When the Powerball jackpot hit $2 billion in November, news of Wilderness Trail’s $420 million partnership agreement with Campari triggered this post on Facebook: “If I win that money, the next person making a big distillery acquisition will be me!”
Some people’s whiskey fantasies are just dreams. Others go make it happen. Ryan Cecil and Kenny Coleman, owners of Pursuit Spirits, are the latter. The Louisville, Ky.-based non-distilling producer (NDP) blends sourced bourbon and rye from multiple states and contract distills with Bardstown Bourbon Co. The brand’s exceptional sales have led them to enlarge their vision for a company they never dreamed of owning.
Cecil, owner of a lawn care business, and Coleman, a tech exec, operate the business in addition to their long-running Bourbon Pursuit podcast.
“That’s our struggle: time,” said Coleman. When asked why one or both don’t leave a job and go full time with Pursuit Spirits, he added, “My wife reminds me all the time that health insurance isn’t cheap.”
Neither is spirits brand building. Yet they’re making it work.
“We’ve been bootstrapped this since the very beginning,” Coleman said. “We dug into our bank accounts and each put in $11,500 for a grand total of $23,000.”
When they started out in 2019, that amount covered Pursuit’s first three sourced barrels, trademark fees, labels and bottles—all of which sold quickly. Profits from those were poured back into more barrels, which filled more bottles that also sold well. To date, neither partner has taken a distribution from the enterprise.
As Pursuit Spirits’ success built what Cecil called “proof of concept,” they believed private investors would get interested in the brand. They were right.
Family and friends stepped up to help with $2.2 million, but Cecil and Coleman needed more to reach their own growth goals. “I and Kenny were running out of rich people,” Cecil said, and they believed it was time to work with a traditional lender. As word spread about the brand’s success, a few banks came calling, including one that had a specific beverage industry lending program. That fit wasn’t right, they said, but another was.
The operators of Town & Country Bank and Trust Co., in Bardstown, Ky., Cecil’s hometown, were friends of his and invited the men in for a chat. They showed them Pursuit Spirits’ books and their long-term plan for growing the business. By late November, Town & Country agreed to loan the business $5.8 million to buy more whiskey, more bottles and deepen its distribution into its current nine-state market.
“We got a lot of congratulatory texts after that, and though that was cool, I had to remind people that we had signed up for $8 million in debt!” Cecil joked. “But it was a huge (announcement) for us because it set the tone that we were serious about this, not just two dumbass podcasters putting bourbon into bottles. This showed that someone was taking us seriously to fund our future.”
Having an NDP wasn’t their dream
Building a spirits brand wasn’t even Cecil’s and Coleman’s idea. When one successful brand builder and Bourbon Pursuit listener contacted them to gauge their possible interest having their own private label whiskey, they were intrigued. That man led them to a whiskey barrel brokerage with inventory for sale. After a meeting between the two groups, Cecil and Coleman started considering the possibility.
With barrel samples and glasses at the ready, they compared those whiskeys to a bottle of Henry McKenna Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon. Privately, they agreed that if any of those samples bested the McKenna, they’d do their own brand. When one actually exceeded that high standard, they were in.
According to Cecil, their vision for growth is mapped out by Coleman “using his spreadsheet magic,” and that conservative plan, given the ultra-strong American whiskey market, is doable. While buying whiskey with others’ money is expensive, they perceive the risk as relatively low.
“We’re only buying 1,200 barrels a year,” Cecil began. “If we ever got into a position where we couldn’t use those barrels for our brand, we could offload them onto the market.”
Coleman added, “I’m not too nervous about it (with) barrels as collateral. They increase in value over time, so I have a lot of confidence in our ability to grow the brand.”
If all goes according to plan (sales thus far have exceeded forecasts), Pursuit Spirits’ profits should be enough to make whiskey blending, bottling and brand building full-time jobs for both men by 2028.
“My wife, Lauren … the thing she wants back is my time,” Coleman said. “Building the bourbon brand is what will get Ryan and me into bourbon full time. That’s where we want to be and are working towards that goal.”
Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....