Owner of Durham distillery gets small business start at Durham Tech

Rimas Vilgalys knew he was onto something.

“I wasn’t the kid with the lemonade stand, it really just hit me all at once,” he said. “The demand for the product was what we were always chasing down.”

Vilgalys, 33, grew up watching his father make Krupnikas, a traditional Lithuanian-style Spiced Honey Liqueur, and when he was old enough, his father taught him how. Vilgalys perfected the craft during his college years in California before moving back to Durham in 2008 to live with his brother, Gabriel.

“We were always making our own Krupnikas and sharing it with our friends and started getting more and more popular because of it,” Vilgalys said. “It became something we were known for.”

After countless late night talks, the brothers decided to take their idea more seriously and turn the homemade spirit into a small business.

Rimas Vilgalys took the lead.

His first stop – Durham Tech.

In 2010, he enrolled in Planning and Operating a Successful Business taught by Carl Baumann at the Durham Tech Orange County Campus.

“I got lucky because Carl was formerly an executive at Miller Brewing Company,” Vilgalys said. “It was great to meet someone with such vast experience in the same industry I wanted to pursue. He was fantastic.”

For 10 weeks, Vilgalys learned the ins and outs of business plans, financials, and most importantly, marketing.

“On the first day, Carl had everybody in the class stand up, describe what they wanted to do and give an elevator speech, essentially,” Vilgalys said. “But when we finished, he said, ‘All of you are wrong. You are all in marketing because the only thing that matters is marketing.’ That’s something that has always stuck with me. It’s the biggest problem to solve constantly as a business owner. How to find consumers and how to reach them.”

Vilgalys says the class played a vital role in launching the business.

“The class gave me the context to start taking this more seriously because it made it look a lot more achievable,” he said. “It takes you through the stuff that isn’t the cool part of a business, but you need to figure out like how to deliver your product, price it and how you’re going to reach consumers. It slows you down to the point of instead of picturing a thriving business with your feet on the desk counting money, you have to picture what you’re actually going to have to do to get started and then sustain it.”

Gabriel Vilgalys later decided to pursue a career in New Zealand, but Rimas kept the dream alive by teaming up with two partners, Jason Parker and Dillon Shields. In December 2012, Brothers Vilgalys Spirits was born.

Today, the distillery operates out of two 1,300-square-foot units at 803 Ramseur Street in downtown Durham where they produce 12,000 bottles of Krupnikas each year. Vilgalys said they’re proud to partner with local apiaries like Vintage Bee to make large volumes of Krupnikas, which requires 50 gallons of honey for each batch, leveraging 800 bottles.

Baumann invited Vilgalys back to the classroom several times to talk to future entrepreneurs.

“It’s been fun to go back into the classroom,” Vilgalys said. “I get approached by people that are interested in getting into the world of spirits in one way or another so it’s always nice to share advice. When I first got started I reached out to local distillery owners as well that gave me free advice because they’ve been where you’ve been so I always make a point to take those meetings and talk people through what I’ve learned and what I would’ve done differently.”

Vilgalys said he’s proud to report his company was the first distributer of Krupnikas in the United States, followed only by a handful of others today.

“Nothing else like it was out there and we had to figure out how to take advantage because we weren’t the only ones who knew about it,” he said.

Tours and tastings are offered at Brothers Vilgalys Spirits three days each week for just $5 per person.

“The class at Durham Tech had a lot of positive repercussions for my business,” Vilgalys said. “It’s really a fantastic resource.”