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Cory Ryan

Tito Beveridge quietly slips into the Mockingbird Distillery at midday when his employees are off at lunch. He takes a test tube from the back pocket of his jeans, flips the spigot on a homemade still, and fills the glass tube with warm vodka. He sips, letting the 191-proof liquid linger on his tongue. “It kind of evaporates in your mouth, doesn’t it?” he asks, looking pleased. He tosses the rest of the vodka on the concrete floor and moves on to a second still for a sample.

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Every day, Tito follows this routine, moving from one homemade pot still to another, sampling the sipping vodka that he sells under the name Tito’s Handmade Vodka. Some pot stills, like the first one, contain vodka in its infancy — almost pure alcohol, at 191 proof. In other stills, the vodka is nearer the finish — a smooth 80 proof after six distillations of the corn mash. The vodka in each still tastes subtly different. Shake the test tube to release the bubbles, and the taste changes again. “It’s why I love my job,” says Tito, wearing a sly grin as he sips from the test tube. “I don’t like the bottling. My favorite part is sipping the vodka.”

Tito’s been sippin’ and samplin’ since 1997 — 15 years this April — when he cranked up the first legal distillery ever in Texas. Back then, the idea that a guy in Austin, Texas, (a guy named Bert Butler Beveridge II, no less) could beat the priciest vodkas seemed preposterous. Distributors turned their noses up at his plain bottle with its brown-?paper label. But in 2001, at the San ?Francisco World Spirits Competition, Tito’s beat out Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, SKYY, Belvedere, ?Chopin and Ketel One to take a Double Gold. “It’s not a big fancy Chanel brand,” Tito says modestly. “The flashy-money thing is not working for this country right now. People are buying ‘Made in the USA.’ They’re buying quality at the right price.”

They’re also buying Tito’s story: Bertito, the nickname Tito went by as a kid growing up in San Antonio, started making booze in the sixth grade with a beer kit he got as a present. When the first kit ran out, he says, “I told my mom the batch was bad. ‘Can I have another?’ ” He went off to college and became an oilman, running seismic dynamite crews in South America (while making wine on the side). He came home, drifted into the mortgage biz (and made flavored vodkas for his friends at Christmas). “People would come up to me and say, ‘Here, vodka boy, what do you think of this?’ I tasted some really bad vodka — poisonous stuff,” he remembers. Somewhere along the way, he realized he’d be happier distilling vodka than brokering mortgages.

He built his own still, drawing on pictures of moonshiners and tales from his grandfather who sold cars to bootleggers in Chicago during Prohibition. For taste tests, he’d call friends and line up Kerr glass jars filled with his vodka and that of his competitors. His goal: to create the perfect sipping vodka for women. He figured if women would drink it straight, guys would buy it for them and sip it too.

Finally, satisfied, he put out a call for $18 million in financing, visions of millionaire-dom dancing in his head. “I got zip,” he says. He tried $5.6 million, $2.4 million and, finally, $1.8 million. “Zip. Zip. Zip.” Then he turned to credit cards. He kept two stacks of cards bound by rubber bands in his drawer, with notations of when the low rates would run out. At one point, he had 19 cards with $90,000 in debt and two mortgages. He was sleeping by the stills, bottling with the help of friends at night, slapping labels on the vodka himself.

Tito’s well-off now, and the Mockingbird Distillery is a success, but it’s still a simple operation across from a Mexican rodeo near Austin’s airport. There’s no giant Tito’s sign out front. Roscoe, the guard dog, is downright docile. Soon, Tito will have 11 massive, 12,000-gallon stills online, but he’s building them for himself yet again. At age 50, he’s careful to keep things simple and watches his business like a hawk. Even a change in filters can ruin the taste. “Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart,” Tito says.

He hopes his vodka will be one of the top five distilled spirits in the U.S. by the time he’s 80. “All I think about now is making really good vodka. I don’t care what anybody else does. I sell one brand, 50 states,” he says proudly. Then he turns and rummages around his office for another bottle. Turns out, he’s been experimenting yet again — with whiskey. Must be good; it’s all gone.