Real Success with Nate Kaeding: Jeff Quint, founder of Cedar Ridge

Jeff Quint
Jeff Quint

Jeff Quint is the founder and owner of Cedar Ridge Distillery, the award-winning distillery that was the first to open in Iowa since Prohibition and is currently home to the number one-selling bourbon in Iowa for two years straight. 

Jeff shares with me how his father influenced and inspired his passion for brewing wine and spirits, why he felt it was time for Iowa (the number one corn-producing state) to produce its own bourbon, and what it was like for him to take the leap and leave his job as a Chief Financial Officer to start Cedar Ridge. Jeff also explores how having the local community embrace their brand early on impacted their growth, why his background as a Certified Public Accountant was beneficial to Cedar Ridge’s success, and what he believes is in the future for both Cedar Ridge and the adult beverage industry.

I learned a lot, and I think you will too.

Sponsored by MidWestOne Bank, this is the latest edition of the CBJ’s new podcast feature with Nate Kaeding and notable Iowa business and cultural leaders, available first to CBJ members. Listen to this episode below, and subscribe on SpotifyiTunesGoogle PlayStitcher.

Where did your passion for wine and spirits come from?

I went to the University of Northern Iowa and came out of the accounting program. I always had an interest in accounting and the finance of a business, specifically. So, for most of my career, I was in a CFO role here or there, usually in technology-based companies. But I always had a passion for wine and spirits. 

My dad has passed, so I suppose I can admit this. Federal law prohibits people from distilling at home, but he had a little still. We’d pick apples from our small apple orchard and run them through the apple press, and ferment that into wine. He would run a little of that through his still and end up with some apple brandy.

How old was young Jeff at your first taste of that apple brandy? Were you sneaking that stuff?

With my dad, you didn’t have to sneak necessarily. I was the fourth of five kids. I mean, they were just lucky if I came home at night, you know? So that passion was always there, and if you follow my paternal lineage back to the Quint side of my family history, we can trace it all the way back into the 1600s. We were in the wine and spirits business that whole time. My great-grandfather moved here in 1881 from Germany, which is in the heart of the Mosel wine region. And if you go to Germany today, the prominent winery there is still Weingut Quint. My distant cousins still run that operation. It sounds a little hokey, but I would say it was in my blood. 

From the passion side of it, I feel like so many people spend decades trying to discover their passion and I think a lot of people never really do fully discover what that is. I couldn’t be more certain that this was my passion in life and lucky to have really been in a position to take advantage of it from my careers doing other things.

What went into your decision to make a career change?

I was always a risk taker, but a calculated risk taker, I think. The word confidence has to be in there somewhere too. I was confident in the decision making process. I never felt so uncertain about what we wanted to do with Cedar Ridge that I was afraid to act on it. You have to get started and not necessarily leave yourself a lot of ways to escape. The only way out of this is to succeed. The only way out of this is to finish what we started. 

I talk sometimes to people who are entrepreneurial and they think they want to start something, but I’m not sure if this person will ever actually do that. They’re really trying to hedge their bets. That’s probably a wise thing to do, but for me, it wouldn’t have worked. I had to be all in on something. With Cedar Ridge, there were at least three different periods where I was entirely all in. I was having doubts and questioning what I had done, but because of the situation I was in, the only thing I could possibly do was continue to trudge forward. You just try to survive in those early years, and then you survive long enough and you wake up one day and they start calling you a success when all you were really trying to do was get through the week, get through the month, put a year together.

Was whiskey part of that business plan all from the beginning?

It became part of the plan very early on. It takes three years to develop a vineyard to where it will produce for you, but during that three year period where we were waiting for the vineyards to come into production, that’s when we chose to add a distillery. It’s not particularly logical that Iowa would be successful in the wine business. Now there’s these new grape cultivators that are helping us here in the upper midwest build our wine businesses, but it occurred to us that what is completely logical here in Iowa is distilling. I mean, most distilled spirits are made from corn and here we are in the corn capital of the country. I, I think you could say maybe the corn capital of the world.

Before Cedar Ridge, Iowans were importing 100% of the $350 million worth of spirits we were consuming every year. At the time, we were selling four dollar ears of corn to Kentucky and buying forty dollars worth of bourbon back from them. That’s a ten-times value add. It has taken a lot of time for the Iowa consumer to grasp it, but they obviously have. Now there are a number of distilleries in Iowa and a number that will be successful. I think it’s very logical that we should succeed in that space.

Was there a moment where you knew you had made it as a company?

I can’t think of any single thing that really stood out. We wouldn’t have made it without the acceptance that the Hy-vee’s gave us. There are plenty of liquor stores and wine stores in Iowa, but Hy-vee has the majority share by far. They were always very open and friendly. There were years where if we weren’t able to do business with Hy-Vee, we wouldn’t have stayed in business. Early on, when we were focused mostly on Iowa, that that was a big partnership for us.

When we opened in 2005, the day we opened, we had three wines for sale and two spirits for sale. You can make the clear spirits one day and sell them the next. Whiskey is what we’re busy working around the clock on here. In 2022, this is whiskey that we will sell in 2026. That piece of the puzzle ties in nicely with my finance and accounting background, by the way. It’s a lot of work to get your arms around financing and forecasting production when the production has to occur four or five years before the sale occurs.

You seem uniquely positioned for this with your accounting background. How has that benefitted your business?

I’d say it’s been invaluable in this business because it’s very capital intensive. We’re putting away thousands of cases of whiskey this year that we’ll sell in 2026 and 2027. In order to do that you have to have good banking relationships and spend a lot of time focused on your balance sheet. There’s just all the business sense of putting the whiskey away and managing costs. Getting barrels is really hard right now. Getting glass bottles which are almost all made overseas introduces a lot of logistics issues. My background has been valuable in most of those facets of the business.

What’s been the most challenging part of coming from a finance background to then being a business owner?

I would say, for most people, those that gravitate towards accounting aren’t necessarily good on the sales and marketing front. I am at least useful on that sales and marketing side of the business. What improved my chances as an entrepreneur is that it wasn’t just accounting. I’ve never been in love with accounting. I went to University of Northern Iowa because that was the only school I could afford to go to. I was the only kid in my family to even go to college. When I got there, I just jumped into the accounting program and turned out to be an accountant. If I’d have gone to Iowa, I’d have probably turned out to be an engineer because I sure enjoy that kind of thing as well.

What were some memories you have of when you thought you might fail?

One of my mentors was a gentleman named Dick, a marketing executive who was brilliant on the branding front. He was so generous with his time for me. I remember telling Dick the first month I hit $20,000 in revenues. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe we sold $20,000 worth of product in a month. That felt great to me at the time. 

I remember we were still in downtown Cedar Rapids when the flood hit in 2008. We got three and a half feet of water in there which was a lot less than some people. I remember when the water subsided and there were dead fish in the distillery. There was a lot of stuff that was obviously going to get thrown out. But before we had “abandoned ship,” I did fill the still with water which kept it from floating away. We also had put as much inventory as we possibly could up high before we bailed. I wasn’t sure we were going to stay in business because we didn’t have flood insurance. I mean, anybody that tried to sell you flood insurance at that location was trying to scam you. But I checked the phone and there were a few stores who had called in wanting some stuff ordered, and we happened to have what they needed.

The day we opened up out here at our location near Swisher was a big milestone. I was all in at that point. People ask, “Why didn’t you build the building bigger?” Well, this is as big of a building as I could afford at the time. We outgrew that and, a year and a half ago, we did a pretty major production expansion. You invest all you can and then you grow back into your shoes and then you decide if you want to do it again. I’ve always looked at the business almost like a child. If I feel like the business wants to grow, I try to let it do what feels natural to let it do. It’ll be interesting to see what the next decade looks like.

Where do you see the industry going and how do you see Cedar Ridge differentiating itself going forward?

When we started we were one of maybe a couple dozen craft distilleries in the country right there. When prohibition ended in 1933 there seemed to be a few enterprises in Kentucky and Tennessee who had a pretty good head-start on the booze business. They became the dominant players. Only recently have all these little guys cropped up. When we started in 2005, they weren’t even using the term craft distillers. I mean, craft distilling didn’t really come along as a name until about 2010 or 2011. But there’s a place for craft distillers that will probably never go away.

You go to your brewery, you go to your winery, and you go to your local distillery. There’s going to be room for them. But we’ve been at this a little longer and have had the opportunity to develop a bigger business than most of them. In 2018 or 2017, we officially established our BHAG: our Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It was to become the number one selling bourbon in our category in Iowa. In 2020, we accomplished that goal. Now I think we have a 35% lead over second place in bourbon sales here in Iowa. Our new BHAG is to become the undisputed dominant craft whiskey producer for the upper Midwest. It’ll be a lengthy process but, I think, well worth it. I would hate to be starting new as a distillery today and trying to establish any kind of a goal like that. I mean, you’re six years out before you have products.

What do you want Cedar Ridge’s legacy to be in the future?

I want our legacy to be that Cedar Ridge put Iowa on the bourbon map. To an Iowan that drinks whiskey, they would say, “Well, you’ve already done that,” but to a Minnesotan or someone from Illinois or Missouri, that’s not necessarily the case yet. We have some work there to do, but that’s the extent of the legacy that I’m shooting for here. That’s not a legacy for me. That’s a legacy for Cedar Ridge. That’s what’s really important to me.

What does success mean to you?

I like to use the word contentment. There are lots of different kinds of success and all kinds of different ways you can look at success. But one thing that I think is universal, and that I spend a lot of time thinking about, is contentment. That’s what I want for my children. You can’t always have riches. You can’t always have the best looks. You can’t always have the best experiences. But you can probably be content and find that relaxed, easy feeling of accepting everything. I look for contentment.