Dogs, obviously, are the cornerstone of all our favourite stories, but we also can’t resist a good entrepreneurial tale, especially one in which the protagonist perseveres despite a dubious outcome and triumphs over adversary, proving a multitude of naysayers wrong. Add to that an ancient art (bonus if it’s the distilling of a handcrafted spirit, as it is in this case), plus animal advocacy, and you’ve got us on the edge of our seats, cheering when the underdog turns out to be a great success and the accolades pour in. Now round out this magic equation with a photogenic pack of dapper rescue dogs and the undeniable hip-ness of the company in question, what with old school, classic Americana presently at the peak of coolness and buzzwords like “handmade,” “local,” and “artisanal” making headlines, and we’re hooked.

Naturally then, we had to do a story on Tito’s Handmade Vodka, an artisanal American brand based in Austin, Texas. Begun by founder and CEO Tito Beveridge, Tito’s Vodka has been taking top honours at spirit awards, beating out the heavy weight competition like Grey Goose—pretty remarkable for a one-man start-up begun by someone with no background in the booze business. Not that it wasn’t a hard row to hoe. It took eight years to turn a profit, with Tito spending many a night on a cot pulled up next to the still, glad for the company of his rescue dog, Jo, who would warn of any unwanted company on their big, lonely property in the “boonies,” as Tito calls it, 12 acres in southeast Travis County, Texas.

It’s the choice of locale that got Tito inadvertently involved in rescue, something the brand is now a vocal advocate of. The outlying location meant abandoned dogs just found their way there—strays, dumped dogs, mangy packs, pregnant bitches. As the company grew, so did the rescue efforts.

“We’ll be driving down to the distillery and you might see three or four dogs running down the road. We never know if the dog belongs to a farmer or rancher or Mexican cowboy or somebody out there. Sometimes we’ll find dogs with chips—they’ll have been gone for a year and a half or something and we’ll get them calmed down enough where we can pet them and take them to a vet, see if they’ve got a chip on them,” Tito explains. “We know a lot of people in the liquor business, it’s a social, hot, style-y kinda business. So we started just looking for homes for all these strays. And it just evolved a life of its own, where, for whatever reason, people seem to like having a dog from the distillery.”

Elizabeth Bellanti-Walker handles marketing and social media for Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and it’s through her that a lot of these dogs find homes. Elizabeth is behind a lot of the company’s rescue efforts and animal advocacy, from the fundraisers for Austin shelters to social media efforts to find homes for stray and shelter dogs. She has worked with Tito for years and he gives her free reign. As Tito describes her, “she just has this really big heart and is just wonderful, crazy, kinda hippie energy. She is just an absolute zany dog lover and a social media wizard so I just kinda let her do anything. She’s a real activist when it comes to dogs.”

With team members like Elizabeth, it’s inevitable that some of the homeless dogs end up staying. Tito and his staff are all passionate about rescue, and many a stray has found a permanent home with one of the Tito’s Vodka staff.

“I like having dogs out there,” Tito says. “Out there working, it really just kind breaks up the work day when you’re sitting there talking about business and the dog’s nuzzling you trying to get petted. I was just out there today and two of them were sitting there while I’m having a meeting.”

Perhaps it was the loyal, non-judgmental, blood-pressure-lowering faithfulness of the distillery dogs that saw Tito through the tough eight years it took to turn a profit. With a family to provide for, there were certainly rough stretches.  

In the beginning, he was “literally a one-man show,” Tito shares, “working with my shirt off sweating with this hot stove and literally putting Elmer’s glue on caps and labels on by hand, hoisting barrels—I didn’t even have a forklift or anything.”

He found himself at his lowest point when put all his money into trying to expand and built a really big, expensive still that he then couldn’t get to cook properly. The batches were large and he was already totally broke. At one point, being a perfectionist, he had to throw away a huge amount of vodka because it didn’t meet his high standards—even though he wasn’t sure if it was going to put him out of business or not. “It was ugly cuz I had got married and I got kids and then I had to do the ramen noodles and bean tacos thing, be late paying the mortgage,” Tito relates. Chastened but undeterred, he managed to keep his head above water and it all worked out—and then some. The spirit he produces was recently awarded higher points than that of the best vodka brands in the world, including Belvedere, Grey Goose, and Ketel One, and is available all throughout the US and in some parts of Canada and the Caribbean, as well as the Virgin Islands.

Just how does it feel to pull off such a feat? “It’s really fantastic and a little crazy,” Tito tells us. “I had this idea to make really, really good vodka, really smooth and clean. When I got into this business, I had never been in a distillery before. I had a science and engineering background and I had a lot of practical work background, [so I just got to work] building stills from scratch, brewing a bunch of batches, and cooking it up. Winning the World Spirit Competition, unanimous judges’ choice, getting rated better than all the great vodkas of the world, it’s pretty amazing. I tried to raise money for years and nobody’d ever put in on it. I couldn’t get a single investor; everybody thought I was crazy. My high school friends tried to get me to go work for them in commercial real estate. They were, like, ‘man, you gotta give this up’ and I’m just like ‘no, I’m in this, I just gotta get the volume up.’ I couldn’t afford any employees so I’d make it and load it on the truck and drive and talk to salesmen and sell it. I did everything—accounting, regulatory stuff. To actually have it work out, it’s pretty cool.”