to sell the liquor the make directly to customers, retailers or restaurants the way a winery or brewery can. Everything they sell has to go through a distributor.
“It’s a giant barrier to entry. Not just the direct sales, but what it takes to get into this scale monetarily,” Woods said.
A bill introduced by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman and Assemblyman Mark Levine of Sonoma is making its way through the Legislature. It would allow distilleries to sell three bottles per person during tours.
Harrelson and Woods expect that if the bill is passed, it will spur more craft distillery startups, but Do Good will have had a head start.