Backstory: Durham entrepreneur's spiced-honey Krupnikas liquor flies off shelves

vbridges@newsobserver.comApril 8, 2013 

Rimas Vilgalys holds a bottle of Krupnikas, which is made in Durham by his company, The Brothers Vilgalys.


  • Advice from Rimas Vilgalys •  Create a good product. •  Marketing is in everything you do. •  Focus on the consumer.

— Six cases of The Brothers Vilgalys’ spiced-honey liqueur landed on local liquor store shelves for the first time at the end of December. The sweet-sipping, 80-Proof cordial known as Krupnikas sold out in five hours.

While krupnikas has Lithuanian and Polish roots that trace back to the late 1500s, this 16-spice version was blended by Rimas Vilgalys in a 1,300-square-foot space on Ramseur Street just east of downtown. The concoction is made using honey from Vintage Bee in Chapel Hill.

Vilgalys, 28, spent three years perfecting his recipe for krupnikas and building his company before distributing the blend to liquor stores across the Triangle in January. The company sold 114 cases in January, but ran out of money as it waited for the payments to roll in.

“I had put everything I had into meeting demand, which was doing well, but I just had no money left to do much of anything,” Vilgalys said.

Vilgalys started with a recipe that was used by his father, Rytas Vilgalys, a first-generation American who had an old recipe he had found years ago.

Rimas Vilgalys graduated from Jordan High School in 2003 and attended the University of California Santa Barbara, where he made batches of krupnikas for his friends.

“They kept asking for more,” he said.

Vilgalys returned to Durham in 2007 with a degree in creative writing. Vilgalys worked in restaurants and on his writing, but he started thinking about people’s reaction to his drink.

“There was nothing like it on the shelves,” he said.

In 2010, Vilgalys enrolled in a 10-week business planning course at Durham Tech’s Small Business Center.

His instructor, Carl Baumann, had spent the majority of his career at Miller Brewing Co.

“To open up a business like that you have to really be patient, you really have to persevere,” said Baumann, who is also a volunteer counselor for SCORE, which provides free small business mentoring and low-cost workshops, and continued to advise Vilgalys after the class.

Vilgalys also researched the liquor industry and visited distilleries.

His capital included $35,000 he had inherited. He raised $13,000 by implementing his own version of crowd funding, The Brothers Vilgalys Founder’ Club, which offered swag in exchange for a $100 donation.

Vilgalys also secured $4,000 through Slow Money NC, which seeks to build resilience in local food economies by facilitating low-interest loans to local food ventures.

Vilgalys studied the various steps he would have to navigate to get the appropriate approvals from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to blend and sell krupnikas.

“The main thing I did was read the regulations over and over again,” he said.

Vilgalys received state product approval on Dec. 22, and he was granted space in the N.C. ABC Commission’s warehouse and added to the distribution list.

Meanwhile, Vilgalys had been marketing on Facebook and Twitter, along with asking members of the Founder’s Club to be brand advocates.

Only 46 cases sold in February after Vilgalys ran out of Krupnikas for three weeks because he didn’t have the money to refill another order.

Longtime friend Jason Parker made a $10,000 investment in the company, and they sold about 100 cases in March.

“I just kind of keep reminding myself this is what I want to do,” Vilgalys said. “Even when it is a lot of work.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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