Entrepreneur Series: Derek Sisson of Merica Bourbon and the Drink that Built a Nation
Start a Business Degree at American Military University.
By Wes O’Donnell
U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force Veteran. Managing Editor, InMilitary.com & InCyberDefense.com. Speaker, filmmaker and veteran advocate.
Imagine a product linked to some of the most pivotal and important events in American history. Now imagine an America without that product. American whiskey has played a distinct role in nearly every major historical event in North America for the better part of 300 years.
Without whiskey, for example, would American revolutionaries have won their modest uprising against the British?
When President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Merriweather Lewis and William Clark to blaze a trail to the Pacific Ocean, it is rumored that they carried 120 gallons of whiskey on their expedition.
In the American Civil War, when critics complained to President Lincoln that General Ulysses S. Grant drank too much, Lincoln allegedly replied, “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”
What would the American West look like between 1865 to 1895 without whiskey? Would the lawmen, gunfighters, pioneers, prospectors, gamblers, settlers and outlaws have settled for apple cider?
Bourbon Whiskey’s Gaelic Roots
When Protestant Ulster-Irish (with Scottish ancestry) fled the Presbyterian persecution of Northern Ireland in the mid-1700s, they settled in large numbers in Pennsylvania and began to produce the unique style of corn-based bourbon whiskey that we know today.
In fact, it was the Irish who added the “E,” turning “whisky” into “whiskey” because the word translates differently from Irish Gaelic than from Scottish Gaelic. Why Americans adopted the Irish form of the word is unclear because both Scots and Irishmen flooded into our young nation in the 18th century.
Bourbon is so American that Congress officially recognized it as a distinctly American product in 1964.
Content to consume my bourbon with little thought to its production, I recently had the good fortune to sit down with military veteran-turned-entrepreneur Derek Sisson of Merica Bourbon, for a conversation about his journey to produce and distribute a product more American than apple pie.
Wes O’Donnell: Derek, thanks for your time today. I’m excited about this interview because this is a product that I enjoy on occasion. Can you start by telling me a little of your military background?
Derek Sisson: Thanks for having me, Wes. I joined the Marine Corps in 1985, stationed primarily at Camp Lejeune as a Recon Marine with MARSOC [Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command]. I got out in 1992.
Wes: Old school Marine! Many of these interviews have been post-9/11 veterans in the entrepreneur space. It’s great to get a more mature point of view once in a while. So why bourbon? Where did that journey start?
Derek: When I left the military, I was working a typical job like everyone else. This job required a lot of travel, which took me to Italy, where I met some folks running a winery. They told me that they would love to get their product into the U.S. and that if I helped, they would pay me in wine.
Derek: When I got back to Houston, I started doing some research and got my import license. Then I got my distributor license and experienced enough success to leave my real job. After that, I started to represent some local Texas brands and some veteran brands, and it was the latter that kind of pulled me back into the veteran sphere.
Editor’s Note: The veteran sphere is the veteran community, an ill-defined community of mutual support and respect where veteran brands help other veteran brands. These days, it can be anything from an actual network of veteran business owners to a closed Facebook group for veterans.
Derek: It was around this time that I decided I had enough industry experience to be successful with my own brand. That was the start of Merica Bourbon.
Wes: There are a lot of veterans who are hesitant to make that jump into entrepreneurship because they have a full-time job that pays well and a family to support. I’ve had some successful entrepreneurs tell me to make the jump head-first into your new business, give it everything you’ve got. Others have said, “Do your startup as a side hustle until you are making enough money to jump ship.” What’s your advice?
Derek: No doubt, entrepreneurship is appealing to a lot of people. But this is the reality…you have to crawl before you walk before you run. You need to have a deep knowledge of the business that you are getting into beforehand. I was involved in the alcohol industry for years before making the jump. I had experience in compliance, distribution and production.
Wes: How do you build a successful customer base in the early days? Can you tell us how you did it?
Derek: My first customers came from the veteran community and I think that is an important lesson to be learned here. Take every advantage you can take in the early days. I had a great relationship with GruntStyle that got us a lot of early wins.
Editor’s Note: GruntStyle is a $100 million tee-shirt business founded by veteran and former drill sergeant Daniel Alarik. His shirts are military- and patriotic-themed.
Wes: What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Wes: I’m a marketing nerd. I love creative advertising, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this: How can veteran-owned startups effectively market themselves in the early days of their business when funds might be tight?
Derek: Before I started my own brand with Merica Bourbon, I distributed Leadslingers Whiskey. I saw first-hand the power of social media when combined with the veteran sphere. This really is a new age of advertising. The power of social media when you have a large active community like veterans, changes the math when it comes to traditional marketing.
For Merica Bourbon, we also reached out to influencers, what is now called influencer marketing. My advice for those veterans starting out would be to go partner hunting. Offer some sense of equity to a company that already has a large following.
Wes: How has being an entrepreneur affected your family life?
Derek: Wes, you’ve started a business before, so you know. When you decide to make that leap, brace for impact. The disruption to your family life can be severe. You know that the first time you start having some financial difficulties, normal human stresses kick in. You must find a balance. For some, that’s prayer and for others, it is meditation. Whatever it takes to help alleviate some of that stress.
Wes: If you had the chance to start your career over again, is there anything that you would do differently?
Derek: Absolutely. The advice that I’ve given in this interview today I wish I would have taken then. The main thing is to get as much knowledge of your industry beforehand as you can. Remember, I had years of experience in distribution before I made the jump, and even then, my success wasn’t guaranteed. If you don’t have much experience, I would even go so far as to take a job in that field before you start out on your own. Consider it OJT [on the job training].
Wes: Last question, Derek! What book are you reading right now?
Derek: Wine for Dummies.
Wes: Ha! I actually own that book. Good choice. Derek, thanks for your time today. Let us know how the Wal-Mart distribution goes. Promise to check back in with us in the future.
Derek: Will do. Thanks, Wes.
If you are interested in being featured in this series please contact Wes O’Donnell on LinkedIn.