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In the mid-1990s, the idea seemed impossible. Starting up a vodka distillery might have been a bit deranged. Texas was not known for its vodka, and the Lone Star State had never had a legal distillery.
But that didn’t stop Tito Beveridge from obtaining the first distillery permit and opening his business on a rugged patch of land in rural Austin. And it didn’t stop his company, Tito’s Handmade Vodka — and the stray dogs around the distillery and beyond — from amazing good fortune.
As his vodka company grew, Tito steadily increased his involvement with Emancipet, a nonprofit veterinary hospital that began operating out of a shack near the distillery. Now, 15 years later, both Tito’s Handmade Vodka and Emancipet operate on a national level.
“Tito’s Handmade Vodka has grown very much organically without a super specific business plan other than making sure our customers are happy,” said Elizabeth Bellanti, the company’s marketing manager and chief dog activist. “And helping dogs seemed to be just a natural part of the company’s growth.”
In the early 1990s, Tito lived in Austin and worked in the mortgage business. As a hobby, he began distilling vodka, which he really enjoyed and, as it turned out, was really good at. He made flavored vodka mostly for Christmas presents. He was at a party when a stranger came up to him and said, “Hey, you’re the vodka guy?” The term “vodka guy” resonated with Tito, and soon he fruitlessly looked for distillery investors in a state that had never issued a distillery permit.
“I racked up 19 credit cards to the tune of about $88,000,” Tito said. “I built a one-man distillery and built a production still and just kind of got myself into business. I’d go out and make it and sell it and come back and make some more. I was sleeping next to the still and just kind of bootstrapped it up.”
At the time, Tito’s only companion at the distillery was his German Shepherd mix, Jo, whose food became an attraction to neighborhood strays. This was the beginning of a kind of partnership that formed between the strays and Tito’s Handmade Vodka. It began with Tito feeding the dogs who would come and go. Then he began getting the strays spayed and neutered at nearby Emancipet.
In 2001, someone asked Tito to enter the World Spirits Competition, held annually in San Francisco. He had never heard of the event but sent off a couple of bottles and went back to his distillery. Against all odds, Tito’s Handmade Vodka won the Double Gold Medal by unanimous vote. “And that was up against 72 vodkas from around the world including flavored vodkas,” Tito said. “That kind of helped spur things along.”
Things began to change rapidly for Tito’s Handmade Vodka and the stray dogs who hung around the distillery. Tito’s relationship with Emancipet grew with his business. He started a retail venture called Vodka For Dog People, which sells leashes, collars, dog bowls, and clothing. All of the profits from the sales go directly to Emancipet. Tito also donates vodka and catering to fundraising Yappy Hours that raise money for Emancipet and other dog-related nonprofits. Earlier this year, Tito’s Handmade Vodka helped raise $52,000 for the Great Plains SPCA, which had been overwhelmed with abandoned pets due to a sharp economic downturn.
Emancipet aims to provide high-quality, low-cost veterinary treatment in underserved communities, where residents often cannot afford the high cost of veterinary care. The nonprofit also provides a “meals on wheels” service to elderly dog owners or those who are otherwise too frail to walk and sometimes feed their pets. Emancipet also trains similar nonprofits around the country in the best practices for providing low-cost preventive care in underserved communities.
The Tito’s Handmade Vodka distillery has also become an unofficial dog adoption center. Strays come on to the property, where they are cared for and made available for adoption. Tito’s has discovered that strays associated with the distillery have an edge at being adopted. “We call them ‘distillery dogs,’ and that makes them popular with potential adopters,” Elizabeth said. “Our motto is ‘get ’em off chains, get ’em fixed, get ’em adopted.’”