Industry Interview Series:
Joyce and Autumn Nethery of Jeptha Creed Distillery
Mother and daughter duo display the beauty of entrepreneurship, family, farming, and bourbon.
Ted: Joyce, thanks for taking the time for this interview. My first question is how did this all happen? When did your family decide to open a distillery and what was the original inspiration that drove it?
Joyce: Well, the idea really originated with my husband. He wanted to build a distillery. And at the time he started talking about this, I thought he was crazy. Well, as a little bit of background, my background is in chemical engineering and I have a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville.
My husband grew up as a dairy farmer and we had a dairy for a while. We actually still live on the farm. We still have the tractors and the cows and the pigs. We still have all of those agricultural pieces.
And my husband kept talking about wanting to do a distillery. I thought, well, if he was going to do this, he would need some training. And I found Moonshine University at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter in Louisville –and got him signed up for it. But then he couldn’t go for business reasons. So, I went and as a result I fell back in love with engineering. I fell back in love with copper. But the most important thing that came out of that class is that I had this vision for incorporating my husband’s agricultural skills and abilities with my engineering. We could combine them all to make a beautiful distilled spirit. And then we would be able to build something for our children – that they could use for careers and for their futures.
Ted: Terrific. Where did his initial interest in distilling come from– why was he focused on starting a distillery?
Joyce: Well, I think his passion about the distillery really revolved around the agricultural aspects of it.
Joyce: The bourbon industry specifically is, as you know, very corn heavy. Corn is grown in our area and we grow all of our corn ourselves. The other grains used – the wheat, the rye, the barley – those are all agricultural products. The barrels that you put bourbon in come from white oak, also an agricultural product. The other parts of the process – the spent grains – we feed those back to the cows and the pigs. So, that’s an agricultural application as well.
Joyce: You know, it’s all very, very heavily agricultural. It’s an agricultural product and that’s the piece that was really motivating him.
Ted: You mentioned family in your answer. So, it sounds like family was also a big driver even from the very beginning?
Joyce: Oh, absolutely. The thing we wanted to do was to build something for our children. We have some other businesses, but the kids – when they were around those – thought it was really boring and they didn’t want to be involved. So, we wanted to build something that they were interested in – that they were excited about – and this is something that the whole family is very interested doing.
Ted: Great. And your daughter Autumn does all of your marketing, correct?
Ted: And your college-aged son is also involved in the business as well?
Joyce: He’s at Western Kentucky University now and actually worked here over Christmas break. He works with the bees. So, he makes and produces our honey through the bees. He is also active in taking care of all the grounds. He works here during the summer mowing the grass, bringing in barrels, and doing a lot of manual labor. So, he’s busy with a lot of those types of things – all the pieces I can get him to do that do not involve the actual spirit.
Ted: And where does Autumn focus her efforts?
Joyce: She is my marketing manager. She is responsible for all of our social media. She does all of our social media posts. And she’s responsible for all of our PR as well as our events. So, she’s very busy and doing a fabulous job.
Ted: That’s great. Now, it’s fairly unique to have a mother and daughter as the key leaders of a distillery. Talk about that dynamic and how it is working.
Joyce: Working with my daughter and managing the distillery has been a great experience. It’s really rewarding to get to see her grow and develop and to be able to apply her passions to what we’re doing here at the distillery. It has been a great experience.
Ted: Where did Autumn get her interest in marketing?
Joyce: When she first started going to school, she wanted to be a film major – be a film producer. So she’s got an artistic type of passion motivating her. And then when we started talking about the distillery and I showed her the bourbon culture and bourbon industry, she fell in love with it. She actually went to Scotland to Heriot-Watt University to study whiskey and distilling and learned a ton there. At that time, we were thinking she would be our master distiller – that she would be training there to be our master distiller.
Ted: And what happened?
Joyce: She realized that the technicalities of the chemistry and some of those pieces really weren’t her passion – the marketing of the product was really going to be her thing. So, she came back home and finished up her education at the University of Kentucky and got her bachelor’s degree in marketing. She completed that this past May and is now working on our marketing full-time.
Ted: That’s great. And where do you focus most of your efforts, Joyce?
Joyce: My efforts are fairly broad as both CEO and Master Distiller. My focus as master distiller is to make sure that our products are excellent, that our flavors are exactly the way I want them to be, that our bourbon is aging beautifully and developing the right flavor profile. We want it to really highlight our Bloody Butcher Corn.
Ted: We’ll come back to the corn later in our discussion.
Joyce: So, making sure that the distillery is functioning, that it’s all maintained correctly – and that the distillers are making our products the way that I want them is what I focus on as master distiller.
Ted: And what about your CEO role?
Joyce: So, making sure that our sales and marketing are moving the way they needs to be – that all of those pieces are coming together. We also have a gift shop. We have a cocktail bar and an event space where we host events every Friday night in addition to paid events here. So, making sure that all of those different pieces are functioning, are getting done with excellence – making sure that each and every one of those pieces is functioning the way it should is really what I focus on.
Joyce: It’s always different and varied and moving from one thing to another – accounting and payroll and insurance to whatever – it’s crazy.
Ted: It sounds like a 23-hour a day job.
Joyce: Yeah, absolutely – every bit of it.
Ted: So, you’ve been open a little more than a year now. As you look back at your first year or so, how do you assess it? What has worked well?
Joyce: Well, the first year of a start-up of any sort is always really difficult. And as I look back, I am very glad to have that first year under our belt. I think overall it went really, really well. I think our brand is becoming more well known. We’ve got the gift shop open. The cocktail bar has excellent cocktails and people come and totally enjoy them. Our events are going well – we’ve had lots of weddings. So all of these pieces are functioning well. And we’ve learned a ton this first year. It’s really nice to be able to look back and see where we’ve grown. It has been quite an accomplishment.
Ted: What’s the one thing you wished you had known when you first started that would have enabled you to be even more successful? Anything come to mind?
Joyce: Well, the thing that I’ve learned this year is how much more massive the sales and marketing piece of the business is than what I expected. But getting that brand awareness up and establishing our customer base – that is much more difficult than what I had originally envisioned. So, I guess I would tell myself three years ago to have prepared better for that part.
Ted: From a distribution perspective, are you just available in Kentucky at this point or have you started to expand into other states?
Joyce: At this point, this specific day, we are still only distributed in Kentucky. We are working on getting distribution in Indiana for 2018 – and in the Nashville area of Tennessee. So, we are expanding in 2018.
Joyce: The other piece I’d like to mention is that we are going to be the official vodka for the Kentucky Derby Festival in 2018. So, that’s going to be a very huge, awesome branding opportunity for us.
Ted: Congratulations. Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about the name Jeptha Creed. Where did it come form and what kind of reaction do you get from people about it?
Joyce: Well, Jeptha Creed – the Jeptha part of Jeptha Creed comes from the hills where our home farm is located.
Joyce: Our home farm is located at the foothills of the Jeptha Knobs here in Shelby County, Kentucky. We are very much about honoring our history and our ancestry. We learned that those knobs were named by Squire Boone and Daniel Boone when they came in and explored Kentucky in the late 1700s. We also learned that they named them Jeptha after a biblical warrior in Judges 11 in the Bible.
Joyce: There was a salt lick up there in those hills and the deer were there – the buffalo, the turkey – and so, it was kind of the grocery store of the day. I guess that Squire and Daniel were inspired to name them after a biblical warrior. We have my personal family history right there. We have local and state history associated with those knobs through Squire and Daniel Boone. And we have bible history connected to it. So, we just had to be Jeptha.
Ted: Makes sense.
Joyce: And Creed is our promise to stand by honoring those values of history and heritage and our ancestry. Once we explain all that, our customers and distributors and bartenders all really seem to like and appreciate it- it resonates with them. So, it works really, really well for us once everybody understands what Jeptha Creed stands for. To me, Jeptha Creed is a value statement.
Ted: Okay – and that leads into my next question. When you’re talking to – again – consumers or retailers or bartenders or people visiting the distillery, what are the key two or three points that you make to them about Jeptha Creed that makes your brand different than all of the other craft brands out there?
Joyce: Well, one, we talk about how we are woman-owned and it’s a mother-daughter team, so it’s a multi-generation team – that is the ownership that is running Jeptha Creed. The second big thing – now this I think is really huge – is the corn that we use. Our corn – we grow it all ourselves – and it is a non-GMO corn. It is open pollenated and it has been documented in use since at least 1845. So, it’s very old. It is also red. It’s called Bloody Butcher.
Ted: And what does that do for you?
Joyce: We think that this corn gives our products a beautiful, old-fashioned, distinct favor profile that we just love and think is gorgeous. And that’s a huge piece of what makes us unique and distinct. I think the third thing is associated with the farm and that we do grow all the corn ourselves, though that’s not all that we grow. We also have on this 64 acre distillery property blueberries that go into our blueberry vodka, blackberries that go into our blackberry moonshine.
Ted: And others as well?
Joyce: We have apple trees and pear trees and pecan trees and pawpaw trees, mint and strawberries and grapes – I mean it just goes on. We are trying to be very agriculturally based, very much about the farm, very much about what our soil produces. We want to make our spirits out of what we touch, out of what we grow, out of what we put our energy into through our Kentucky soil.
Ted: Terrific. And then you’ve also invested quite a bit in your facility. It’s beautifully done and larger than most craft distilleries. How happy have you been with the amount of visitors and events that have gone through in Year 1?
Joyce: I think it has gone pretty much the way I thought it would. I’ve been really happy with our number of events. We’ve had some great events this past year –business meetings, shareholder meetings, board of directors meetings, plus weddings, sales meetings – it has been awesome. And then our tours and visitors have come in. They’ve been fantastic. So, obviously I want to grow. I want to expand and increase those amounts, but I’ve been very happy with how that first year went.
Ted: How do the people that have visited the distillery hear about you? Do they see it on the interstate? Do they see some advertising? Word of mouth? What seems to be the big driver to get people here?
Joyce: Well, it is all of the above. We have a good chunk of people who come in straight off the interstate who see us – see the building – and it’s like, oh, wow, that’s beautiful. Let’s go look at it and see what it is. We do get that. We do get a lot of word of mouth from people talking about us and mentioning, hey, you need to go to Jeptha Creed. We do a lot of social media marketing, so people learn about us through social media and come in from there. We also do a lot of Groupon discounts, codes, and things like that, so people find us that way.
Joyce: In 2018, we are going to be a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. So, we think that our visitors are going to increase a lot with that. We also have a lot of visitors who come in through our Jammin’ at Jeptha, which is an event that we do every Friday night. We have music and food trucks and our cocktail bar is open. So, cocktails, food and music – I mean it’s awesome.
Ted: Sounds great.
Joyce: And then, when the weather is nice, it’s outside in the yard. We’ve got corn hole and it’s just a fabulous time. A lot of people have learned about us through coming to visit us during that Jammin’ at Jeptha.
Ted: You mentioned the Bourbon Trail and you’re obviously right in the heart of bourbon country with hundreds of distillers of all sizes. How does that impact your business– is it a good thing to be where all those distilleries are? It does mean a lot of competition. How do you view being in Kentucky – the world capital of bourbon?\
Joyce: I think it’s the place to be. You know, we grew up in it. It’s like part of the air that we breathe. So, you have to be here in bourbon country. It’s awesome. I think it’s really an awesome industry. There is an element of competition between everybody, but it’s also a great symbiotic relationship – things that are going on that, when people need help, the other distilleries are all willing to give advice and to point out what they’re doing that works well for them. So, it has actually been a really great experience being right here.
Ted: Is there a Kentucky craft distillers association that you’re involved in?
Joyce: There’s not a craft distillery association for Kentucky, but there is the Kentucky Distillers Association that has a craft section. And, yes, we are part of that organization.
Ted: And do you find that a valuable organization to be a part of for the reasons that you talked about before – getting help and best practice and things like that?
Joyce: Absolutely. They have established a lot of best practices. It’s actually a requirement to be part of the Bourbon Trail to have a lot of safety practices in place, to have a good visitor experience for visitors. There are a lot of requirements there that hold certain standards to be part of the Bourbon Trail that I think are very, very strong and very good.
Ted: Okay. As you look forward for Jeptha Creed, what is your vision? In five years, where would you like to be as far as distribution?
Joyce: Well, in five years, from a distribution standpoint, we would like to be in the eastern half of the country, or at least half of the country. We want our name – our Jeptha Creed name – to be very well known. And then when people think about, well, hey, what do we want to drink tonight? We want to drink something really good, really tasty, really grounded, really authentic – they think of Jeptha Creed. So, we want our customers to think of us when they decide they want to have a drink or a cocktail and want to enjoy and relax themselves.
Ted: And what about at the distillery itself? I know, at one point, you were talking about adding a restaurant. Are there things like that that you plan to do at the distillery?
Joyce: Yes, there are things that we plan to do. We plan on expanding the event space and that could possibly include a restaurant. Over this past fall, we built what we call the stage. So, we have an open-air stage that we plan on using to host bigger bands, with our whole backyard as an amphitheater. So, we could hold some pretty good-sized events – like up to 1,000 people in attendance.
Ted: How many people can you host now?
Joyce: Well, it really depends on what we’re doing, but if it’s nice weather and you can be outside, we’ve had up to 400 for our Jammin’ at Jeptha. And on an indoor basis, we can hold about 200.
Ted: What’s the one thing you’re most proud of after one year in business?
Joyce: That’s interesting. I think I’m most proud of our products, our vodkas and our moonshines and the bourbons that we have aging. I’m very proud of those. I think our Bloody Butcher corn shines in them and they’re very tasty products. I’m very proud that we’ve held onto our authenticity. That in our products that have flavors we use real fruit. We use real blueberries to make our blueberry vodka. We use real blackberries for our blackberry moonshine. Our bourbons are aging beautifully. And I’m really proud and excited that we’re going to have some excellent bourbons out when their time comes. Our products are what I’m most proud of right now.
Note- at this point Joyce’s daughter Autumn joined the discussion.
Ted: Autumn, I’d love to get your take on what have you learned over the past year? If you had to pick two or three things that you really learned about marketing over the past year, what would they be?
Autumn: Okay. Well, one is that social media is a 24/7 job
Ted: That is definitely true. Are you pretty much doing all of the social by yourself?
Autumn: Right now, yes. I have started in the past couple weeks to slowly turn some things over to where I’m more managing. I’ve started having my staff come up with more of the posts. But since we first started the social media up until just two weeks ago – yes, everything was me when it came to the social media pages. Now it’s getting to be more of a team effort. But letting go of the reins a little bit when it was your baby is turning out to be more difficult than I imagined.
Ted: Exactly. And you’re right about it being a 24/7 job. What platforms do you focus on most – Facebook and Instagram? Or are you on more than that?
Autumn: We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – we just started YouTube for cocktails, recipes, and videos. And my mother really takes care of the LinkedIn portion. And those are our social media efforts right now.
Ted: Okay. Would you say social is your biggest marketing initiative? Or what other kinds of things have you found to be effective?
Autumn: I found to be effective, one, social media, two, word of mouth. That has been very important. We’ve also done some print media advertising and really just getting press releases out there and getting people to print up stories and being at events and being present at events. Having an ownership at these tasting events similar to Swig in Louisville has proven to be very important for us. It’s very impressive to the guests when they’re there and they’re talking. And that was the first time for me personally that I was at an event and I had people coming up to me and recognizing me and being like, hey, you’re one of the owners? I was like, oh, yes, I am. Hi, nice to meet you. Would you like to try this eggnog drink?
Ted: I asked your mom about this as well. It’s fairly unique to have a mother and daughter in the two most senior leadership positions at a company. So, what has that experience been like?
Autumn: It has been very, very good for us. I think it has helped strengthen our relationship together. I mean we even share an office and we’re still having fun.
Ted: Joyce and Autumn, thanks so much for your time and continued success with Jeptha Creed.