Sas Stewart and Sivan Cotel, owners of Stonecutter Spirits, are passionate about gin and whiskey. Sivan enjoys a dignified whiskey while Sas, also a fan of whiskies, is fond of gin with depth and unique flavor profiles. To develop a drink that the two could share, they used their combined knowledge of the food, beverage, and spirits industries to develop a barrel-aged gin that was smooth and sippable like a whiskey. It was the perfect marriage of their favorite drinks and led to the development of a solid business plan that would take Vermont by storm.
“Aging gin is a new concept,” said Sas. “There aren’t a lot of folks out there who are doing it. You couldn’t replicate what we do here in any other place.”
Stonecutter Spirits, located at 1197 Exchange Street in Middlebury, Vermont, hones into the untapped market of spirit lovers ready for something new. Using barrel-aging techniques and working to perfect their existing products, they are attracting a steady following across the state and beyond. “Our gin offers something different to gin fans, whiskey fans, or for folks who want to branch into gin,” said Sivan. “I think that’s something that makes for a great bridge in spirits.”
The real truth is we wouldn’t be able to pull this off without Opportunities.
Not only did Sas and Sivan succeed in developing a smooth, flavorful gin, they have set themselves apart from other businesses by focusing on barrel-aging techniques. “We take an unaged or partially aged starting point and create a barrel aging map around that product,” said Sas. “Thinking about it in those terms is really different. I don’t think there are many folks out there thinking about it that way. It’s allowed us to create things that no one else is making.”
Developing a great spirit is its own challenge. Getting the support and funding for a small business is quite another, particularly when renovations are involved. When an old tile factory closed its doors ten years ago, no one but Sas and Sivan could have envisioned what would one day take its place. For over a decade the space at 1197 Exchange Street remained vacant, still, and silent with little interest or imagination.
With the help Opportunities Credit Union, the National Bank of Middlebury, the Addison County Economic Development Corporation, and Carrara, the owner of the building, Sas and Sivan were able to outfit the 12,000 square foot warehouse into a space that accommodates offices, tastings, events, and a distillery for their unique barrel-aging spirits operation.
“We’re really lucky,” said Sas. “The real truth is we wouldn’t be able to pull this off without Opportunities and Carrara. They believed in us. Both have been totally instrumental for us to have a business here in Vermont.”
“Once we found the space, I think that’s what gave us the chance to really go forward,” said Sivan. “You can plan a business on paper as much as you want, and you should, but until you really start putting roots down, it’s a huge jump.”
While providing a cheerful and humorous entrance to Stonecutter Spirits’ barrel aging room, a window decal reads “Shhh…the spirits are sleeping” paying homage to the industry and stillness of the previously long-vacant space. Now, the warehouse is filled with 300 barrels of aging whiskey and gin using environmentally friendly practices and technology such as light tubes and zero-VOC flooring. “We really wanted to build this from the ground-up using sustainable materials,” said Sas.
Fresh air is pumped in year-round which allows the barrels to experience the outside temperatures that let the wood of the barrels expand and contract. According to Sas, this makes for a more nuanced experience.
The space took ten months to renovate to ensure environmental sustainability, optimal functionality, and character. Stonecutter Spirits proudly opened its doors to a vibrant, yet rustic, space in July of 2015. They have hosted tastings, fundraisers, private parties, and dinners ever since, while focusing on perfecting their current product offerings and hosting a weekly cocktail party.
Their barrel-aged gin is currently in 50 liquor stores throughout the state of Vermont and Sas reminds us that “2016 will see us branch out into new states, which is really exciting.” At the same time, there are two whiskeys currently in production: A heritage cask whiskey that goes through a three-barrel process and a small batch whiskey that won’t be ready until 2019. The heritage cask is currently in its third stage and will be ready in March or April of 2016. These core spirits are what make Stonecutter strong.
“We’re very streamlined,” said Sivan. “We’re a small business and it’s very easy for a business (big or small) to suddenly be exploring more and more stuff and realize, ‘wow, we’ve got a lot going on.’”
They’re a credit union that other banks not only want to work with but recommend.
Staying focused is how Sas and Sivan feel they can really do things right in this industry. They put attention to detail and dedication into making these core spirits the best possible drink for their customers.
“What differentiates the company is that we’re small and we do a lot of stuff in person,” said Sivan. “Sas goes up to Burlington and plans an event while I’m doing a tasting at a liquor store in Wilmington. We’re out there doing stuff. That goes a long way, even here in the tasting room. People like meeting the people who are involved. They ask questions and they’re engaged. That’s one of the greatest parts of being in spirits right now. People really care and they want to know about the details. That’s great for us as the producers. It’s great to have people who want to know more and you can talk to about something you’re proud of.”
To add to their strengths, Sivan describes their skillset overlap as a “really nice venn diagram.” Sas has a background in business development, brand development and marketing with a focus on environmental sustainability. This is complementary to Sivan who has a background in operations and finance. Sas’s experience in the food industry also meshed well with Sivan’s experience with spirits. Knowing they had a strong business model was half the battle. Finding a financial institution that could make their dream a reality was the next step.
“Opportunities Credit Union was originally a recommendation to us from one of the other banks here locally,” said Sivan. “Similar to how there is a lot of cross-talk in our industry, it’s been nice to see how that’s part of Vermont’s ethos in general.”
“They’re a credit union that other banks not only want to work with but recommend,” said Sas. “I think that speaks really highly to our experience with them as well. They weren’t originally on our radar as we’re in a different part of the state, but in talking with other people their name came up pretty fast.”
Both Sas and Sivan have been impressed with Opportunities’ support throughout the process as well as their ability to guide and lead Stonecutter Spirits’ three lenders. Sivan also mentioned how the personal relationships built between Opportunities and Stonecutter Spirits have had an impact on their experience.
“Greg Huysman, Opportunities’ Business Development Manager, has been great,” said Sivan. “It’s nice when the people you’re working with also feel like friends and family.”
“Working with Opportunities has been a tremendous experience,” said Sivan. “It’s really great to have partners that are rooting for our success and want to be there for you every step along the way.”
When asked if they would recommend Opportunities Credit Union to others, Sivan quickly stated: “We already have, to many other folks, so yes, absolutely!” In fact, Sivan and Sas have since returned to Opportunities for additional products and services such as additional loans and checking accounts.
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