When Yianni Barakos '08 graduated from W&J with a degree in business administration, he envisioned a long and successful career for himself in construction project management, after which he would start a distillery as a working retirement project.
But life had other plans. A car crash sidelined Barakos in 2012, leaving him in a state of recovery for the better part of two years. Unable to continue with his career plans due to physical limitations, he started thinking more seriously about his retirement plan and what it would take to bring it about a few decades earlier.
“It’s been pretty awesome to see something that originally only existed in my head and then only existed on paper to actually physically exist,” Barakos said. “I made this.”
Barakos says “blood, sweat, and tears, and a whole lot of stubbornness” is what it took to take Mason-Dixon Distillery from an idea to a reality.
While he always believed in his ability to make his dream come to life, convincing others wasn’t as simple. Barakos combined his confidence with persistence to bring others on board.
“I had a lot of talking to do,” he said. “I had to go in a million directions at once.”
While he was still considering locations in eastern Pennsylvania during the fall of 2014, a friend told him about the possibility of getting an agricultural lease at Gettysburg National Military Park. The lease would allow him the unique opportunity to grow the grain for his product on the battlefield. He decided to submit an application, figuring that the worst they could say was “no.”
“They actually did call to tell me ‘no’ and I kept the guy on the phone for an hour,” Barakos said. At the end of the conversation, Barakos had the lease – he was the first non-farmer to obtain one at the park.
Securing the lease led to the next step in the process: finding farmers to grow the grain. From there, he had to move quickly to find a location for storing it.
“I was going to have a harvest of 100,000 pounds of grain with nowhere to put it,” he said.
Barakos honed his business plan, did a lot of convincing with lenders, and secured private loans. He dealt with securing federal and state licenses, local zoning, and restoring the 100-year-old, 10,000 square foot building he found near the center of Gettysburg that would become Mason-Dixon Distillery. Within a year and a half his business was up and running.
Barakos grew up knowing what it takes to run a business. Shortly after he graduated from W&J he worked on a market repositioning project for his father’s restaurant. His father, George, had worked in and owned restaurants for Barakos’ whole life, and he grew up spending a lot of time at work with his dad.
But that didn’t mean his father was initially supportive of his plan. When Barakos told his father about his idea, George told him to work for someone else and avoid the headaches of being a business owner.
“At the end of the day, I knew if I was able to convince my own father that I could do this, that we could do this, then I could convince anybody else,” he said.
He had a short apprenticeship at Smooth Ambler Spirits in West Virginia several years ago, which he used to convince his father he was capable of running a distillery. When he was running their production line by the end of day one, George was on board. His father was going to be involved only financially at first, but when he received an offer from his business partner to buy out his portion of the restaurant they owned, he took it. This left him available to come on board as his son’s business partner and assist with the restaurant portion of the distillery.
Even though his parents always supported him, it took some time for them to be able to see their son’s vision.
“My mother cried when she walked into the building. It used to rain almost as hard inside as it did outside,” he said. “I was able to erase that and see where I wanted to take it and how I wanted to get it there. I saw this space that was just waiting to be beautiful again.”
Barakos and George took on a lot at once. The distillery, which opened July 1, 2016 has a manufacturing component with the production of whiskey, rum, and vodka; a tourism component with the bottle shop and tours; and a service component with the full bar and restaurant.
With Barakos growing up in the restaurant business and his father having decades of experience, they were hedging their bets on starting up a distillery by pairing it with a restaurant. As the distillery nears the end of its first year in business, both sides seem to be paying off. While he hopes to eventually capitalize on the millions of tourists who come to Gettysburg each year, he estimates that 90-95% of his customers have been local.
“The word of mouth has continued to snowball and that snowball is finally starting to become decent in size,” he said of his customer growth.
The food menu and signature cocktails focus on fresh, local ingredients and change seasonally. His spirits don’t taste like the ones with ads on television or in magazines, and he takes pride in making something with “big, bold, unapologetic flavors” that won’t be thought of as generic. He is confident that having something unique will earn him repeat customers in a market that’s becoming increasingly crowded.
One goal he’s working towards is making limited runs with 100-percent of the grains grown only on the battlefield.
“We’re going to put the national park in a bottle for people to take home with them,” he said.
Barakos admits that he’s still in “pretty rough shape” and is continuing to recover from his accident. Being a business owner allows him the flexibility to tailor his schedule to how he’s feeling that day. His goal during the planning phase was to set up the business so he could work with his physical limitations even if he didn’t get any better after the setbacks from the accident.
In his previous job, he worked to build schools and hospitals and took pride in contributing to the community. He feels a similar sense of accomplishment now, but the difference is he is directly responsible for the existence of something that wasn’t there before. He describes the experience as surreal, especially when he walks into the building after a few days away.
“The business I created just happens to combine a bunch of different things that provide me with the opportunity to build and create and see people enjoy it. On a personal level it’s deeply satisfying,” Barakos said. “I don’t know that there could have been a better fit for me.”