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Are Denver Distillers Following in the Footsteps of the City's Brewers?

The cement bar at Mile High Spirits.

The bar area of Mile High Spirits.

The Mile High Spirits bar has a steampunk vibe.

The distillery area of Stranahan's in Baker.

Barrels of whiskey sit in a climate-controlled room at Stranahan's.

2011 marked the first time America's spirits revenue topped $20 billion. Add to that favorable liquor laws and a population of loyal Colorado drinkers, and it's no wonder our local distilleries are toasting a promising future. 
Sitting in Pete Macca's recently renovated, though as of yet undecorated office, it's impossible to ignore his smile. In fact, it's infectious. Understandable, too. The general manager of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey is at the end of a months-long facility overhaul that added fermenters and storage tanks, wash and spirit stills, automated valves and flow meters and what must be hundreds of feet of piping to the plant's production line, ultimately quadrupling output to more than 40 barrels a week.

"Everything is flowing nicely at this point," Macca says.

Four miles north, on the other side of downtown, the mood at Mile High Spirits is equally jovial. 

"We're shooting a commercial here in a couple days," explains Co-Founder W. Goodwyn Ferrell, Jr. 

The here to which he's referring is Mile High Spirits' tasting lounge, a relaxed space with a pool table and a handwritten menu by the bar that fronts the actual distillery where the company's Elevate Vodka, Fireside Whiskey, Peg Leg Rum and Denver Dry Gin are produced.

The building used to be a muffler shop. 

"It was a rectangular box," Ferrell says. 

Now, the tasting lounge is a neighborhood hangout for young professionals who prefer to unwind beyond the crowds of the city's most popular watering holes. 

"It's close enough to LoDo, but it's not LoDo," Ferrell continues. The bar area of Mile High Spirits.

During weekdays, there are outdoor corn hole tournaments, live music nights, trivia and events. 

“The patio is a huge hit in the summer,” Ferrell says. “We set it up like your best friend's backyard where you want to go hang out." 

Beer Before Liquor
The appeal of that backyard ambiance is easy to understand, but the business setup -- crafting spirits in the back, selling them out front – also helps explain why Denver could easily become a hotbed of premier small-batch distilleries, not to mention a significant economic contributor to what the Distilled Spirits Council pegs as a national $20-billion-dollar-per-year industry. 

"Colorado liquor laws are more relaxed than other states," Ferrell explains. "Most states won't let you own more than one tier; a tier being production, distribution and sale. So if you own production, you can't distribute or own a bar. Here, we can self-distribute. It allows you to create your own destiny."

Consumers, of course, aren't as concerned with the intricacies of the law, but they do appreciate Colorado products, and Denver's distillers, including Stranahan's, Mile High Spirits and Leopold Bros., make community connection well known on labels and websites.

Insiders believe that connection will continue to foster industry success. 

"We live in a state that embraces local culture," says JoAnne Carilli-Stevenson, founder of the Colorado Distillers Guild.

The state also embraces tourism, and out-of-towners love sipping cold Colorado beverages as much as the locals. We can probably thank Coors and its "Rocky Mountain spring water" for that, so don't be surprised if some of these distilleries ultimately follow a growth path similar to the popular regional breweries -- for similar reasons.

"It has a very parallel track," says Carilli-Stevenson. "People say, 'hey, I drink my local beer, now I can get a local whiskey, a local vodka, a local rum. And from the tourism standpoint, people come here on vacation…they're sitting somewhere enjoying a local bourbon, you know they're taking home a bottle -- which amounts to taking home the Colorado experience, not just the bourbon."

These details are not lost on Macca and his crew. The distillery area of Stranahan's in Baker.
"We were the state's first whiskey distillery -- the first legal one, anyway," Macca says with another sly smile. And even though its success led to New Jersey's Proximo Spirits becoming something of a silent investor, the company is firmly planted in Denver. 

"You don't just pick up and leave your roots," Macca says.

Which is good for everybody, because the fact of the matter is that Stranahan's is a bona fide Denver tourist attraction. People are taking bottles back home to Iowa, California and Texas. 

"We average about 480 people a week on our tours," Macca says. "A lot of them are from out of state. So we're a destination of some kind of activity here in the city. That's really neat."

The four kinds of liquor made at Mile High Spirits.Raising Colorado’s Spirits
Distillery activity here exploded over the course of the last 48 months. 

"2009 was the first official year of the Guild," Carilli-Stevenson explains. "There were maybe six distillers at the time, now there are 30-something."

And more are on the way. Carilli-Stevenson predicts another 10 to 15 will open statewide during 2013. From a statistics standpoint, it's difficult to put a number on where Denver ranks nationally in spirits production. But a new piece of hard evidence shows we're more significant than ever.

"The American Distilling Institute's (ADI) next conference, their 10th anniversary conference, is going to be held here in Denver in April," Carilli-Stevenson says. "It will be the first time that ADI has taken the conference anywhere other than Portland or Louisville."

Happily, more distilleries and increased exposure -- courtesy of the upcoming conference as well as various local and tourism-based marketing campaigns (which Carilli-Stevenson believes will best keep the industry moving forward) -- mean more employment prospects. Stranahan's is budgeted for a staff of 15. Mile High Spirits employs six people in the tasting lounge and four in the distillery. 

These innovative liquor makers create external opportunities, too. For example, Mile High Spirits has an all-glass still for its vodka and gin. 

"Only four distilleries in the world have one," Ferrell says. "It's great because glass is non-porous so it doesn't transfer any flavor impurities or congeners. But you can't just go to a still manufacturer and say 'make me a glass still.'" 

Instead, Ferrell contracted with a Boulder company to design and manufacture one for him.

Admittedly, these are not huge employment numbers, but they're good, local jobs that people are proud to have. 

"Everybody who works here, wants to be here," Macca says. 

Sitting in his office, I had actually already gathered that. Because it's not just Macca. Every employee to whom he introduced me flashed the same big Stranahan's smile.

Read more articles by JB Bissell.

Based in Denver, JB writes about local happenings and far-flung places often getting sidetracked at various points between. He can be reached here.
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