Written by Chall Gray | Photos by Anthony Harden
Tim Ferris launched an underwater salvage company and turned it into a success. Barely coming up for air, he then turned around and started a distillery for fine whiskey—literally, from the ground up.
What do you do if you’ve spent the last decade and a half learning and perfecting the dangerous but lucrative trade of underwater salvage diving, and suddenly get the itch to switch gears and try something different? If you’re like most people, “open up a distillery” is not the phrase that springs immediately to mind.
But then, Tim Ferris isn’t “most people.” By his own admission, Ferris, the 40-year-old founder of Defiant Marine and, more recently, spirits company Defiant Whisky, instinctively veers from the expected path. As he puts it, “More conservative people would see the way I operate as irresponsible, but I’ve always had this almost reckless belief in serendipity.”
It was in 2010—a little less than a year after he’d started Defiant Marine and roughly 15 years since he’d embarked upon his career, learning the trade of salvage diving while working for others—when Ferris was busy with the buildout of a large building with plans to use it as equipment storage for his fledgling company. However, he soon realized that Defiant wouldn’t actually need the building, and that he would have to figure out what to do with it since it was already under construction.
Defiant was already en route to becoming a prominent name in the salvage diving industry; Ferris has appeared on the History Channel show Billion Dollar Wreck, and his company was the one that got the call in 2012 when the city of New York needed someone to clear out its flooded subway tunnels after Hurricane Sandy. (See accompanying sidebar.) But on this day in 2010, shortly after he’d started breaking ground on the storage building, it had become obvious to Ferris the types of jobs Defiant did required such a large array of equipment that it didn’t make sense to own and store it. Clients wanted his expertise and network, and didn’t care if he had the equipment.
“I was working on the building during the day and then drinking whiskey at night, messing with my little hobby still, and trying to figure out what to do with the place,” says Ferris. “And then it just clicked. I decided to start a distillery.” It didn’t hurt that on his family’s property where the building was being constructed (located in Golden Valley, North Carolina, southeast of Marion and near Bostic), they had found the remains of numerous illicit moonshine stills over the years. He decided to maintain the same spirit of his dive business and call his new idea Defiant Whisky.
Ferris wasn’t deterred by the fact that the spirits industry is one with notoriously high start-up costs, a steep learning curve, and a tricky road to profitability. As if in response to those unmentioned obstacles, he’s quick to add that he previously had no relevant experience in the industry and had never considered it an obstacle. “I didn’t go to business school, or grad school, or anything like that. I went to dive school. And to [then become] a salvage diver, you have to have a certain advanced level of problem solving, of asking the questions, and I tried to apply that to making whiskey.” To hear him tell it, the pivot from salvage diving to craft distilling entrepreneur wasn’t all that improbable—it was almost a natural extension of a lifestyle he already knew. With some working capital from dive jobs and additional investment from his siblings, Ferris jumped in headlong, immersing himself in learning about the craft of making whiskey, and thinking about what type of product he wanted to bring to market.
“Divers work hard, play hard, and drink hard,” he says, “and as I think back over my life, every great experience was complemented by a spirit. I decided I wanted to be a part of making this spirit. I wanted to be intimate with the knowledge that it took to make whiskey.” Ferris often naturally speaks in bombastic witticisms, like an ad executive. When asked to define the ethos behind Defiant Whisky, he does so succinctly: “Our philosophy is what comes out of the still.”
How did he come up with the name in the first place? “I was in the process of starting the [salvage] company, and it didn’t have a name. You can’t go a whole lot of places yet when you don’t know what you’re going to call it. One of the guys on the crew mentioned something about ‘defiance’ and ‘defiant” and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s perfect—that’s it!’ I knew it the minute I heard it. There’s one side where ‘defiance’ is used to describe a kind of rebellious state: ‘in defiance of authority.’ That wasn’t what I was going after. What I was more after is ‘to defy the odds; to defy the elements; to fight the good fight where the risks are present, and if you’re not on your game, you can get hurt pretty badly.’ To defy gravity is kind of the spirit in which we were looking at the word ‘defiant.’ And the use of it for our whisky: People expect you to break tradition, and be innovative—What makes you defiant?
“Well, our whole story, our whole lineage, of what’s gotten us here, is defiant.”
Every idea for a new business comes together at a certain moment, whether through a slow period of discussion and research, or in a moment of inspiration. Yet what comes next is usually fairly standard. Hiring people who have industry experience, making projections and forecasts, finding consultants to help navigate unfamiliar laws and regulations—the list goes on and can be found in plenty of standard business school textbooks. Ferris followed none of these typical startup paths.
It’s true that, on the surface at least, his comment above, about harboring a “reckless belief in serendipity,” does seems irresponsible; and during our conversation, he relates a constant stream of anecdotes around this theme, stories of the company barely having enough cash on hand to pay for deliveries or payroll and the phone ringing at that moment with a lucrative dive job that would pay to fix the problem. But Ferris also notes that he appreciates the marketing power of a good story. Defiant certainly has a good story, one that is only made better by Ferris’s seeming loose cannon image.
Ferris had never had a taste for bourbon, the archetypal American whiskey, but he did learn how to get it down (“You have to be able to hold down a shot of whiskey to make it in the dive world”). Then one day he tried Macallan’s 12-Year-Old Single Malt scotch, and everything changed. “There were these worlds of flavor I had never known existed,” he recalls. The experience convinced him that Defiant, still in the process of repurposing the not-yet completed storage building into a distillery, would also make a single malt.
The idea of making single malts anywhere in America was a fairly radical one until recently. At the time Blue Ridge Distilling—the name Ferris gave to the parent company of Defiant Whisky—was incorporated, there were less than ten spirits companies making single malt in the United States; that number is now closer to two dozen. But making it in rural Rutherford County, in the heartland of moonshine country, verged on ridiculous. Ferris, of course, paid no mind and even opted not to hire anyone with direct distilling industry experience when putting together the initial Defiant team. Instead, he brought in a fellow experienced diver friend and the two studied distilling recipes together, essentially trying to hack the process through a combination of ingenuity and determination.
Ferris didn’t actually hire a distiller until much later than normally done, after they were already well into the product development phase. When he did hire someone, it was in true Defiant fashion, another of those serendipitous moments that could just as easily have never happened.
“It was the next to last day of work for the electricians,” Ferris recounts. “Joel had worked on the crew and did a lot of the wiring in the building. He came up to me on his way out, as he was packing up his tools, and said that he was a home brewer, and that if I ever needed help here to give him a call.” Head distiller Joel Patrino has been a key part of Blue Ridge Distilling ever since. While he didn’t have any experience distilling, he was very familiar with brewing and possessed the same natural curiosity and drive that Ferris has and prizes in others. Another great story for Ferris, and another bit of serendipity for the company.
The conclusion of distillation is the point in the process where Defiant really breaks from whiskey-making orthodoxy.
Into the Bottle
Ferris had confidence that if he got the best equipment and used high quality ingredients, Defiant could make a spirit that would pass his litmus test, the one whiskey to stand out against a line of others. A trip to Germany was taken and a hand-made custom still from Kothe Destillationstechnik, a high-end distilling equipment manufacturer in the southern part of the country, was procured. The natural spring water on the Defiant property was tested, evaluated, and approved. Ingredients and process adjustments were made, trial batches were created, and an entire run of whiskey was dumped in the field, just beyond the distillery’s gravel parking area. Adjustments were made. Another batch was dumped. And then another, and still more. Slowly, Defiant Whisky began to emerge. (In the process they dropped the “e” in “whiskey” as an homage to the scotches that had first inspired Ferris.)
Like all whiskies, Defiant has only three ingredients: cereal (the term for the grains used, encompassing corn, barley, rye, wheat, etc.), yeast, and water. Some people argue that the wood of the barrels used for aging is the fourth ingredient, but it’s an argument best left to the enthusiasts.
The final process used to make Defiant has several unique aspects. The first thing that goes into the mash tun—the container used for the fermentation process—is malted barley, which isn’t peated or smoked, the common process for scotch. Next is a custom yeast strain they developed at Defiant, and water from a well on the property. In fact, the processes for making beer and whiskey are the same up to the point of distillation, but one key difference about Defiant’s production from most other whiskey producers is that, like brewers making a beer, they separate the solids (the used barley) from the liquids while still in the mash tun, as opposed to during distillation. This avoids any harsh flavors that may come from the husks of the barley.
The conclusion of distillation is the point in the process where Defiant really breaks from whiskey-making orthodoxy. After being distilled three times, the spirit is put into 1,000-liter stainless steel holding tanks, and the company’s name becomes a literal embodiment of their attitude towards traditions. For hundreds of years it has been the accepted wisdom that whiskey is aged in oak barrels. And not just among those enthusiasts we mentioned earlier, but by, well, pretty much everyone.
Except for Tim Ferris.
One of the reasons that distilling whiskey is regarded as such a difficult industry to get involved in is that once you finish the distillation process, the spirit comes off the still as high proof, clear liquid, or “white dog,” as it’s often called in Appalachia. All of the color comes from the wood of the barrels the spirit rests in while aging. Most decent quality bourbons spend around 8-10 years in the barrel. Scotch often spends 10 or more years inside the cask, with many high-end labels aging it longer than that. Because of this, it’s not easy to decide to get into the whiskey business and then have a product on the market in a few months’ time.
In most cases, then, an exorbitant amount is spent on start-up costs, and then you have to wait for years and years until, eventually, there is a product to sell. In the bourbon world, there are even distinct legal guidelines for what can be marketed as single barrel, or small batch, with specific emphasis on the amount of time in barrels.
Ferris, though, who has the energy of someone who is accustomed to near-constant motion, had no desire to wait that long, so Defiant eschewed barrels and put their distillate into the aforementioned steel tanks and subsequently adding oak spirals. The advantage of spirals, which look like a charred piece of wooden dowel with a series of small saw cuts in it, is that there is a much higher surface-area-to-liquid ratio with the wood. Detractors say the downside to the Defiant method is that, regardless of the oak spirals, the product isn’t actually aged in a barrel, making the process feel more commercialized and less individual.
As the craft cocktail renaissance has helped a younger generation of consumers achieve a new appreciation for whiskey, demand has outpaced supply. After all, a side effect of the product having to rest for 10 years in a barrel is that it’s hard to forecast sales that far in advance. Consequently, distillers have increasingly relied on new releases that often come without an age statement. Traditionalists have, unsurprisingly, scoffed. Instead of attempting to subvert these criticisms, Defiant took the extremely novel position of promoting them. They’ve utilized their lack of age as a selling point—with Ferris even saying in an interview last year with Food Republic, “When other people brag about how old their whiskey is, we just say that they are bragging about how inefficient their process is.” And as both Ferris and head distiller Patrino point out, once someone actually tastes some of their whiskey, they’re usually quick to shed any reservations they may have about its provenance.
Onto the Shelf
But zeal, serendipity, and reckless faith only go so far in an industry known for being secretive, complicated, and less than welcoming to newcomers. Ferris was shocked at the constant onslaught of hurdles and opinions. He also became familiar with the byzantine North Carolina Alcohol Beverage Control (NCABC) system. North Carolina is one of 17 remaining control states, meaning that all spirits sold here are done so under the purview of the state. In this system, producers such as Defiant send large shipments of their product to a central warehouse in Raleigh. Local ABC boards order from the state, then the local boards pay the producers directly for only the amount they order. “So we sometimes have seventy or eighty checks coming back to us for one shipment we’ve sent out,” Ferris notes, with a mix of annoyance and resignation.
He has at times been a fairly outspoken critic of the NCABC, especially in regards to tasting room sales. Until last year, spirits producers were only allowed to conduct tastings, with no sales of product allowed whatsoever. The law has now been loosened slightly, allowing distillers to sell one bottle per person, per year, at the conclusion of a tour of their facility. “It’s at least a step in the right direction,” he says.
After Defiant finally made it to market in December of 2012 (the actual date was, interestingly enough, 12/12/2012), the real work began. Word of mouth was the core of Defiant’s marketing strategy from the outset—that, and leveraging the narrative of the improbability of the whole enterprise. It is a strategy that has served them exceedingly well. Despite his home-spun telling of it, it becomes clear relatively quickly after talking to him that Ferris is a gifted marketer, and Defiant has given him a great vehicle for that talent.
He started Defiant at an ideal time to enter the craft spirits industry. That segment of the market has grown from less than 90 craft distilleries in the country a decade ago to nearly 1,000 now, and their market share currently represents over seven percent of total liquor sales in the United States. While the craft spirits industry as a whole is still an outlier, the larger industry conglomerates have definitely taken notice. As with the craft beer industry (where the larger, macro-producers dismissed the smaller craft movement for years, and subsequently lost more market share than they had predicted possible), it is the smaller, nimble producers that take the most daring chances—such as making a single malt in Rutherford County, North Carolina.
It has been just over three and a half years since Defiant got their first bottle onto retail shelves, and they’re now in 24 states, plus Canada, Malaysia, Estonia, and Singapore.
During the interview, after he detailed some of his dissatisfactions with the NCABC’s progress, we asked Ferris—who owns Defiant Whisky with his wife, Lauren; they recently had their first child, a daughter—if he had ever considered starting or moving the business elsewhere. He said yes, that he had considered it once. A few years back, not long after launch, he had looked at an abandoned distillery that was for sale in Kentucky. As he assessed it, and liked what he saw, one of his investors asked if it was the best possible place for their long-term growth. “I thought about it and said there was only one place that would have been more perfect: the Girl Scout camp, but that’s not for sale.”
He was referring to Camp Golden Valley, a 550-acre retreat directly across the road from Ferris’s family property, where the distillery is located. His investor happened to know that the property had just come onto the market the previous week. Ferris immediately flew home from Kentucky, looked at the camp, and upon consultation with Defiant’s investors, promptly purchased it.
He envisions turning Camp Golden Valley into a fully immersive Defiant Whisky experience. The property features numerous 3-bedroom lodging houses, a 17-acre lake with a movie-set-worthy dock, various administrative and communal buildings, and basketball and tennis courts. The courts are where he plans to relocate the distillery. One of the buildings will become a small restaurant, and guests will be able to rent the cabins.
Is there a big enough market for that? Do people really care enough about American single malt to spend a weekend on the distillery grounds? “Within 18 months of launch, we had distributors calling us asking to sell the product,” says Patrino. It has been just over three and a half years since Defiant got their first bottle onto retail shelves, and they’re now in 24 states, plus Canada, Malaysia, Estonia, and Singapore. They also won the award for Best New Spirit of 2013 in the Drammys, a whiskey-industry awards ceremony that’s been held annually for nearly four decades. With projected sales for this year of $1.4 million dollars, and a distribution footprint that is steadily spreading across the United States, things continue to look good.
But do consumers really care about age statements, and does it matter if the vessel the whiskey ages in is rounded on the sides and made of oak or stuffed with oak and made of stainless steel?
One thing that’s for sure, is that Tim Ferris doesn’t care. He’s making a whiskey that can be picked out of a lineup. And he’s making it in a beautiful valley, surrounded by mountain peaks and sometimes a light fog above the pond, in true Defiant style.
DIVERS LOW DOWN
The underwater adventures of Defiant Marine have taken the men from sunken ships at the bottom of the ocean to the flooded subways of a post-Hurricane Sandy New York City.
During his salvage diving career, Tim Ferris has done all of the above, and much more. Earlier this year he was featured on the History Channel show Billion Dollar Wreck, in an episode about treasure hunter Martin Bayerle’s quest to retrieve the cargo of luxury cruise liner RMS Republic, which sank to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1909. During our interview, Ferris also told Capital at Play about a recent job in which Defiant Marine went inside a sunken tanker, removed all oil, gas, and other hazardous materials, and then towed the ship from where
One of his more high-profile jobs had Ferris and his team going to New York as Hurricane Sandy was finishing wreaking havoc on Manhattan. They camped in Battery Park, arriving as the city was still darkened from power outages, and spent eleven days of near-ceaseless work, pumping hundreds of millions of gallons of mud and water from the flooded L and N subways between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
It’s a high-risk business, in which every decision must be thought out carefully beforehand, and the divers must maintain their calm in an extremely harsh environment. But it’s also a business where a certain type of intense, focused individual will thrive. As Ferris puts it, “Blue Ridge Distilling makes me question my sanity every day, and Defiant Marine answers the question.”
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