LEWISVILLE — As a young Marine in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, Quentin D. Witherspoon was one of five responsible for protecting American diplomats, but he and the other Marines began to form relationships with other international diplomats from across Europe.
The diplomats brought specialty beverages from across Europe, like wine and beer, not anticipating the lack of refrigeration. As the goods began to spoil, the diplomats offered to share the alcohol with the Marines, and Witherspoon, who was in charge of filtering drinking water from the Congo River, decided to distill the wine into brandy and the beer into whiskey.
“To be quite honest with you, it was pretty bad,” Witherspoon said.
But the distilling evolved over time from a hobby to a profession in 2010 when he founded Witherspoon’s Distillery in his hometown of Lewisville. After nearly three years of planning, practicing and obtaining permits, Witherspoon’s released the first batches of River Rum in February, followed by Witherspoon’s Bourbon Whiskey at the beginning of July.
Using sugar from Sugar Land and molasses from a provider two blocks away — bought from the same company his relatives have used for four generations — Witherspoon is out to prove that high-quality spirits can be made locally.
Considered a sustainable business model for liquor, the company’s product has already been selling, said Kevin O’Donovan, a manager at Fossil Creek Liquors in Lake Dallas, which has been selling Witherspoon’s Distillery products for about two months.
“I think they definitely have a budding potential market,” O’Donovan said. “The company does amazing here. ... I think his product is actually going to start doing well and is going to blow up really, really soon.”
The business is Witherspoon’s second attempt in the area after he tried to start a wine vineyard in Flower Mound in 1995 that he says basically melted in the sun. After the flop, Witherspoon moved to South Carolina to help one of his friends make mountain whiskey and learned how to distill more spirits.
He began to travel again, this time to Puerto Rico for about a year and to other countries in the Caribbean, and learned how to make rum. When he returned to the United States, he continued distilling spirits on the side and began experimenting with his own rum recipe, which had an overwhelmingly positive response.
“Upon returning from the Caribbean with a new recipe, pretty close to what I have now, I had customers that came to me low on their mountain whiskey stock ... and as a gift I gave them a pint of rum,” Witherspoon said. “They’d come back the next time I saw them, and say, ‘I want two quarts of whatever that stuff was you brought back from the Caribbean, and just give me a pint of the hard stuff.’ So I kind of knew I was onto something at that point.”
However, he decided to go back to college to become a lawyer, studying pre-law at Charleston Southern University. By 2010, after working in construction and for the Transportation Security Administration, he moved back home to Lewisville to be with his wife and children. In the garage, he built a mini distillery and began reconnecting with his old friends in the area.
He found Ryan Dehart, a Marine buddy who ended up getting his master’s degree in business administration from Duke University, and Laurent Spamer, who made home brews, and the three decided to start the distillery. Witherspoon serves as chief executive officer, with Dehart as chief financial officer and Spamer as chief operations officer.
The group began working on a finding a space that was zoned for distilling, obtaining the proper permits to start the business and investing in the company.
“I have an enormous amount of money stored in this. I had equity that I had built up in my life and I invested a good [bit] in this,” Witherspoon said. “I’m up to my neck in this. It takes a long-term commitment. ... It’s a risk. That’s why there are so few. Not everybody that’s in it right now are going to make it.”
Before the rum was ready to enter the market, Witherspoon began working with local retailers and talking with Glazer’s, an alcohol distribution company, asking what they wanted in a product instead of waiting to see if anyone would buy the final version.
“I think they were more impressed with the fact that I was seeking guidance and information as opposed to just trying to sell it,” Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon also enlisted longtime craftsman and friend Doug Kearns to build a custom 500-liter distiller for the space, as well as tables for the 5,000-square-foot distillery. Across the room from the distiller, friends, family members and volunteers help bottle and label the product before it hits the distribution truck.
Through a partnership with Glazer’s, Witherspoon’s was on shelves across the state soon after the product launch in February, and the company began to market the product through tastings at area liquor stores and bars.
“It’s the most effective way of promoting if you don’t have money,” Witherspoon said. “What’s effective is getting your customer one customer at a time, the old-fashioned way. We build a really good relationship with everyone we deal with. We like to treat them like family.”
Witherspoon frequently accompanies the office manager, Kristin La Mere, to tastings and signs bottles for buyers as well as builds relationships with the providers, said O’Donovan.
“It’s mostly unbelievably positive response,” he said. “At least five times out of 10, they end up walking out with a bottle, which is pretty high for a tasting.”
In addition to hosting tastings, Witherspoon said he’s been known to go to bars that sell his products and buy a round for the bar, and makes it a point every Thursday to make ice cream and invite customers down to the distillery at 545 N. Cowan Ave. From 4 to 7 p.m., Witherspoon and his father sit in matching rocking chairs at the loading dock to welcome visitors to the distillery.
The founders are already working on plans for expansion, looking at historic spaces in Lewisville to convert into a destination distillery, where the company will be able to provide tours, serve drinks and sell bottles — thanks to new legislation passed this session in the state Legislature.
The idea of a destination distillery will now be legal for the first time in Texas, and Witherspoon sees this as an opportunity to expand and diversify the business.
“So we’re in effect going to be a manufacturer, liquor store and bar all in one building now, with limitations — but those limitations are so generous that it attracted some serious investment potential to our company,” he said.
The founders plan to continue launching new products as more of the liquor ages in special batches and they work on a spice blend for a spiced rum, and they hope to continue to expand and prove that Texas can manufacture quality spirits, Witherspoon said.
“I’d love for us to be the Samuel Adams of distilled spirits in America,” he said. “It’s wholesome — it’s genuine. I mean, those are people you want to be your neighbors. ... I don’t think there’s a company like that in distilled spirits. It’s all kind of cut-throat and new wave.
“I don’t see us making a whole skew of products, I just want the ones that we have to be really good.”
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.