Ballotin Chocolate Whiskies launched on Nov. 1, 2015. | Courtesy of Saloon Spirits

Like many entrepreneurs, Paul Tuell got tired of working at large corporations.

“I was a little burned out. The corporate grind got to me,” said Tuell, who used to work for Brown-Forman Corp. and Papa John’s International.

So, he decided to use the more than 20 years of knowledge he’d gained at Brown-Forman to launch his own company, Saloon Spirits, and his own liquor line, Ballotin Chocolate Whiskey.

Tuell sat down with Insider Louisville last week, roughly a year after Ballotin launched, to talk about how the business is doing and what he’s learned.

Working for a big company, you think you are smarter than you are, Tuell said with a laugh, adding that there are experts in various departments to back you up.

“You can be very removed from selling drinks,” he said. “It’s a very personal business at this level.”

As a small-business owner, he is the one out meeting with distributors, talking to bartenders, writing thank you notes, pouring samples at various events and otherwise peddling his four flavors of Ballotin.

Ballotin currently is sold in seven states, including full distribution in Kentucky liquor stores, Tuell said, adding that the brand does particularly well in Minnesota, Florida and South Carolina, where people drink fewer brown spirits.

“Ballotin is a way to come into the category,” he said, because it is smooth enough to drink on the rocks and taps into naturally occurring flavors in bourbons and whiskeys.

He declined to provide specific sales growth numbers for Ballotin because sales are just starting to lap last year.

Like other sectors, the alcohol industry has become increasingly consolidated as distribution companies and alcohol producers merge, which can make it even harder for young brands to get off the ground.

Paul Tuell | Courtesy of Saloon Spirits

“Even with deep relationships, it’s a little hard to get attention,” he said. “When you have Jack Daniel’s on your business card, it carries a lot of weight.”

Tuell said he sees Kentucky as the greatest test for his brand because it is home to Heaven Hill Distilleries, Woodford Reserve and other prominent distilleries.

“It’s highly competitive,” he said. “If we are able to compete here, we can compete anywhere.”

In 2017, Tuell hopes to expand Ballotin’s distribution to at least 15 states, and he will continue to focus on growing the brand’s market presence. At the same time, Saloon Spirits also is looking to launch a non-whiskey spirit brand this spring, Tuell said.

Getting into liquor stores is crucial to success, but Ballotin is just one of many bottles to choose from on store shelves. It’s in bars and restaurants where people are more likely to taste Ballotin for the first time, which is why building relationships with bartenders is important, Tuell said.

“Brands are built on-premises,” he said. “This is where people have a good time. You make your memories.”

Changing consumer habits takes a wealth of time and money, which big brands can afford. Smaller brands rely more on tastemakers like bartenders and mixologists who control the cocktail lists at bars and restaurants. A cocktail shows consumers a way they can enjoy a liquor that they might not be familiar with.

“It’s such a great endorsement,” he said. “Somebody cared about it enough to experiment with it.”