Troy and Michelle Kooper, owners of the Kooper Family Whiskey Company in Ledbetter, found the meaning of life in a whiskey barrel.
“We found something we wanted to do—and did it at all costs,” said Troy, whose career in advertising brought the Koopers to Austin. “We were seekers for a higher purpose in our lives, so our story is bigger than whiskey, our children and Fayette County, although each one of those plays an important part.”
Today, the Koopers artfully blend and age three craft whiskeys: Kooper Family Rye Whiskey, Sweetheart of the Rodeo Bourbon, and Kooper Family Barrel Reserve Rye Whiskey. This year, they’ll produce between 9,000 and 10,000 bottles across the brand, sustaining the business’ growth rate at about 30 percent annually.
“We launched this business with the knowledge that it could last 100 years, but only if we do it right,” Troy said. “The desire to make something great by hand and share it with people is a noble, worthwhile exercise.”
A pursuit becomes even more worthy, if in the process, entrepreneurial parents working side-by-side can create a legacy for their children.
“Our children give us purpose and change our perception of the world,” Michelle said. “They provide a drive for the future.”
While the couple agree their children, who are 11 and 5, will be free to choose their careers, their parents are committed to teaching them the skills, both entrepreneurial and life, the youngsters will need to succeed in the world. Already they involve their son Phoenix and daughter Olympia in the family business through day-to-day chores and seek their input on age-appropriate decisions such as where to best display the t-shirts and other merchandise.
“Giving them a voice and involving them early strengthens their self-confidence and their work ethic,” said Michelle, who also leads the children’s homeschooling.
Involving children in the parents’ livelihood is nothing new.
“In the olden days, parents could pass a skill like blacksmithing along and give their children a leg up,” Troy said. “While they may never work in our business, they will know everything Michelle and I know about craft whiskey making and will have it as a profession if they choose or at least as a fall back.”
The couple, who founded their crafts spirits business in Dripping Springs in 2012, began operating in the Ledbetter in April 2018 and moved to Rutersville soon after.
“We had two goals: to build a business where we could work together and to live in the country,” Troy said. “The goals gave us a clear compass bearing so we didn’t veer off our chosen path.”
Their chosen path led to Fayette County, which delivered an ideal climate for making smooth whiskey. Grain alcohol contains water and alcohol. In a dry climate such as the Texas Hill Country, the water evaporates and leaves a higher concentration of alcohol, which makes a “hotter” liquor.
In a humid climate, the alcohol evaporates slowly and leaves a higher concentration of water, naturally lowering the proof and the “heat.” In addition, Fayette County is located within easy reach of Texas’ major cities and despite the proximity to urban Texas retains strong sense of history and community.
“Our life right now feels like we’ve found the pot of gold in Fayette County,” Michelle said.
Of course, pots of gold don’t come without a learning curve — and sacrifice.
The Learning Curve
A decade and a few years ago, the Koopers were a typical urban family, at least by Austin standards. Troy, a successful ad executive for various agencies in New York, California, Virginia and Texas, was constantly on the road. Michelle, was a full-time mom who not only reared and educated their first child, but raised their vegetables and made everything she could for her family including soap and toothpaste.
“Troy and I got married so we could be together,” Michelle said. “I supported his career in advertising, but it was from a distance. I was always trying to think of businesses we could do together.”
The lightning bolt struck one evening as the couple were sitting at their kitchen table. They were discussing their respective days over a glass of fine whiskey, a shared passion that began with Scotch and progressed to complex rye.
Michelle, by her recollection, uttered the fateful words, “We ought to learn to make whiskey.”
Because, as a couple, they embraced the belief that if someone else could do something so could they, Troy was immediately on board.
“I said, ‘How hard can it be? I mean, we’re already making our own toothpaste,’” Troy recalled with a laugh.
Tackling the Science of Distilling
Troy built two stills, which they operated in their kitchen. Through research, trial and error, they learned to make high-quality grain alcohol. Because their stills were based on historical design instead of technology, they, like generations of distillers before them, relied on their senses as they uncovered the nuances of the process such as pitching yeast, making cuts, which is separating the drinkable alcohol from the undrinkable alcohol, in every batch.
Through the learning curve spanning several years, they discovered that the science of distilling, once mastered, is monotonous. The infrastructure necessary for producing commercial quantities of grain alcohol is expensive. Because they were most excited by aging and blending, the Koopers decided to purchase the distillate from superior sources and focus on the art of whiskey making.
“When it comes to whiskey making, we aren’t trying to innovate or change the process because we believe in the old-way of doing things is the gold standard,” Troy said.
Their senses, honed during their self-taught apprenticeship, became significant assets in crafting fine whiskey.
“Experience is your only teacher,” Michelle said. “There isn’t a set of notes that reveals the secrets of whiskey making. It’s all done by taste and smell as you sample the whiskey over time.”
Once they reached a high level of proficiency and identified what they really needed to know, the Koopers headed to the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, the Mecca of the whiskey world. Although the couple toured the commercial giants, they focused on craft distillers. The one-on-one interaction provided the final push.
“We came home with knowledge—and hope for a decent chance of success,” said Troy, noting his experience in advertising and branding was another factor in their favor. “Enough hope to say, ‘What the hell, let’s do this!’”
The craft whiskey business has a double challenge: a high-cost of entry and a long lead time to market.
“There are no short cuts to making great, memorable whiskey in the traditional method,” Troy said. “You put all your money into inventory that sits in big wooden barrel and takes years to mature.”
Patience and commitment are key.
“Regardless of how long it takes, your company only has one chance to make a good first impression in the marketplace,” said Troy, noting the competition for fine whiskey market share is Tennessee, Kentucky and Scotland. “To be the best gamble it could be, we knew we had to put the best juice in the bottle—wait until our whiskey was really ready.”
For six years, Troy worked two full-time jobs—advertising exec and whiskey maker. Michelle added whiskey maker to her workload. Together they navigated the labyrinth of liquor regulations and permits. They had their second child and squeezed down luxuries.
As the cost of living in Austin continued to rise, the couple moved several times to more affordable, but less livable neighborhoods, so they could pour money into their start up. Prostitutes, gangs and the drug trade defined the community at their last urban address.
“Early on, we put all the chips into the business. We had a choice: to be safe and live scared or to be risk takers and live fearlessly,” Michelle said.
In 2015, Kooper Family Rye Whiskey hit the marketplace. The label features a boxer, Howard Pardekooper, Troy’s grandfather. At 22, he was already a veteran of World War II when he earned the Armed Forces light heavyweight title. Instead of chasing the lights and fame of professional athletics, Howard returned home, married his sweetheart and raised seven children. His family ate what he hunted, fished and grew.
“He chose to be a family man,” Troy said. “His was a life of diligence, determination and the truth that family is what gets you through the tough times.”
The Koopers identify with his fighting spirit.
“The booze industry is massive—and we’re going against the titans,” Troy said. “We’re putting up our fists and slogging it out toe-to-toe for our family.”
And the couple is ready to fight until the final bell, leading with their passion for quality.
“When people taste our whiskey they sample our heart and soul,” Troy said. “It’s more that juice in the bottle, it’s everything we stand for: good ingredients, craftsmanship and family pride.”
Photos by Rachel Alfonso-Smith, Shutterbunny Photography