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The Upstate Economy
Boutique brands of liquor on the rise in New York
"I had a lot of spare time on my hands, and this was just one of the many crazy ideas you come up with when you're trying to figure out what the heck you're going to do to make some money and make a living."
Two years ago, Brandon Bellinger was working for a now defunct racing team in North Carolina. Today, he's developed and created his own brand of top shelf tequila, called 21 Tequila, which he sells at local bars and liquor stores around Oswego County.
Bellinger's product is a silver tequila that feels smoother than most, and doesn't offer the burning sensation that Bellinger says turns some people away from the alcohol.
"If you ask somebody that doesn't like tequila, it's usually because they think of bad shots," Bellinger said. "Tequila tends to have a bad name. So I feel like there's an opportunity to have a good product and to prove that tequila isn't necessarily bad, it's just you've just been buying the wrong stuff."
21 Tequila was introduced earlier this month in Fulton and Oswego. Bellinger says competing with global brands like Jose Cuervo and Sauza is fun, but difficult.
"I don't have a giant marketing budget," Bellinger said. "I have to try to set myself apart from every other glass bottle on the shelf."
The process was not easy at times, and in Mexico where Bellinger's alcohol is distilled, tequila processing is highly regulated. One hundred percent blue agave tequila, like Bellinger's, can only be distilled and bottled in certain parts of Mexico and is kept under tight control by the Tequila Regulatory Council.
"Probably the longest thing of those two years is all the permits you need," Bellinger said. "There's a lot of federal permits, a lot of state permits and there's also permits that you have to have in Mexico where it's distilled. So, that's probably the longest part of the whole project. Actually getting the tequila and getting the bottles, that's the easy stuff."
Now the 29 year-old Fulton native is working with Oswego-based Eagle Beverage to expand his distribution.
Although it seems like Bellinger's story is uncommon, he joins a growing group of craft distillers, vintners and brewers who are making a niche for themselves in New York state.
Jordan Karp, co-founder of Adirondack Distilling Company in Utica, just launched a new brand of vodka and is in a similar position. He says the recent rise in craft distilling is following a path like the one blazed by the brewing industry.
"If you look at the boom in craft breweries about 20 years ago, I think that's where we are," Karp said. "We're just in the infancy of seeing a lot of smaller craft products on the spirits end. We'll go through a big boom and a little bit of a decline, I think in the next ten years, just because there's going to be so many of us."
Adirondack Distilling opened its doors late last year, but is already in talks with distributors in California and Canada, with plans to roll out a new gin within the next few weeks.
"This idea of a craft artisan culture of not only food, but drink, I think you're starting to see some of the benefits of it," Karp said.
Bellinger also hopes to expand, offering Reposado and Añejo tequilas under his 21 Tequila brand. But for now, he's happy his crazy idea has become reality.