It’s not an old foundation in the grand scheme of American distilling. Although Stranahan’s is considered old guard in Colorado, the state’s oldest distillery is still new compared to those in places like Kentucky, where they date back centuries. And that age gap leads to major differences in the spirits coming from the two states. Kentucky has a long distilling history—one they pay homage to and abide by. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when a company has been doing something for such a long time, they’re not likely to break from tradition aside from the occasional new finish on an established whiskey. The strict laws regulating bourbon—that it must be at least 51 percent corn, for example—keep things from getting too funky in the Bluegrass State. Distilling culture in Colorado is a little more freeform.
Even back in 2011, publications like the New York Times started paying attention to the state’s rule-breaking spirit production. The paper of record noted the pioneering style of Colorado’s early distillers, citing the first ever “potato whiskey” at Boulder Distillery and the still plates made of photogravure at Distillery 291.
“While Colorado might not have much of a distilling history, we have a craft alcohol history,” Kate Douglas, who runs communications for the Colorado Distillers Guild, says. “The craft brewing scene in Colorado has paved the way for the craft distilling industry. Watching each other be successful has inspired us to step out of the norm and try new things.”
It’s a sentiment you’ll hear a lot if you start asking distillers about the early days of Colorado distilling. Crystal Barrios, the tasting room manager at Laws Whiskey House, and Jay Johnson, co-owner of Bear Creek Distilling, both reference brewers as the people who helped distilleries break into the industry. Laws governing breweries were the templates for legislation regarding distilleries, and brewers convinced Coloradans to drink local. Johnson and his partners even considered starting a brewery when they began, but changed their mind when they looked around and realized “you can swing a dead cat in Denver and you hit a brewery.”
“I think what kind of set the tone for all of the distilleries is all the craft breweries pushing their boundaries,” Barrios says. Breweries found success with limited and special releases and distilleries did the same as they came up, using that inspiration to be like, “let’s do our own thing,” she says.
Their own thing is working. In 2017, one of Laws Whiskey House’s whiskeys won Best American Rye at the World Whiskies Awards, and in 2018 Distillery 291 in Colorado Springs won the same award with a rye aged on Aspen staves. These freethinking distilleries are inspiring others across the state.
But all of this—all of the industry-friendly laws and creative distillers, everything that makes Colorado an exciting place to make alcohol—would mean nothing if Coloradans weren’t such fervent supporters of anything and everything local.
“Local begets local,” Barrios says, holding a glass of Laws Whiskey House Farmers Select, a whiskey pulled from a single barrel picked by the grain farmers. “‘Colorado Proud’ was such a big theme, and that kind of spilled over into the spirits world, into the beer world. People here are very proud of this state and anything you’re going to make here. As long as you’re in line with the ethos of the state, people are going to support you.”
Think of the craft spirits industry as a farmers market. If there aren’t people walking through the market, interested in buying local, the farmers will go out of business. The more people that come through and buy things, the more farmers can bring in potentially obscure, heirloom fruits and vegetables, because they know have a ready audience. Colorado distillers can take risks with their spirits because they have that ready audience.