Making high-end distilling equipment in Boise
Nampa native Tory Corson, 36, was working as a patent lawyer in Silicon Valley when he caught the startup bug. He began advising clients in Montana, and his dream only grew as he watched microbrewing and microdistilling businesses take off.
His brother, Josh Corson, 27, was making a career in the Treasure Valley flipping houses and renovating the occasional classic car. But he also loved to work with metal and took chemistry courses at Boise State University, thinking he might pursue a pharmacy degree.
The brothers decided in 2012 to pool their knowledge of metal, chemistry, the law and startups, and join a friend’s project to build their own distillery in Boise. By late 2013, the Statesman reported they also were working on a side venture to custom-build distillery equipment.
The brothers began working on it in their garage. The plans for the distillery stalled, but the brothers doubled down on the equipment venture. They finished the still and put it up for sale, and it sold quickly.
They had researched the manufacturing side of liquor and found that almost nobody makes stills in the U.S. Most distilleries order their equipment from Germany, Scotland or China, they said, and the wait can be as much as three years.
The Corsons thought they could underprice the competition. They knew the demand was there, as craft distilling is taking off the way craft brewing did five years ago. So they took their freshly built copper-and-steel equipment, made it the gleaming centerpiece of their website and waited as Google searches brought them customers.
BUILT IN A GARAGE
They built their presses and factory equipment with inexpensive Harbor Freight tools, using junkyard parts.
Because the $40,000 startup was funded with cash — and a credit card they have since paid off — Corson Distilling Systems Inc. has no debt and no outside investors, Tory Corson said. The Corson brothers, their mother Kristy Corson, and their fiancées Lacy Hellums and Katherine Pages are the owners, he said.
They hired their first employee in January 2015. Their first order from a man in Michigan was a $30,000 mash tun, a specialized brewing vessel.
Tory and Josh embody the entrepreneurial spirit that Boise is known for.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter highlighting Corson Distilling Systems in his State of the City address
Since then, Corson Distilling at 17 N. Phillippi St. has grown to employ about 50 people and had 55 customers as of Sept. 12.
At any given time, there are workers on the floor hammering pieces of copper into shape, stamping sheets of steel and polishing the metal.
This year, they’re on track for $8 million in sales — more than four times their sales last year — with a 50 percent profit margin on equipment.
A still sells from $35,000 for 100 gallons to $170,000 for 2,500 gallons. Full systems range from $125,500 to $447,500.
Corson Distilling keeps money in the state or region whenever possible, buying from Pacific Steel and Recycling, Norco Inc. and McCall Industrial Supply — all either based in the Treasure Valley or with a large presence here.
GROWING ALMOST TOO FAST
The company sets itself apart, the Corsons say, by going beyond manufacturing. It also handles the federal permits a customer needs, plus installation, training and customer service. The Corsons once created a recipe when a customer asked for it.
The challenge now is keeping up with demand, Tory Corson said.
“The market won’t stop,” he said. “It wants what it wants.”
Tory Corson’s favorite spirit: bourbon, followed by barrel-aged gin and mezcal. Josh Corson’s favorite spirit: bourbon.
Finding good employees has, so far, been a challenge they have met. Local welders, College of Western Idaho students and even a CWI instructor have signed on with the company. The pay is $10 to $25 an hour, with commissions for salespeople and bonuses for the crew when a piece of equipment leaves the factory.
Taking a cue from Silicon Valley tech companies such as Google, the brothers buy lunch for employees every day. Corson Distilling covers half the cost of a Blue Cross of Idaho health insurance plan for employees.
Tory Corson also notes that Corson Distilling is adamant about having a diverse workforce. The brothers want to hire women and people of color for all types of positions, he said.
The company is hiring so rapidly that it is becoming hard for the Corson brothers to match names to all the new faces. Two weeks ago, they added a second shift. If a big sale they’re working on goes through, they’ll soon need to hire a third, graveyard shift to fill customers’ orders faster.
“Once they get it, they love it — they just want it yesterday,” Josh Corson said.
The ripest market seems to be Canada, but Australia and the United Kingdom are becoming big distillery markets as well, Tory Corson said.
“We battle with China on price,” he said. “For lead time [to make a still], I think right now they’re ahead of us.”
NEXT UP: COLD-BREW COFFEE
Tory and Josh Corson are aware that distilleries may be all the rage now, but the market could slow down eventually.
Unlike some other startup founders, they have no desire to sell the company.
If we sold it, the CEO would be making a million dollars a year, and there would be no free pizza.
Josh Corson, on one reason the Corsons do not plan to sell their company
Instead, the brothers already are trying to ramp up for the future.
The processes for distilling are similar to making cold-brew coffee, which involves steeping coffee grounds in cold water, often for many hours. So that’s their latest invention: Corson Coffee.
“We’ve built what I think is the first complete cold-brew coffee system,” Tory Corson said.
Corson Coffee just sent a quote to a Seattle coffee company for a 600-gallon cold-brew system, he said. They’re also optimistic about the market for their new design, a five-gallon tabletop cold-brew machine. They expect to have the prototype ready in a month or two.
“It’s all touch-screen automated,” Josh Corson said.
And the elder Corson brother’s eyes light up when he talks about the big dreams: buying a top-of-the-line 3-D printer and even, maybe, one day, building a piece of Corson equipment that could gather samples and data from space.
“We’re investing back into employees, compensating them. New machinery — a bunch of new machines,” Tory Corson said. “Those advanced machines are going to lay the foundation to be able to build the future.”