Amber Ferrell-Steele traces the origin of her business to the five love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts. According to the book that popularized the concept, each of us experiences and expresses love through one of these five languages.
Ferrell-Steele says she founded the Houston-based Timeless Vodka as an act of service for her husband, Bruce. At first, the vodka was supposed to be a small-batch present for the couple to enjoy on special occasions. But after she figured out what it should taste like, landed a distiller, and sampled the final product, it was clear there was potential for a successful business. The corn-based, gluten-free vodka hit stores in January 2020 and has since become one of the fastest-growing craft vodka brands in the country.
Hello Alice chatted with Ferrell-Steele about how she mastered the ins and outs of the liquor industry, her company’s unique approach to partnerships, and why she’s not afraid of networking at trade shows, HOA meetings, or anywhere else potential customers might be hiding. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to go into the beverage industry?
This whole entire business was supposed to be a gift — a one-time, small-batch labor of love that ended up taking about two years. My husband’s love language is not gift-giving, so I was wondering what act of service I could do that speaks to him. With research and lots of trial and error, I ended up with a small batch of teeny-tiny sample bottles. I thought this was going to be our thing to consume ourselves and with friends and family. But once I started letting people try the vodka, they wanted to buy it! Unlike some entrepreneurs who are solving for something or trying to create a business, ours was the reverse. We had to catch up to the demands of the business.
This all sounds expensive! How did you finance your business from the start, and how have found the capital to continue to grow?
My business started from very, very, very, very — and I can’t say ‘very’ enough times — humble beginnings. I still had my corporate job, but I had enough money and savings that I felt comfortable using some of it to start this craft product. Some people are going to spend it on their toys or a bag; I saved enough for this mega-gift that I wanted to give my husband. What I had to do is be very, very lean with my overhead. We don’t have a lot of team members. Most of our team members are out doing tastings, so they basically pay for themselves. Getting capital is something that we’re still navigating and learning. We have used Lendio, which has been a huge help. But for the first year and some change, we did not pursue any investors or any small business loans. We just now started dabbling in the idea of getting additional working capital, but we’re still taking out less than what we need.
Alcohol production and sales is such a highly regulated and specialized industry. Where did you look for the knowledge and connections to get started?
I relied heavily on my distillery, and Google truly is a wealth of information. If you can fish through the weeds of the internet, there’s a lot of information there. I also called my state alcohol commission and said, ‘Hey, this is what I’m trying to do. I don’t want to make a mistake, and I don’t want to get in trouble. Who can I talk to that will lead me in this direction and make sure that I have what I need to have?’ Every single state is different. In some states, every county has its own rules. So it’s definitely a lot. Our distributors have definitely helped us navigate everything.
How did you find your distiller?
It took me about a year and a half to find them. There are a lot of distillers that will co-pack and create your own formula, distill it, bottle it, and package it for you. But a lot of them have constraints: you have to do this, or they don’t do that. So I needed to find someone who: a) could speak to the flavor profile I wanted, b) would do a small enough run because, you know, we weren’t selling pallets yet, and c) someone who was also going to allow us to make modifications and changes as needed. After a while, we narrowed it down to about five different distillers. One thing that I wanted was to be corn-based. We found a distiller that had an article published about their Iowa corn and the competitions it had won. When I started talking to them, it just really clicked. Before I even met this distiller in person, it really felt right. They were very patient with me, and they weren’t trying to nickel and dime me. We’ve grown to be family, but it really started there. I flew up to meet them, and the rest is history.
So you’re still working together with that Iowa distiller today?
Yes! We grew a lot last year, and we’re still growing this year. They’re a small business, so it got to the point where they were like, ‘Okay, you guys are probably going to leave us now, huh?’ And actually no, this isn’t a breakup! We’re not going to leave them unless they’re trying to leave us! We made the decision to go ahead and stay and kind of create more of a merger where we’re working in a really great, mutual relationship. They’re close to our family, we’re close to their family, and it’s nice that even after 5 o’clock we can talk and have a conversation. I don’t foresee us ever leaving them. We want to grow together and potentially have additional satellite locations or a tasting room together. I don’t want to go anywhere else.
It’s so great to hear about people growing with their partners like that. What about your distributor?
Okay, that was not as cut-and-dry as finding someone to make the product. To be honest, finding distribution in the alcohol industry is like finding a tic-tac in The Galleria: You have no idea where to start. For instance, Texas is a massive state for alcohol sales. I think my distributor told me they get about 1,000 pitches a month for someone to take their product.
When I actually wanted to get Timeless on shelves, I didn’t even know I needed a distributor. I’m not afraid to admit that I didn’t know! I actually went to Total Wine and did my whole sales pitch. They told me I needed to pitch to the district manager, so I emailed her. She got back to me and was like, ‘Sure, we can schedule the meeting. Who’s your distributor?’ I’m kind of embarrassed to say this now, but at that moment, I was frantically googling ‘What is a distributor?’ It turns out that in Texas, there’s a three-tier system, and it’s illegal for you to sell directly to retail stores if you have a product over a certain ABV!
That’s when I started looking at different distributors. There are the big names that serve Bacardi and Tito’s. Then there’s the middle layer and small options that really focus on craft. I started emailing everyone my sales deck. I kept getting rejection after rejection, and then this one particular distributor responded to ask me about my price point. I let him know, but he never responded. That frustrated me. You can tell me ‘no,’ but I can’t be ignored! I decided to call him. It was about 5 o’clock on a Friday, and he’s in gridlock Houston traffic going nowhere. We had a long conversation, and I told him about my product, how it was created and formulated, and how much I’d love to present it to him. I told him, ‘If this isn’t something for you, you can tell me ‘no,’ but I don’t want you to tell me that without trying it!’ So he asked me to come in, I pitched it, and they sent us a contract on Christmas Eve. And here we are!
They always joke with me: ‘Don’t you get too big and leave!’ I tell them not to worry. I want to ride this deal until the wheels fall off. They’re great. Our kids go to each other’s birthday parties — it’s really nice. I try to formulate a bond or special relationship with all of my vendors and suppliers, all the way from the small, independent liquor store to the big chains.
What kind of marketing is the most impactful for your product now?
Social media is always going to be king, but we’re a premium product. Everyone is used to buying a product like Tito’s, where you can get a handle for $26. We’re 750ml for $20, depending on the location. So social media drives people into the store or piques their interest, but the tastings are what allow people to fall in love with the product. We’re pretty confident in the quality of our product and our taste. We tell people to do their own taste test against what they have at home. You can sell anybody anything one time, but the repeat customer is what’s important. We really pride ourselves on making sure that we’re engaging with people in-store and having a conversation with them.
What sort of networking events have you found most helpful?
I’ve gotten a lot out of trade shows! As exhausting as they are, trade shows are actually excellent networking events.
Another interesting networking event that we placed ourselves in is HOAs. During the pandemic, tastings were shut down, and people were just kind of panic-buying what they knew. We reached out to some HOAs and were like, ‘Hey, can we maybe do a virtual cocktail tasting or meet and greet?’ Maybe they had a demographic to where they’re not really feeling comfortable getting out yet — whatever the case may be. We’ve admittedly had to be a bit more creative. Now that things are opening up, we’re having to learn what it is really like in the liquor industry versus the pandemic industry we started in.
What is your vision for Timeless going forward? Do you see yourself becoming the next Tito’s or Absolut?
We definitely want to be a household name and a household brand. We want to be in the top 10 list of successful vodkas. We also launched a rum about three weeks ago, and it sold out in two weeks. We just got it back in stock, but having the family of our vodka and our rum is something that we want to be proud of. We’re not trying to have one of each thing and try to be the next, like, Diageo, but we’re not going to only have a vodka. So far, I think that we’ve created a nice little family of brands. I’m excited to continue to grow and thrive!