From Software Developer to Distilling Entrepreneur

by nick apostolopoulos

Nick Apostolopoulos (left) is the Founder of 619 Distillery & Tasting Room, which raised $191,600 from 238 investors on NextSeed in February 2018, as well as Six One Nine Vodka.

I was born and raised in San Diego. Before I made the jump into entrepreneurship, I was a software developer for over 25 years.

I was fortunate enough to excel in that world, and be involved at the right time in the right place. I taught myself how to code and later moved up to architecting systems. I took one Pascal course at Boston University, but ultimately dropped out of school because it just didn’t suit my mental state – let’s just say I get bored easily. I moved back to California and started working in programming, and within a few years was entirely self-taught in Visual Basic and other languages.

In a way, I think I’ve always been entrepreneurial. When I worked in software, I was always bouncing around to learn new things and work with different industries. At one point, before the dot-com bubble burst, I owned my own company with 30 employees, and we were consulting for clients like Madison Square Garden and the Denver Broncos.

After the bubble burst, I developed a cloud-based file-sharing system (pre-Dropbox) with some friends of mine. We had angel investors, including one of the original marketing managers for Amazon, and spent a year and a half pitching to VC firms on Sand Hill Road. We had a seed round of about $800k pledged, and I was supposed to fly into Palo Alto from Denver to sign the closing paperwork on September 12, 2001.

Beer and spirits have always been a passion of mine on the side. I started home-brewing in my early 20s, and thought that maybe I would one day open a brewery. As much as I loved beer, there were already so many breweries in Southern California, and I was getting more interested in spirits.

In 2005, I considered starting a spirits company, and tried to see if it could be done easily (hint: it wasn’t easy). There were a lot of local breweries in the U.S., but less distilleries. Tennessee and Kentucky have whiskey and bourbon, and I had a vision of creating the Southern California bourbon equivalent. I wanted to create a drink that reflected the culture of the region.

Not unlike teaching myself how to code, I spent hours learning about the distilling industry. I spent a lot of time getting production off the ground, and in 2010 I formed Six One Nine Spirits. I’m glad I was ignorant, because if I had known how tough this industry was it would have deterred me. Whenever other entrepreneurs ask me for pointers, I’m quick to emphasize the importance of resilience.

I may be biased because I’m from here, but in my mind Southern California is at the vanguard of foodie culture, particularly the farm-to-table movement. We were way ahead of that curve here, largely because the climate is great and there’s just always been a lot of awesome local farms around us. I’ve also found that people here are largely open to trying new things.

When I launched Six One Nine, I was fascinated by the way consumers rallied behind both farm-to-table cuisine and flavored vodka, but the flavored vodkas in the market were all made with artificial ingredients and syrups. I thought – can I make real vodka infusions at scale?

I started playing around with recipes and came up with some interesting infusions. I thought that, since every local bar has raspberries sitting in a tank of vodka behind the bar, I could easily bottle vodka infusions. It was a bit more complicated than I expected, as the government didn’t understand the idea of using flavors from real food in liquor.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) wanted food safety information from the FDA for the products I wanted to make infusions with. So, I spent two years working with a specialized beverage lawyer in DC and developing compliant formulas to make the products I wanted to make. I always say that I’m actually in the logistics business, not the vodka business!

At the end of the day, I’m motivated by the potential to play a role in the way everyday people understand the spirits world. My attorney sent me a book a few months ago about how the Barefoot Wines brand started and grew. Two people who worked in the wine industry, but weren’t winemakers, wanted to demystify the world of wine and democratize the experience. They thought people who didn’t know all the estates and chateaus could and should still enjoy wine. I feel the same way about spirits. I love a good Manhattan, but there’s no reason that the person who prefers a vodka soda should be looked down upon at the bar.

Our product isn’t inexpensive, because it’s made in small batches, but I want Six One Nine to be accessible. That’s a huge reason that I’m excited about the distillery: so I can show people how the process works, how to make great cocktails at home and even how to make their own infusions.

Craft beer is now normal: you can get Lagunitas at Olive Garden, and people across the U.S. are drinking craft beer and engaged in learning more about the industry. There’s hundreds of craft distilleries around the country, but if you went into the average restaurant and polled diners, most people would guess that there were 20.

My favorite part of my job is when I get to go to events all around the region and educate people about the incredible craft spirits being made in their communities. I serve on the board of the San Diego Distillers Guild, and it’s an honor to work alongside other entrepreneurs in this business to show the public that there are alternatives to “Big Booze.”

If I weren’t doing this today, I hope I wouldn’t still be a software developer. Although, I joke with people that the commonality between being in the bar business and being a software developer is that I never had to get up early.

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