Every couple of weeks or so, Gary Smith dusts off a folding banquet table from the back room at Centennial on Valley View in Addison, covers it with a simple tablecloth, sets out paper cups and cocktail napkins alongside bottles of booze, and offers free "tastings" to the customers who happen to be in his liquor store that day. He hires an attractive young woman to pour whatever libation is new, on sale, or in need of retail recharging that week. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission won't let Smith advertise his sampling events--not so much as a newspaper ad or even a sign in the window--and Smith is careful to monitor who's tasting and how much. He notices that on tasting days, his store is more crowded, his daily sales volume brisk, and new faces are among the aisles. He's not sure how the word gets out, but it does. A free snort at Centennial on some chilly afternoon is good business.
A couple of months ago, Smith set out Tito's Handmade Vodka, sat back, and watched Tito himself work the small crowd. An affable sixth-generation Texan based in Austin and owner of the only micro-distillery in Texas, Tito signs the ivory linen-like paper labels on pint-sized bottles and fifths of his vodka for Centennial customers, chats them up, tells them the story of how he gave up being a geophysicist to perfect what he considers to be the fine art of distilling by hand. He tells one woman who's already a fan of his smooth, slightly sweet, corn-based spirit that it's nice to get out of the tiny, 1,000-square-foot South Austin distillery now and then. "It's fun for me, because normally I'm sitting at the still, out in the boonies, working by myself with my dog," Tito says.
It's lonely work--making, bottling, packing, and loading cases of vodka on the trucks that come from Glazer's, a Southwest regional liquor distributor that agreed to market Tito's vodka only two years ago. "I love doing these tastings, because I get all these complete hoots that show up and say they're my biggest fans," he says. "It's sort of cool to have a cult following."
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Dallas has been a hard sell for Tito's Handmade Vodka, according to its 39-year-old creator, whose real name is Bert Butler Beveridge II. "Tito" comes from Bertito, or Little Bert, as Beveridge was called growing up in San Antonio. Beveridge says that he and his friend and Dallas-area sales rep, Jeff Thurmon, have been working the streets of Dallas for a year, and that it's finally paying off. "The truth of the matter is, I've been selling vodka like nobody's business," Beveridge says, citing Dallas as his biggest gain this year. Those Dallas sales helped his shoestring operation, which produces only 5,000 cases a year, gross $500,000 for 2000, up substantially from 1999's $300,000 sales total. "Dallas was 20 percent of our business last year," Thurmon says. "This year, it was 50 percent." Tito's sells best in Houston and Austin in Texas, and is distributed in Louisiana, Arkansas, Arizona, Missouri, and Indiana by Glazer's. Beveridge is maxing out on his capabilities this year, with limited equipment and only one other full-time employee at the distillery. He says he's considering adding another building and pot still--the classic kind with twisting condensation coils and a large central pot. "It's really started catching on up there," Beveridge says of Dallas. "I don't have any money for advertising, and Dallas is such a big town, a huge market. It's been hard getting word of mouth up there."
Tito's liquor-store tastings, like the two held at Centennial in Addison this year, have helped Beveridge turn a corner. Smith says Tito's volume on tasting day is better than most. "On a good weekend, after a tasting, we might sell a case and a half of a product," Smith says. "After a Tito's tasting, we sell five or six cases." Smith marvels that Beveridge has made it to year four of his micro-distilling business. "He's one of the coolest guys I know, but it's extremely difficult for someone like that to make it," he says. "It's virtually impossible for such a small operation, given the way liquor is distributed in Texas. Tito couldn't come to me and say, 'I've got a new vodka I'd like for you to try; here's a case.' It has to go through a distributor. Even if I liked him or the product, I'd have to say no." Beveridge agrees with what Smith contends about the uphill battle little distilleries--or mom-and-pop wineries--have in the marketplace. "Getting one of these multimillion-dollar distributors to pick you up is virtually impossible," Beveridge says. It took him almost two years to convince Glazer's after Tito's first bottle was produced in April 1997. Smith says Beveridge may have what it takes for a shot at success. "He will not give up," he says. "He kept pushing until he found a distributor, and he kept hand-selling it before that."
Glazer's got Tito's Handmade Vodka on the shelves at Dallas liquor stores like Centennial, Apple Jack's, Majestic, Big Daddy's, Hastings, Sigel's, and Goody Goody. But Beveridge and Thurmon still hustle them too, along with restaurants and bars in Dallas. Beveridge challenged a bartender at Martini Ranch to a mano-a-mano taste test this year. "I asked him if he had Tito's, if he'd tried it," Beveridge says. "I asked him to take the 'Pepsi challenge.' I said, I guarantee you my vodka kicks ass on whatever your favorite vodka is." He claims the taste test produced another convert. Hustling aside, Beveridge says the quality of his product is what will ultimately make it successful. "Cocktails.com just gave us 95 points on their rating scale, and Absolut only got 75," he says. Gary Smith says Tito's compares well with the super-premium vodkas he sells--Belvedere, Grey Goose, Chopin--and with the premiums--Absolut, Stolichnaya, Ketel One. "I would rank it right in there with the premiums," Smith says. "Everyone's taste is different. But for the price, I like it better." Centennial sells Tito's for $17.99 a fifth; Belvedere retails for $31.99.
Beveridge says he'll be at Centennial again in the new year for a tasting, "but if I knew the exact date, the TABC wouldn't let me tell you," he says, laughing. Smith says in-store fliers, and the liquor industry's unofficial "grapevine," are the only way Tito's cult following and potential swillers will know about the next opportunity to try Texas' only handmade vodka on the house. "Free liquor is really taboo under Texas liquor laws," Smith says. But, hey, Dubya's in the White House, and his heart, like Beveridge's, is in Texas. Maybe they can get that changed.