November 06, 2014

Center helps craft distillery start from scratch

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When Grand River Spirits opened in Carbondale, it became the first legal craft distillery in Southern Illinois since Prohibition. 

The Illinois Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has been a valuable resource for the distillery, which produces moonshine, whiskey and spirits, since company developers licensed Grand River Spirits in 2011. The business has been selling products for more than a year now. 

Karen Binder, micro-distillery founder and owner, said she is proud the company exclusively uses locally grown grains and fruits in its production.  Grand River is classified as a micro-distillery since it produces less than 100,000 gallons annually and also as a craft distillery since it uses its own fermentations to make alcohol from scratch, according to Binder. The company’s most popular product is the Red Eye Pie, an apple-pie-flavored moonshine. 

“The more people learn about us, the more they are surprised there is a craft distillery in Southern Illinois. As they learn a bit more about the stories behind each of our spirits, they are even more excited about supporting local products,” Binder said. 

Early on, Binder received help through Operation Bootstrap, an entrepreneurial training program previously offered through the SBDC she said was crucial to developing her business plan. The SBDC provided an outside perspective, helping her improve her business plan and set long-term goals. Binder said that is critical and necessary input for businesses to have.  

She continues to seek information and assistance as needed from the SBDC. On one occasion, she was looking for highly specialized suppliers and the center’s staff helped her identify viable options. 

“The center just has their fingers on some resources that are not readily available to someone like me,” Binder said. 

Binder’s pathway to aspiring entrepreneur and distillery owner has been a bit of “a winding road,” she said. A former business journalist, she covered the wine industry in areas including Southern Illinois, and that sparked her interest in having a business. But, she didn’t believe the region needed another winery. Making whiskey and spirits isn’t common in the area though, and ultimately that’s the direction she decided to go. 

“It’s a very unique business to go into,” Binder said. “In fact, right now in the United States there are about 600 operational craft distilleries, which means there aren’t a lot of successful business models out there floating around for us to look at.” 

She said one of the biggest challenges her business faced was creating a business plan from scratch -- researching everything from distribution to long-term forecasts with little available data to go on. The SBDC staff was there to help. 

She advises others with similar goals to do research, go into any business venture armed with as much knowledge as possible, and yet be aware things will still sometimes go wrong and there are mistakes. However, those errors, mistakes and bad decisions help create a stronger and better business, she said. 

Watching Grand River Spirits grow has been one of her best rewards, she said.  

“A secondary advantage of this business has been the absolute pleasure of working with local producers and gathering the ingredients we use for our spirits,” Binder said. 

She sought to create a business that will not compete with existing businesses in the region. 

“The distillery definitely compliments and supports what is already going on in Southern Illinois,” Binder said. 

The SBDC is hosting “Celebrating 30 years of Small Business Success” from 3 to 6 p.m. on Nov. 14 at the Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center, 1740 Innovation Drive, Carbondale. The event will feature guest speakers, client success stories, awards, a trade show highlighting some of the center’s client success stories and “A Taste of SBDC,” showcasing a large number of area food producers who are center clients. For more information, contact Robyn Laur Russell at or 618/536-2424. 

The Illinois Small Business Development Center/International Trade Center, is funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and hosted by Southern Illinois University Carbondale.